Shannett Thompson

This year will be remembered as a pivotal turning point for several reasons. The pandemic ushered in an unprecedented experiment in home working, which many predict will lead employers to be more flexible about working practices from here on. The death of George Floyd on the 25 May was a wake-up call as to the inequalities faced by ethnic minorities, particularly black men within the criminal justice system. While unfortunately George’s death was not the first, it made the world think about what needs to change to prevent further instances of harm to black people in custody.  Hopefully the legacy from his tragic end will be transformative.

In the legal world, there have been various initiatives in recent years to increase Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation. These are now more prominent and arguably are being taken more seriously in the light of the global Black Lives Matters protests.

In March 2020, the Solicitors Regulation Authority published diversity data showing that 21 per cent of the legal profession is made up of BAME people, the largest proportion of these being Asian (15 per cent). Numerous firms disclosed their ethnicity pay gap reports for the first time as part of their wider gender pay reporting. We have also seen many firms refocus attention on their plans to create a diverse workforce, some hosting forums to gather ideas from existing employees and others creating specific diversity inclusion roles to assist with delivering on objectives.

Furthermore, it is not only law firms that are trying to enhance diversity in the legal field, clients are also requiring it, as they should. Novartis International, the Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company, renewed its legal panel in February which now includes 22 firms with diversity and inclusion objectives. As part of the company’s ‘Preferred Firm Program’, it requires firms on the panel to “commit to a minimum of 30 per cent of billable associate time and 20 per cent of partner time to be provided by females, ethnically diverse, and LGBTQ+ professionals.” If a firm is unable to meet this requirement the company will “withhold 15 per cent of the total amount billed over the life of that specific matter.”

However while measures like this are positive, it is clear that more needs to be done. A recent survey showed that only 1 per cent of lawyers at the 50 largest UK law firms are black in comparison with the 3 per cent UK black population. This needs to change.

My firm has signed up to RARE’s ‘Race Fairness Commitment’ alongside other City firms. Under this agreement, firms and recruiters will take proactive steps to ensure that BAME candidates are just as likely to get interviews as their white counterparts. Moreover, recruitment agencies will be asked to submit evidence of their progress every year.

To keep the momentum going, managing and senior partners and General Counsel across the profession must also lead by example. They must not only emulate the behaviours they expect, but also be champions for diversity within their respective organisation. My firm’s senior partner Stephen Parkinson was one of the first leaders to put out an anti-racism statement following the death of George Floyd. I can personally vouch for the support he has given to me as chair of the BAME and Allies network to support employees and improve diversity within the firm.

My top suggestions for firms who want to see genuine progress in the BAME representation of their workforce are as follows:

  • Develop and/or enhance diversity networks;
  • Seek outside expertise and consultancy to analyse the organisation;
  • Consider recruitment practices with a focus on potential biases;
  • Attend/engage with universities outside of major cities;
  • Encourage mentors and ambassadors to support the firm’s diversity efforts beyond the point of recruitment;
  • Conduct anonymous employee surveys to seek input and gain insight on the firm’s culture and individuals’ experiences within the firm;
  • Provide regular and compulsory training to all staff on equality, diversity and in particular unconscious bias;
  • Include objectives (as part of appraisal processes) for senior leaders in respect of diversity and inclusion.

Clear objectives must be set and measured to ensure diversity aims are being met and developed.  Without this, diversity statements become mere tokenism. It is too important to let the current focus on Black Lives Matters become a slogan we constantly point to but do not deliver on. I believe 2020 can be a turning point for meaningful change if we all commit to the follow-through that this year has shown is possible.

Shannett Thompson is a partner at Kingsley Napley