FTSE 100 clients demand diversity

FTSE 100 clients demand diversity
THE LAW Society has completed the first draft of its diversity charter with help from a number of FTSE100 companies, including BT, it was revealed at The Lawyer’s Diversity in Law 2008 conference.

Companies signing up to the charter will demand detailed statistics on age, gender, race, sexuality, disability and religion from their legal suppliers. Those that are unable to provide the figures might be out of a job.

Barclays general counsel Mark Harding told the conference: “We’d seriously consider how we would instruct a firm that showed no interest at all on this issue.”

The charter was due to be launched last year, but the process was delayed when the director of the project fell ill. The Law Society is currently searching for an interim replacement to oversee the programme, but said the charter should be launched by the end of this year.

This approach has been part and parcel of business in the US for some time. The project ‘Call to Action’ was created by Sara Lee general counsel Roderick Palmore in ;2004 ;and ;is ;now supported by some of the largest companies in the US. Latham & Watkins partner Sharon Bowen said of the approach: “We’re going to pay you dollars to do it – for those who don’t, we’re going to take business away from you.”

However, transferring diversity programmes directly from the US to the UK is not that straight-forward. Diversity in the US has different connotations and in the UK it has a different history, with economic background, class and other factors also being important.

Contributors and those attending the conference got to grips with the issues last Monday (19 May) at the Thistle Hotel at Marble Arch in London.

In the panel discussion on how to meet and exceed client diversity expectations, partner and co-head of White & Case‘s London bank finance practice Magdalene Bayim-Adomako recounted how at first she winced when she heard the US term ‘minority lawyer’ from the New York office and wondered which of London’s many ethnic backgrounds would be covered by it. Nevertheless, she and the rest of the panel believe that global diversity initiatives will be the future.

Herbert Smith partner Ian Gatt QC mentioned being accosted by Sir Ian McKellen at Herbert Smith’s lesbian, ;gay, ;bisexual and transgender (LGBT) network ;launch, ;with McKellen demanding to know what the firm would do about the illegality of homosexuality in Singapore.

The US is also far more at ease with affirmative or positive action than the UK. But Lehman Brothers executive director and head of European equity derivatives legal Bhavesh Dattani suggested a less controversial UK alternative in the panel discussion: “Identify those who are not advancing for whatever reason and partner them, buddy them, with high-flyers. In the US this is no problem.”

But it is a problem from the US that is threatening the progress of diversity in the UK.

On the one hand it is a time of plenty for legal diversity: LGBT networks, women’s networks and initiatives to encourage black and minority ethnic (BME) solicitors to enter the law are springing up all over the place.

On the other hand there is the credit crunch, which is threatening the progress that has been made.

Remembering previous economic ;cycles, ;HR consultant Gillian Shapiro from Shapiro Consulting said: “We’ve seen that loss of commitment to diversity happens ;in ;difficult economic times.”

Pinsent Masons head of public sector David Isaac agreed that “it is the warm and fluffy stuff where the money will run out first”.

It is likely that the key to the survival of the diversity agenda will lie outside just the ‘warm and fluffy’ stuff.

In his talk, Pinsent HR director Jonathan Bond explained how he would convince sceptical partners of the value of diversity. First, comes the so-called academic argument, where studies have shown that heterogeneous ;teams achieve a better work product and higher-quality decisions than homogenous groups, such as ones made up of white, public school, Oxbridge males.

Second, said Bond, it is about respect, which is part of many firms’ values. Third, it is often about a firm’s HR strategy as a whole.

“In my ideal world, those three ;points ;will ;be sufficient,” said Bond. “But the fourth one is the killer point. I’m sorry it is, but in a law firm it’s client interest.”

But ;HR ;consultant Melanie ;Allison ;of Embankment Associates started off her talk by saying that one should not be apologetic about putting client interest first in promoting diversity. “The world in which a senior executive lives isn’t based on ‘this is good for everybody’, but first on ‘how is this good for business?’,” she said.

Mrs Justice Dobbs DBE agreed that diversity will become the deciding factor for clients in choosing between firms in the future. “It’s like choosing between two cars you like,” she said, “you’d go for the car that’s greener.”

Diversity programmes at law firms may still be in their relative infancy, but sights have been set outwards it seems, towards suppliers. Director of diversity at Eversheds Caroline Wilson commented: “We need to do something with recruitment agencies – they’re getting away with murder. We spend £2m-£3m on recruitment – I think we have the right to ask them to put monitoring into place. Before you know it the marketplace will change and we won’t be in a position to change what the recruiters are doing.”

While recruiters may be behind the curve, with the Law Society charter set to come into force by the end of the year, law firms might not have a choice but to embrace the warm and fluffy world of diversity.