Law firms need to diversify diversity

Diversity has featured prominently in legal circles for so long now that the business imperative for firms to embrace it should be abundantly clear.

A crucial first step when considering diversity is to be absolutely clear about what it is you are trying to achieve. Diversity is one of those concepts that is easily named but trickier to define. Law firms in particular seem to have been sidetracked by statistics and are increasingly confusing the pursuit of impressive figures (particularly on gender and ethnicity) with diversity.

While statistics are a useful tool in measuring the effect of an organisation’s diversity programme, they are not a goal in themselves. Instead, it is a cultural change that needs to be achieved – a lot less tangible than statistics, but far more important. The aim should be to create a culture where all colleagues feel comfortable being themselves and valued for who they are.

A vital part of this concept is the inclusion of all colleagues – support staff as well as lawyers. The legal profession has a tendency to suffer from tunnel vision, concentrating solely on increasing diversity among lawyers. However, in any large commercial firm, around a third of the workforce will be engaged in other disciplines. Why should diversity not apply equally to IT, HR, finance and other support services?

Having agreed on your vision of what diversity means, and what you are trying to achieve, how do you go about spreading this message across a wide range of people in a wide range of offices?

•Lead from the top. No diversity programme will be successful unless it is led (and seen to be led) by management. This means engaging the managing partner or chief executive and the management team in a way that is visible to all staff. Organising focused diversity training for the management team is a good starting point.

•Commit resources. This means time as well as financial investment. If you are starting a diversity programme from scratch, make sure the time input required from those driving the programme is taken into account when setting their goals and targets for the year.

•Represent everyone. It is vital that all offices, as well as a good spread in terms of seniority and roles, are represented on the diversity team. Your diversity team should be able to go out and ‘spread the message’ to all levels of the firm.

•Ask for help. There are countless organisations available to help firms with their diversity programmes, ranging from Stonewall to the Black Solicitors Network. Using their experience will help you to avoid spending time reinventing the wheel.

•Involve clients. The public sector has well-established diversity programmes already, as will many large private sector organisations, and their diversity champions will likely be delighted to share their experiences and views on best practice. This also underlines the importance of diversity to the whole firm and shows clients that you are committed to an issue that is important to them.

•Do not overcommit. It is easy to get swept away when embarking on a diversity programme. Make sure that you only commit to projects and collaborations that you actually have the resources to deliver on.

•Communicate. It is no use having a dynamic and energetic diversity team if no one in the wider firm knows what it is doing. Use email and the intranet to keep colleagues up to date, and encourage team members to speak at team meetings.

•Be patient. There are no quick fixes in building a diverse culture in a large law firm, it requires months (if not years) of sustained effort. Perseverance pays off, however.