There is a certain irony that the legal profession, focused as it is on ensuring fairness, should find itself in a position where it has to open up a previously closed shop.
However, no one could deny that there is a homogeneity within the profession that simply cannot be representative of the talent that is out there, and that is why law firms, of all businesses, should be the most open to embracing anti-discriminatory practices.
Embedding diversity into the culture of a firm is crucial. However, that in itself brings inherent difficulties when you are dealing across jurisdictions and operating in different cultures, which international law firms do on a constant basis.
In some jurisdictions encouraging an equal spread of the sexes is high on the agenda. As it stands, certainly in most of Europe, parity does not exist between the sexes within law firms. This cannot remain the status quo, not least because there is a huge boost in the number of women taking in-house legal roles.
It is essential that firms provide an environment that is attractive to women, but perhaps more importantly it is about ingraining an ethos of fairness and opportunity for all. Also, while female networks and similar bodies do not on their own solve every issue for women in the workplace, they do have an important role to play by providing a much-needed framework for women to air their views and to network with likeminded people.
However, discrepancy between the sexes is not universal. In some of the emerging economies, for example, cultures of male dominance do not exist in the workplace and there is a much more equal split between the sexes, within industry as well as within the legal profession. Implementing a strategy in a similar vein to that required in Europe would not only be unwanted, but naive.
It is therefore vital to observe local business etiquette and act accordingly. While in the UK it makes sense to offer a particular programme of support to gay, lesbian and bisexual colleagues, in some countries homosexuality is illegal. As such, a tailored approach must be taken not only in local recruitment, but also in how a lawyer in Johannesburg, for example, works with their client in Jeddah.
In addition, the UK in particular is renowned for its broad cultural mix of people. Even looking at it purely from a business perspective, international law firms are in an incredible position to have in their ranks Arabic speakers from UK offices and other nationals who, perhaps through parentage or immigration, have an ingrained understanding of how businesses operate in India, Australia or Africa. This cultural empathy is invaluable, but firms also have a duty to equip their people, regardless of background, with the tools to conduct business internationally.
Tied into this is the continued requirement for cross-jurisdictional expertise. The interconnected nature of regulation means that the move to internationalise is unhalted.
hile there might have been some debate in the immediate period following the credit crisis as to the viability of global law firms, emerging markets and the consequent need to develop and maintain a sophisticated international footprint is now more vital than ever.
The challenge now is to bring the legal profession into the 21st century. However, that does not mean promoting diversity for diversity’s sake. It is important to embrace local cultures while at the same time keeping in mind the overall objective to ensure that we continue to work towards breaking down barriers to entry in the profession.
After all, talent does not come with a label on it.