Law firms feel the heat as Govt minister hits out over diversity

The first-ever conference on diversity in the UK legal profession, organised by The Lawyer, took place last week as the Government indicated it was becoming increasingly impatient at law firms’ responses to the issue.

Bridget Prentice MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, said she was “appalled” at the lack of response by law firms in publishing their diversity statistics. She said: “This isn’t about quotas or league tables, it’s about showing a real and lasting commitment to diversity. What is there to be afraid of?”
Prentice said that only 34 firms from The Lawyer UK 100 Annual Report had replied to the Department for Constitutional Affairs’ (DCA) request, despite repeated reminders.

She added: “I hope that my being here today might mean that the DCA’s letter box begins to flap a lot more in the not-too-distant future with all the replies to my diversity data letters.”

There were many voices at the conference calling for a heavier hand from the Government. A three-strong panel of general counsel, comprising Diageo’s Tim Proctor, Reuters’ Rosemary Martin and Bank of Montreal’s Jane-Anne Thomas, had some trenchant criticisms of private practice.

Martin said: “I’ve become convinced that, regrettably, you need regulation to force people. If the Government is serious about encouraging diversity it has to do more than write letters.”

But Martin also warned against a one-size-fits-all approach. “There’s a risk that organisations will tend to use cookie-cutter solutions to tick boxes and keep Bridget happy,” she said.

However, the three in-housers conceded that they had major roles to play in driving the debate forward. One delegate, Addleshaw Goddard partner Monica Burch, called on general counsel to drive the debate forward, saying that they would have the biggest influences on private practice.

Diageo’s Proctor agreed. “Social change of this kind requires some sort of impetus because people are very comfortable doing things the same old way,” he said. “Data, filling out forms – these allow me a sense of how committed the firm is and is of benefit to the firm in managing that agenda. But I want to see talented, diverse lawyers on the job doing the work.”

Martin added: “Clients can do more, and we may start doing more.”

A session on ‘What is Diversity’ included Dawn Dixon of the Association of Women Solicitors, Jim Lister of Pannones, Anthony Robinson of the Commission for Racial Equality, Robin Schneider of diversity consultants Schneider-Ross and Mike Webster of the Black Solicitors’ Network. The panellists discussed the definitions of diversity, but the debate quickly moved on to strategies of sourcing candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.

Webster, who is also a name partner at niche City firm Webster Dixon, urged law firms to look outside the traditional academic institutions and source top graduates from the newer universities, whose ethnic make-up is more diverse. Lister, an employment partner at Pannones who is responsible for the firm’s HR strategy, suggested using work placements as a positive way to bring in a more diverse future workforce.

Speakers throughout the day talked of the challenges of talent management and retention. Herbert Smith partner Martina Asmar, who is also chair of the firm’s inclusivity group, spoke on the topic of supporting employees and encouraging engagement in the firm’s diversity programme. Among other things, she suggested building employee networks within firms as well as utilising external groups, such as Stonewall, Opportunity Now and Race for Opportunity.

Linklaters HR director Jill Hunt presented on the major demographic trends affecting the profession in the next decade. In common with several other speakers, she argued that opening the recruitment pool to non-traditional universities should be part of any firm’s hiring strategy.

Hunt noted that, while 24 per cent of students enrolled by the Law Society were from an ethnic minority, the percentage of university students from disadvantaged backgrounds is decreasing. “Diversity in law is not a bottom line issue in itself,” she said. “But harnessing talent is business critical.”