"Law firms are going backwards"
That’s the assessment of Daniel Winterfeldt, a partner in Reed Smith’s global capital markets practice and the founder and chair of the InterLaw Diversity Forum, which aims to promote meritocracy and inclusion for diverse groups in the legal profession.
At a time when many law firms are hosting Black History Month events and including rainbow banners in their marketing materials, Winterfeldt says such promotions often don’t indicate a deep commitment to related causes within a firm.
“Someone will tell me so-and-so is doing a great job on diversity after attending a program at a firm and I will say, ‘Did you know they have no female partners? Or that they have 11 percent women in their equity partnership?’” he said. “Firms might host events but they are doing less and spending less” to create cultures of diversity and inclusion. The cost to a firm, he says, is a culture of disengagement and groupthink.
The legal landscape
The numbers tell a similar story. At the partner level in the UK, 67 percent of lawyers are male and 33 percent female. Across the industry at all levels, lawyers with a disability represent just 3 percent of the industry and those of non-white ethnicity represent 19 percent.1
While most firms acknowledge that having strong diversity and inclusion practices is the right thing to do, they may not be sufficiently motivated to transform their cultures until clients demand it. That may happen more frequently as firms that have such practices in place demonstrate the business advantage they provide.
That was one clear conclusion of recent workplace diversity research from McKinsey that assessed proprietary data from 1,000 public companies in 12 countries. According to the results, gender and ethnic diversity correlate strongly to profitability. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Those in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity were 33 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Companies in the fourth quartile on both gender and ethnic diversity were 29 percent more likely to underperform their industry peers on profitability.2
Diversity and inclusion in action
To provide businesses and organisations across sectors and around the globe with examples of how to create and sustain more inclusive workplace practices and cultures, the InterLaw Diversity Forum developed the Apollo Project in 2014. The initiative, a partnership with the Financial Times, is a competition that challenges businesses and organisations of all sizes to develop practical tools that lead to more inclusive, meritocratic workplace cultures. A sampling of past winners achieved these results:
- Gowling WLG, used accessible methods to support mental health and victims of domestic violence in the workplace. The methods have served as a model for other firms looking to create similar programmes.
- Deloitte Australia found that an organisational culture inclusive of diversity is critical to high performance. Specifically, organisations with more inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be innovative, six times more likely to be agile, three times more likely to be high performing, and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. An increase in individual experiences of inclusion translates into improved team performance (+17 percent), decision making (+20 percent) and collaboration (+29 percent).
- Dr. Vivienne Ming, who was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. magazine, took her theory on the tax of being different and applied machine learning, cognitive neuroscience, and economics to maximise life outcomes for people in both education and the workplace. (For example, she was able to prove that in the East Asian tech industry, women often must have PhDs to compete for jobs that do not require them ― at a cost between $800,000 and $1,200,000 ― and that the cost for a gay professional in the UK compared to a straight competitor is $70,000.) Companies around the world have applied her insights to their diversity and inclusion initiatives to make their organisations more meritocratic.3
How does your firm measure up?
To improve your firm’s efforts to foster diversity – or to simply check its commitment to diversity, assess how well your firm addresses these actions:
- Expand the definition of diversity: Consider factors such as socioeconomic background, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, neurological differences and beyond in your recruitment.
- Promote diversity from the top: There needs to be a clear commitment at the senior leadership level that is then cascaded down through middle management and holds everyone accountable for encouraging a diverse workforce.
- Connect diversity and inclusion priorities to your business strategy: Invest in research to better understand how attracting and retaining top talent with a mix of traits supports your organisation’s decision-making capabilities and growth strategy.
- Address unconscious bias in your recruitment process: Conduct cross-firm training to address unconscious bias, especially for those who recruit lawyers to your firm, and anonymise application forms and CVs. Cast a wider net for candidates of diverse backgrounds by partnering with such organisations as Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, the Sutton Trust and Rare Recruitment. Use the contextual recruitment system (CRS) to mine for strong candidates whose qualities might not shine through in a traditional CV.
- Create a set of diversity and inclusion initiatives that support your organisation’s growth strategy: Develop your mentorship and networking programs. Align new lawyers with others of similar backgrounds who are higher on the employment chain and can help clarify career paths and opportunities. Host networking events with university students to demonstrate your commitment to nurturing the development of diverse employees.
- Maximise your local impact: One programme or approach is unlikely to fit all parts of your organisation, so tailor your approach to make it more meaningful to different business areas, locations and socioeconomic contexts.
- Monitor your diversity levels: Understand your diversity requirements and measure them on an ongoing basis so you can find opportunities for improvement. This equality and diversity overview can help you track regulatory requirements, protect data as it relates to diversity, and understand the range of protected characteristics. Once you adopt more diversity metrics and promote them internally and externally, your current and potential employees, clients and other stakeholders will hold you responsible for upholding them, so having data to back up your actions will demonstrate you are walking your talk. 4;5
- Get an objective assessment: Winterfeldt, for one, consults with law firms looking to develop cultures of diversity and inclusion and demonstrates to them how such environments can help a firm thrive.
Watch for the InterLaw Diversity Forum’s latest Career Progression Report, due for release later this year.
1 ‘Law firm diversity data (2017),’ Solicitors Regulation Authority, https://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/diversity-toolkit/law-firm-diversity-tool.page, (accessed 28 July 2019).
2 ‘Delivering through diversity,’ McKinsey & Company, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity, (January 2018).
3 ‘InterLaw Diversity Forum, Apollo Project Phase Four: 2017 Architects of Meritocracy Winning Submissions & Best Practice Analysis (2017)’, InterLaw Diversity Forum, http://theapolloproject.net/apollo/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Apollo-Project-Phase-4-2017-FINAL-WEB-VERSION-2.pdf, (accessed 30 August 2019).
5 Hannah Thompson, ‘The diversity series: BAME diversity in the legal profession,’ LexisNexis, 15 February 2019, https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/blog/future-of-law/the-diversity-series-bame-diversity-in-the-legal-profession, (accessed 30 July 2019).