Survival of the fittest

Is the white, male lawyer a dying breed? Law firms can be proactive in supporting minority groups and still employ according to merit, says Monica Burch

Is the UK’s white, male lawyer at risk of becoming extinct? Assume that law firms are taking no steps whatsoever in relation to diversity. The profession is nevertheless changing at a rapid rate. According to The Law Society of England & Wales’s research, in 1970 11.8 per cent of the 30,463 solicitors on the roll were female. By 2006 this had risen to 43.6 per cent of the 131,347 solicitors on the roll. Meanwhile, 59.4 per cent of all solicitors admitted in 2006 were female, as were 61.8 per cent of all trainee solicitors.

In addition, 32.4 per cent of first-year law students in the same year were from ethnic minority ethnic groups. This signals a dramatic improvement: 4.1 per cent of practising certificate holders in 1996 were from ethnic minority groups, which rose to only 9.1 per cent in 2006.

Demographics march on:6 per cent of partners in UK law firms are from ethnic minority groups, while 23.2 per cent of partners are women. Those percentages will drive change, even without firms taking any action. White male lawyers will, slowly, become a smaller majority and possibly a minority.

I subscribe to a very strong feeling against positive discrimination, as most of us want to be treated as individuals who are judged on our own merits. Whether the changing demographic of our profession means a larger, more diverse profession, or no growth but nevertheless a change in the ethnic and gender make-up of the profession, it is insulting and trite to think about our competitors, colleagues and future clients as originating and belonging to a particular group with which members of a different group compete.

Yet being in the business of employing people, coupled with the possible change in demographic, does mean that law firms need to implement change rather than hope that it happens for them. More progressive firms are looking long and hard at how they work, how they bill, who will be partners in 10 or 20 years time, how they will reflect the firm’s clients, and how work will be won and who will win it. Law firms need to examine, as good business practice, why certain groups are not represented in the firm and what can be done about it.

Family first
In simple terms, a 24-7 profession can play havoc with family life. Entry into the profession for women is not an issue, but retention is. Conversely, for ethnic minority men and women, under-representation is down to the lack of opportunity to enter the profession and attraction policies. For others – those with disabilities, discomfort about sexual orientation or age – the issue lies in feeling that work is a place where you can be yourself, after all, we lawyers spend enough time at it.

The danger with policies is that while individuals do not want to be categorised, singled out or given an unfair advantage, most of us think it is unfair if others are. Why shouldn’t a white male be a fantastic partner? Why should the woman down the corridor be given permission to work at home, or a day off a week, while her male colleagues labour on – and might occasionally want to see their children too?

There are no easy answers, but one of them lies in the reason many of us thought about becoming lawyers – fairness. The fairness fix can be harder to achieve than a more obvious route. If women are leaving because they cannot reconcile having children with working full time, then one answer is flexibility. However, it is better to put in place a flexible working culture that is open to everyone, not only women with children.

Formal flexible arrangements tend to be taken up by women with children, but many men also want to work part time, and this includes partners. It is also important for flexible working to be open to all, not just partners.

Where you work is a mindset. Empower people with technology and they can work anywhere. A number of most firm’s people – male, female, partners, associates, secretaries – work from home from time to time in both formal and informal arrangements. You know this is starting to work when a head of group emails the team to say they are working at home that day. This more dynamic way of working also happens to benefit women with children, more than if such arrangements were restricted with individuals viewed as somehow not being fully contributing members of the team.

Graduate schemes
Another example is in recruiting at graduate level. Look at the ethnicity of the universities the firm is recruiting from. A wider pool of universities can be concentrated on without altering the firm’s entry criteria, rigorous assessment or quality of candidate.

Sometimes, there does need to be a concerted effort on a particular group. Vacation scheme programmes targeting those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, give those students work experience where they would never ordinarily get past electronic entry criteria. But if they apply for a training contract, they should go back into the assessment centres and be judged with all of the applicants.

We must move away from the concept of ‘them’ and ‘us’, and try to get to a position where policies are fair, where the business recognises that particular policies may be needed, but insofar as possible they should apply to all of us. None of us should be made to feel at risk of becoming extinct.

Monica Burch is a partner at Addleshaw Goddard

male lawyer a dying breed? Law firms can be proactive in supporting minority groups and still employ according to merit
says Monica Burch