Diversity is a key buzzword in the legal community, but the results of The Lawyer’s latest survey reveal that there is widespread resistance to the aggressive promotion of diversity in UK law firms, especially among senior management.
A YouGov survey commissioned by The Lawyer shows that management teams are particularly sceptical when it comes to providing data on diversity, with a large number railing against the idea of punishing firms for failing to do so.
While the majority of managing partners surveyed supported diversity, most of them said they were not in favour of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) naming and shaming or penalising firms that did not provide diversity data.
The results of the survey showed that 72 per cent of management partners either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the MoJ should penalise firms that did not provide the information.
This compares with 62 per cent of associates with 11 years’-plus PQE either disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the notion of naming and shaming.
Just 12 per cent of managers agree that non-conforming firms should be penalised, while a further 15 per cent had no opinion on the question.
That said, Samantha Mobley, chair of Baker & McKenzie‘s diversity committee, says she had not experienced any resistance to diversity promotion at her firm.
She says the fact that Bakers had set up a committee and focus groups to improve diversity showed that the firm was in support of the issue, although she conceded that this may not be the case for all firms.
Mobley pointed out that the Law Society has mooted plans to introduce a diversity charter that would involve asking FTSE100 companies to force firms to provide diversity data before giving legal work to panels.
According to the survey, 32 per cent of lawyers are in favour of clients requiring diversity data before distributing legal work, saying it makes firms take the issue more seriously.
However, 67 per cent believe the best way to promote diversity within the industry is to encourage young people who normally would not have considered a legal career to become lawyers, as opposed to penalising firms that do not provide data. Mobley says: “At a recent meeting about diversity at the Law Society there was a comment made by the general counsel of a FTSE100 company that the law firm representatives at the meeting were the usual suspects that embrace diversity and are taking it seriously. The real challenge is to get others to embrace it.”
She says it was in the best interests of law firms to promote diversity because it means getting the best from their staff.
“If you respond to people’s differences and take the time to understand them, you can get out of every person their full potential,” she insisted.
Deepak Malhotra, chair of the London committee of the C&I Group, agrees that some firms are more active than others when it comes to promoting diversity. He argues that client pressure is having a positive impact, with firms being forced to address the issue by clients requiring diversity data from prospective panel firms.
“Firms are taking it more and more seriously,” he says. “There’s increased pressure from clients to take it more seriously.”
Malhotra adds that, while the Law Society’s charter is a great start, diversity is a broader issue than just providing data to FTSE100 companies. He believes the way forward is to show firms the benefits of having a diverse workforce, rather than punishing them for not conforming.
“Many of us believe that, if
you have a more diverse team you have a better team, because it will have a broader, deeper perspective,” he says. “We need to be holding up shining examples of what’s the very best practice of diversity, not just in terms of policy, but seeing them in practice.”
Malhotra believes one way to encourage diversity is by commissioning research on diversity within law firms.
“I think the Law Society or legal private practice should commission some research. Independent research is the sort of thing I’d like to see done on diversity. I think the debate needs more fact-based data,” he emphasises.
Burges Salmon recruitment head Alex Van Hattum says her firm actively supports diversity by working with local schools to ensure more people have the opportunity to work in the legal profession, rather than just reacting to pressure to meet quotas.
“The real problem isn’t necessarily with the people who’ve got this far, it’s more about widening the number of people who can study law,” she says. “It starts way back with the education system.”
Burges Salmon has open days and a mentoring scheme with local schools to help students who are considering legal careers.
The firm talks to the students about letter writing, interview techniques and communication skills.
Van Hattum says the firm’s recruitment team itself is quite diverse, which means it has an insight into the importance of diversity.
Slaughter and May head of personnel Martin Havelock agrees that encouragement is a better motivator when it comes to ensuring a diverse workplace, as opposed to punishment.
“I think, in general terms, forcing people to do things is less effective than persuading them,” he says.
He adds that it is in law firms’ best interests to get the highest quality of lawyers, regardless of their backgrounds, gender or ethnicity.
“What we’re interested in is getting the best talent we can from wherever we can find it,” he states.