BT Group video conference tackles gender, ethnicity, sexuality… and the bottom line

BT Group video conference tackles gender, ethnicity, sexuality… and the bottom lineBT Group has held its ­second video conference on diversity for in-house legal teams and law firms, with general ;counsel ;Anne Fletcher leading the session.

More than 40 representatives of law firms dialled in to the conference, along with lawyers from FTSE100 companies such as Smith & Nephew.

The discussion focused on how gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation ­influenced retention rates. Dr Robin Johnson, an HR professor at UCLA, gave
the keynote speech about women’s career paths.

The conference was part of BT’s 21st Century Lawyer initiative, which has seen the in-house team organise a series of conferences on subjects ranging from ­flexible working to equality in the workplace.

The first session took place in July and featured Sarah Bond, diversity director at accountancy firm KPMG. Pinsent Masons, a BT panel firm, is set to host the next conference later this year.

Fletcher, along with ­Pinsent Masons property head Adrian Barlow, is using the programme to drive the subject of diversity to the top of managing ­partners’ to-do lists.

“One should avoid thinking about diversity as an add-on,” said Fletcher. “It should be very much part of the internal culture. Having said that, I also give my personal time over to diversity issues.”

Leading by example is a big part of BT’s drive to get law firms working on ­diversity. Flexible working schemes are also covered under ;the ;umbrella
term, and around 15 per cent of BT’s 285 in-house lawyers work from home.

As the guardian of BT Group’s ;legal ;budget, Fletcher is not afraid to use her substantial clout in the legal industry to change the way big firms think about diversity.

She personally wrote a letter to all of the firms ­invited to pitch for BT’s last panel review in 2006, ­asking for their policies on issues such as gender and ethnic diversity.

Fletcher has annual catch-ups with firms to quiz them on how they are developing policies. Her panel firms include Addleshaw Goddard, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Pinsent Masons.

“I think the response from the law firms has been very good,” said Fletcher. “I think law firms are streets ahead of where they were even three years ago.

I’ve seen a big change. There’s an ­interest in the issues and a keenness to understand.

“Having said that, I think there’s some way to go. We’re now seeing a lot of interest, but that takes a lot of time to turn into real action.”

Barlow has played a lead role in putting together the agenda for the 21st Century Lawyer initiative from the perspective of external firms. He said that, in addition to the ethical reasons law firms should have for implementing diversity policies, there are also benefits to the bottom line.

Talented lawyers who feel unwelcome or misunderstood in their law firms are more likely to leave, pushing up the recruitment costs associated ;with ;high ­attrition rates.

Both Fletcher and Barlow have personal experiences of discrimination that have boosted their resolve to make the legal profession more open.
Barlow said that, as a young lawyer, he was told to keep his homosexuality a secret.

Meanwhile, Fletcher remembers overhearing a recruitment partner give instructions to find “a white male” while she was on a vacation scheme 30 years ago.

Fletcher declined to name the firm, but said that it was no longer in business.