Diversity programmes aren’t just socially beneficial – in a global economy they can help win new clients and improve profit. Tim Foster reports

Law firms’ attention to diversity issues is still predominantly reactive, despite powerful reasons to be proactive – in particular by recognising that those who invest in and use their diverse assets properly will win more work and add to the bottom line.

The forces driving the importance firms are placing on diversity and inclusion initiatives are generally external. There is compliance with the law, providing protection against discrimination and harassment. There is the moral imperative – it is ‘the right thing to do’. The Black Solicitors’ Network Diversity League Table helps fuel peer pressure in the marketplace as firms do not want to be left behind.

There is pressure from an increasing number of clients requiring statistics and other information on diversity performance. And now there is regulation in the form of Rule 6 of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) new Code of Conduct.

All are very strong reasons for firms to put diversity high on the agenda, and all essentially come from outside the firm.

Many firms understand how increased diversity and a matching culture will help power an inclusive and motivated workforce, improve retention levels and improve financial performance. But more directly, differences should be viewed as an advantage in expanding client relationships and winning new business, enabling firms to connect better with present and upcoming decision-makers in clients and targets.

The context is pretty clear: whether due to globalisation or evolution of our society at home, contacts and decision-makers in clients and targets are, and will, become increasingly diverse.

To develop effective personal relationships with clients and other referrers of work in this more diverse and global environment often requires different language skills, the understanding and embracing of diverse cultures and the ability to bridge cultural gaps and non-traditional forms of marketing.

This is not to decry traditional approaches to business development – of course they have their place and will continue to work. However, they have their limitations in our evolving marketplace and firms need both to be innovative and to take a medium to long-term view as the market continues to progress.

A changing world
• Internationalisation. Whether for inbound or other work, firms cannot ignore the emerging major business markets such as India, China and Eastern Europe. Whether embarking on a new market initiative or looking to power up one already underway, firms should mobilise diverse assets in their workforce relevant to that market, from language skills to personal connections, not least from among their associate ranks.

Initiatives in law firms can often be too partner-heavy, and can falter for want of more resources, of different ideas and of drivers who will ensure things get done and plans are progressed effectively; engaging ambitious associates with relevant skills can really make the difference.

• LGBT networks. In many organisations, an increasingly open approach to business culture has created real opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lawyers to network within groups based on sexual orientation. LGBT networks are well established among major London-based financial institutions – a particularly competitive environment for law firms, where it pays to take a medium to long-term view of developing relationships. Thus, being part of such networks serves both to raise the diversity profile of the firm as well as to develop productive business networks made through contacts between clients and targets – a skill particularly to be encouraged among young lawyers.

• Islamic communities. Islamic business communities are very active and by their nature very international in terms of their scope and connections. Establishing personal trust and confidence with influencers and potential sources of work in such communities is a challenge, and will in all probability not lend itself to traditional forms of client marketing or entertainment, and so would be far easier for someone who understands the culture.

Muslim professionals can hold the keys to unlocking business opportunities, whether in domestic or international markets, including major markets such as the Middle East.

• Women. Obviously many management positions are now held by women, and we are likely to see the number of women in senior positions grow. There is much to be gained by firms placing more emphasis on encouraging their female lawyers to network effectively with their contacts and build their personal practices.

Linked with this, a number of firms have active women’s networks with organised business development activities. I know women-only events are not for everyone, but many female clients, including some who are averse to more male-orientated client entertainment, find these distinctive and very enjoyable and they ultimately lead to referrals of work.

Using your assets
Implicit in the idea that firms should invest in and use their diverse assets proactively for profit is the potential for the individuals involved to develop their own careers and to build their own value and profile in the organisation as effective originators of work.

Those from minority backgrounds may well feel less comfortable participating in some traditional extra-curricular ways of developing client relationships (involving alcohol, for example), but there are opportunities that can flow from using the business development potential of such individuals in more innovative ways.

Firms should see the diversity in their workforces from a proactive perspective. Within their midst are individuals from minority or non-traditional backgrounds with distinctive skills, contacts and other attributes that can help the firm enter new markets, win new clients and add to the bottom line. Recognising, investing in and utilising these diverse assets in a focused manner can give firms the edge.

Tim Foster is a partner at Reed Smith Richards Butler