It is a warm day in April and bellowing laughter and upbeat chat is wafting through the limestone arch of Thavies Inn House on Holborn Circus. The buzz is coming from niche firm Webster Dixon, where there is a party going on.
At first glance it seems like a typical City function, with wine, beer and nibbles on sticks.
But this event is different. Looking around the reception room, which is humming with lively conversation, it becomes clear.
This soirée is for ethnic minority lawyers, dubbed an event for ‘the rainmakers for the future’. It has been launched by the Black Solicitors’ Network (BSN), an association representing the needs of black and minority ethnics (BME).
The brains behind the event are BSN chair Stephen Friday of Percy Short & Cuthbert and BSN vice-chair Michael Webster, joint managing partner of Webster Dixon. Their mission is to build a strong BME lawyer network across in-house teams and private practice.
At the party Webster emphasises that this is an opportunity to network with lawyers from similar backgrounds – and of course to drum up some new clients.
“I do realise that some of you will see this partially as a job-seeking exercise and networking is of course about making sure you lay the foundations for your future, but don’t forget that you’re here to make rain,” Webster tells his guests.
So why the need for this event?”More and more clients are looking for law firms which have had the experiences they have had in their lives and, for a substantial number of people who use the legal profession, they can relate to BME lawyers,” Webster says. “In some areas of the law, however, ethnic minorities are not well represented.”
Webster is not the only one making such observations. Manjot Dhanjal, the director of equality and diversity at the Law Society, concurs. “In City firms, at entrance level we’re seeing more diversity with more women than men entering the profession and an increase in minority lawyers coming through,” says Dhanjal. “But at partner level this diversity isn’t coming through.”
Exclusive research by The Lawyer found that, in the top 20 law firms last year, 4 per cent of partners were from an ethnic minority.
This lags behind the data provided by the Office for National Statistics, where 9 per cent of people in the UK come from a “non-white British” background. In London, of course, where most of the UK’s largest firms are headquartered, the non-white population climbs dramatically.
Of the City majors, 6 per cent of Allen & Overy partners are from a BME background, while Clifford Chance and Linklaters tie at 5 per cent. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, however, lags behind at 3 per cent.
Hammonds, ranked 20 in The Lawyer UK 100 last year, does not collate information on BME lawyers, although the firm says its diversity strategy has changed this year and ethnicity figures will be available in the not-too-distant future.
At Norton Rose 8 per cent of UK partners are BME. Head of dispute resolution Antony Dutton feels that the diversity issue has really come to the fore only recently, and so expects that it will take time for diversity to filter up to partnership level.
“We’re seeing a growing number of women and ethnic minorities come through at the associate level. So in a few years we’ll have to see a more diverse partnership, but it’s just a question of time,” says Dutton.
Statistics from the Law Society show that BMEs made up almost a third of students accepted to first degree law courses in 2005. In that year the number of BME solicitors rose by 9 per cent to 8,775. Ethnic minorities accounted for 8.7 per cent of the total practising certificates held and 18 per cent of new admissions.
But the ethnic minority lawyers at the Webster Dixon party are not leaving anything to chance. While networking at the rainmaker event with the likes of International Monetary Fund assistant general counsel Thomas Layea and AllianceBernstein European counsel Donna Samuels, US attorney Werten Bellamy tells The Lawyer that next year he, along with the BSN, will launch a ‘Charting Your Own Course’ programme, which is run by personal development group Stakeholders.
The programme will help minority lawyers “rainmake” and in turn build the skills that will help them get “noticed” by City firms – firms which, if the pressures continues, will be crying out to diversify.
“We’ve learnt that isolation and not knowing the rules of the game are among the greatest threats to the success of BME lawyers in law firms and corporations. Helping these lawyers to build a community resource can provide them with long-term professional and personal sustenance.”
So what about gender? The top 20 law firms on average have 18 per cent of their partnerships made up of women.
Eversheds and Pinsents, yet again, have the highest representation of women, with a quarter of their partners being female. These are joined by Denton Wilde Sapte, which matches their 25 per cent.
The magic circle firms were not even able to hit 20 per cent, with Linklaters the most representative at 19 per cent, Clifford Chance at 17 and Freshfields again lagging behind with 16 per cent.
Simmons & Simmons and Taylor Wessing have the least female representation at partnership level, with only a tenth being women.
Diversity relationship partner Monica Burch at Addleshaw Goddard, where a fifth of the partners are women, says initiatives such as flexible working are important to retaining female lawyers.
“At Addleshaws we have two female equity partners on flexible working,” says Burch. “With the clear advancements in technology it means that we don’t need to be chained to our desks to make sure the job’s done.
“So a female lawyer can still have a family and keep down a partnership role. It’s just about ensuring that this option is made open to women who want it.”
According to the Law Society, women have now overtaken men at entry level, but Dhanjal is still not optimistic. For her, it is by no means inevitable that women will begin to make up half of the top City firms’ partnerships in a few years.
“It’s all very well having a large number of women at the beginning, but it’s a question of how do we retain them during their career and get them up to partnership level?” Dhanjal says. “At the moment the society’s looking at this question trying to find the silver bullet.”
At the rainmaker meeting GlaxoSmithKline vice-president of US legal operations Belinda Reed Shannon emphasises to The Lawyer that firms that do not reflect society would not fare well with global companies such as hers.
“The movements of the clients and markets served by law firms is towards increased globalisation, which clearly dictates the need for law firms to overcome diversity hurdles with BME and female lawyers,” she says. “Like many of our global counterparts, my company has established a formal steering committee that’s committed to active progression of diversity and inclusion in our legal department, as well as in our profession.”
The pharmaceutical giant is not the only corporation turning up the heat on law firms to become more diverse.
Investment bank JPMorgan last week became the second major legal services user in the UK to announce that, in its forthcoming panel review, diversity will be a relevant criteria for UK law firms (The Lawyer, 21 May).
Last year Barclays followed the US-style trend for corporate responsibility, demanding staff diversity statistics from every law firm it uses for external counsel.
The final word should go to another VIP guest – prominent general counsel Trevor Faure of Tyco. Three weeks after the rainmakers event, he spoke at The Lawyer’s diversity conference.
Diversity, said Faure, “is not altruism, or idealism, or do-goodery or a soft subject. It’s a hard business reality. Companies of a certain scale reach a certain plateau, and when you look at those which have succeeded they’ve turned to diverse areas of business to drive them beyond that plateau.”
DISABILITY STATISTICS AT THE TOP 20 CITY LAW FIRMS
Research by The Lawyer shows that last year law firms’ figures for partners who declared a disability averaged 0.3 per cent.
This percentage would have to increase more than 33 times to reach the 10 per cent that would be representative of society.
Linklaters has the most disabled partners, with 2 per cent of the UK partnership declaring disabilities.
SEXUAL ORIENTATION at the TOP 20 CITY LAW FIRMS
DLA Piper is the only firm to provide The Lawyer with information on sexual orientation – four of its partners, 0.8 per cent of the total partnership, declared that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT).
Simmons & Simmons does publish figures on LGBT data on its website. The firm’s declared LGBT staff number is running at 2 per cent. Government statistics say that at least 6 per cent of the population is not heterosexual.
Seven of the firms, including Ashurst and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, do monitor LGBT numbers but would not disclose their findings, and 16 law firms, including Linklaters, Pinsent Masons and Simmons & Simmons , take part in the Stonewall ‘Diversity Champions’ programme.