Encouraging diversity awareness

Setting up diversity training and awareness sessions for partners and staff was one of the first issues addressed by the inclusivity group at Herbert Smith following its formation in 2004.

Our initial enthusiasm was tempered by a confusing array of external advice on the issue, ranging from ‘essential’ to ‘a waste of time’ and ‘a necessary evil’.

The firm’s decision to go ahead with diversity training was based on four broader aims we thought the training could assist us in achieving:
1. to give a clear and consistent internal message about the firm’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity;
2. to raise awareness of what inclusivity and diversity actually means and the ethical and market place dynamics driving them higher up clients’ and our agendas;
3. to encourage people to be sensitive about the impact of their behaviour and attitudes on those around them; and
4. to ensure key decision-makers across the firm understand their roles in maintaining the firm’s collegial, inclusive culture.

The 90-minute training course was developed by our HR department and Steven Pearce of Stratagem Consulting, in conjunction with Peter Frost, a partner in our employment law team. It was designed for the firm’s 200-odd partners and senior line managers from across the support function.

The training started with a video interview with the firm’s senior partner David Gold about the subject. The sessions then emphasised the need to understand and value difference and to demonstrate empathy, particularly in potentially difficult and sensitive situations. The course also looked in more detail at the ethical and business cases for diversity, highlighting how clients’ views on diversity are affecting the firm’s relationship with them.

The cornerstone of the session was a 15-minute piece of theatre highlighting the types of inappropriate behaviour, both conscious and unconscious, that are often found in professional services firms. Following this scenario, participants were encouraged to critique the role-play, highlight the areas for concern and suggest how the inappropriate behaviour could be addressed.

The course also provided participants with diversity data on the firm and quotes from internal research and exit interviews that underlined the impact that our approach to diversity can have on employee retention and motivation. Particular emphasis was given to the challenges law firms face in the field of flexible working. The course ended by identifying the challenges the firm faces in embedding diversity in the firm and providing participants with a list of basic dos and don’ts.

As well as the general awareness training, the inclusivity group, our people policy group (responsible for developing all HR-related policies and practices) and this year’s newly promoted partners all undertook more comprehensive training that required them to participate in various role-playing scenarios and to give and receive performance feedback. There were also video interviews with clients about their views on diversity and their expectations of the approach that law firms should be taking to it.

By the end of May, more than 95 per cent of the firm’s target audience will have attended the diversity awareness sessions. Feedback indicates that most found it very useful, with many asking for more guidance and advice in addressing the diversity issues they face.

With the assistance of Carolyn Lee, our recently appointed diversity manager, the firm is now planning to roll out awareness training to the rest of the London office.

We recognise that training is not in itself a solution to the spectrum of diversity issues Herbert Smith and other law firms face. But it is clearly a key stepping stone towards getting the all-important buy-in from partners and staff that is needed in order to seize the opportunities and meet the challenges that diversity and inclusivity present.