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With the imminent changes to the Solictiors' Anti-Discrimination Rules and with Birmingham set to become the UK's first city with a majority of ethnic minorities in four years' time, businesses are reminded that an active and proactive diversity strategy may be the only way of attracting and retaining the best talent.
The wake-up call for the legal sector, not always renowned for its willingness to stray far from safe stereotypes, perhaps needs to be louder than most.
Ethnic minority growth
It is predicted that by 2010 more than 50,000 jobs could be created in professional, financial and business support services in Birmingham and Solihull, and yet at present fewer than 20 per cent of staff in this sector are from ethnic minority groups. Put this fact together with the statistic that the ethnic population of Birmingham is more than 30 per cent and is forecast by Birmingham City Council to grow to 50 per cent in the next 10 years, and it is immediately obvious that there is a huge disparity that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
The news about Birmingham becoming the first ethnic majority city in the UK has startled many of the incumbent law firms, which are realising suddenly that in less than five years their employees and services may not be reflecting the needs or demographics of the region in which they operate - and that this is already happening.
This is new ground for organisations in the West Midlands, not just law firms, and there is no real framework to help professional firms to manage diversity. Law firms are rightly wondering how diversity issues will affect their businesses going forward and how they can effect change on a profession that has historically resisted change of any sort. According to Minister for Legal Services Bridget Prentice, only a third of the UK's top legal firms are willing to publish data about the diversity of their staff.
Keeping clients happy
Pressure is also coming from clients, particularly those in the public sector, who wish to know how their legal advisers are managing diversity issues. Many of these clients have made commitments to diversity and expect their suppliers to make the same promises and demonstrate accountability.
Law firms working for local authorities that comprise the West Midlands Forum - Birmingham City Council, Coventry City Council, Redditch Borough Council, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council and Wolverhampton City Council - will need to be assessed against a common standard as part of the procurement process that establishes how firms ensure equal treatment.
This common standard provides a benchmark against which equality in employment compliance can be measured. It will be used to ensure legal service providers are meeting their legislative obligations; details of approved providers are held on a shared database and their details are valid for three years.
There has been much inaccurate reporting about ethnic quotas for public sector work, which are illegal in the UK and are a kneejerk reaction, when what is required is a long-term solution.
A new agenda
Diversity is moving up the corporate agenda for the private sector, which recognises its importance as being socially responsible in the community, and there have been several high-profile announcements about Barclays and Reuters setting out diversity guidelines for their suppliers - a trend that looks set to grow rapidly.
Clients are becoming more savvy and sophisticated and know that they have a huge range of law firms to choose from. Those firms that reflect the profile of the clients they are advising will naturally have a greater affinity and understanding and should be in a better position to build closer long-term relationships.
Of course, it is not just ethnic minority groups that are underrepresented. In the legal profession valuable skills and experience are lost because the profession is still slow to accommodate women with families, particularly at a more senior level. A more flexible approach to recruitment is essential in terms of age, not only because legislation will shortly demand it, but because by 2010 there will be more than 45,000 more over-45s and more than 20,000 fewer 25 to 44-year-olds in Birmingham.
One of the challenges for professional firms is to become less dependent on fee-earning hours as a measure of success to encourage more flexible working and a better work-life balance to attract a more diverse workforce.
Moving with the times
Law firms should be taking a proactive role in shaping the future of the available talent pool and breaking down the barriers. There is no doubt that there is a strong business case for recruiting the best people, not least because it fuels regional growth and sustainability.
The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no short-term solution, so it needs to be at the top of the agenda now. In September 2000 the majority of children entering Birmingham primary schools were from non-white ethnic groups and these children are now at secondary school and starting to think about their future careers.
With 26 per cent of ethnic minorities aged 18-24 already holding, or studying for, a degree, compared with 14 per cent of the white population, the culture changes need to happen quickly. Due to an increased dependence on online recruiting tools, many applicants with non-traditional qualifications are filtered out early on because of inappropriate questions.
Many firms are now breaking down the barriers for entry into a career in law and run various initiatives in schools and colleges and encourage work experience students. There are fewer routes into a legal career, compared with, say, accountancy, although this is now slowly changing, with the Institute of Legal Executives route approved as an alternative way in. Unless these routes into law are opened up to a broader working population alongside initiatives that are driven by recruiting law firms, change will be slow.
Birmingham is also fortunate to have Birmingham Professional DiverCity, which was formed four years ago to help the city's professional services sector manage and value diversity issues. The organisation is supported by the Learning and Skills Council, Birmingham Forward and Advantage West Midlands.
Its mission statement says: "By 2010 the professional, financial and business support services sector of Birmingham and Solihull will set the standard for UK business by creating a workforce which maximises economic potential and individual talent, reflecting, at all levels, the multi-ethnic diversity of clients, customers and the wider community."
Executive director Aaron Reid is encouraged by the way local law firm's are embracing the issue, but he believes that, without starting to effect the long-term culture change required very soon, law firm's will lose any available competitive edge and leave the way open for a new breed of law firm that recognises the profile of its market and actively markets and recruits accordingly.
This change of culture needs to be fundamental, from removing the fear of being branded 'politically correct' by employing black and ethnic minority groups to finding different ways of engaging with clients - for example, by breaking down the alcohol culture in client entertainment.
One message that is coming through loud and clear is that to do nothing is not an option. The West Midlands workforce is undergoing a dynamic change, and all employers, especially law firms, need to be harnessing the opportunities this brings.
Alex Bishop is a partner at Shoosmiths