Action on diversity will reap rewards

Diversity is not just the latest buzzword, it’s a business imperative. Law firms have to continually seek the brightest and best talent in the marketplace, which means looking for talent beyond the traditional university milk round.

At Allen & Overy (A&O) we aim to run recruitment events at a wide range of universities, as well as working with students much earlier in their careers to raise their aspirations and inspire them for a career in law.

As a result, in 2005-06 the firm’s trainee intake comprised students who are 50 per cent women, 17 per cent ethnic minority and from 34 different universities.

While we are of course delighted with this, we know that we aren’t the only firm achieving such a shift in the diversity of their trainee population. The question is, are we also paying enough attention to our organisational culture?Recruiting a diverse talent base brings with it some fresh challenges. We know that we all need to create a working environment where individuals can be themselves and where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Such a culture can be influenced by new people demanding that things are different. But we also need to ensure that our organisations keep pace by driving change from within as well. If we do not work hard to do this, the diverse and talented individuals we recruit will look to work somewhere else that does.

There should be a three-pronged approach to ensuring culture is truly inclusive. The first is to raise awareness about the importance of diversity and inclusion and its impact on the working environment. This requires us to continually find creative ways to engage people in what it means to them. Last month we held the firm’s first diversity week, which included a variety of events, ranging from an evening with the actor Simon Callow to a multicultural pageant and fashion show from a local school, Bethnal Green Technology College. The aim was to generate a level of excitement and interest about the positive effects of diversity in an informative yet entertaining way.

The second is commitment from partners. As leaders of the firm they must be role models for the kind of organisation we want to be and in so doing they must challenge behaviour in others that is inconsistent with this. The firm’s global board and other management teams have already participated in workshops using actors who play out inappropriate behaviour in workplace situations. These workshops stimulated debate and learning as well as building consensus on how to tackle such behaviour. We have commitment from the partnership to roll this out to all our partners across London.

Finally, as individuals we must take responsibility for our own behaviour. It takes time and effort to examine our own assumptions or personal biases and to think about behaving in a way that will help to create the kind of inclusive working environment that we all want to be part of. So we have been developing an e-learning tool to help our people do just that. This interactive tool shows actors in workplace situations where unintentional assumptions or behaviours have a detrimental impact on others. It will be launched shortly to all staff in London and will become a part of our formal induction programme.

While each of these things in isolation would not create the inclusive culture we believe is critical to our ongoing success, together we hope that they will.

For some in the legal profession it may feel as though change is happening too fast, but our future success relies on both attracting and retaining the talented individuals who will drive the firm to even greater success in this increasingly competitive global market.