Prentice slams firms’ ‘disgraceful’ response to diversity reporting

Justice Minister Bridget Prentice has once again called on the UK’s biggest law firms to publish their diversity statistics, branding the response from the profession as “disgraceful”.

Speaking at The Lawyer’s diversity conference last week (16 May), she revealed that only 40 of the firms from The Lawyer’s UK 100 had replied to the Ministry of Justice.

Prentice said: “People like dealing with companies that demonstrate their commitment to equality and diversity. Legal firms could benefit from making their stand on this public.” The Government is currently being taken to judicial review over the Carter Report on legal aid by the Black Solicitors Network and the Society of Asian Lawyers, which allege that the proposed reforms will disproportionately affect ethnic minority law firms.

However, in response to a question from the floor, Prentice claimed that the Carter reforms could work in their favour. “I recognise that this is a concern among black and minority ethnic firms, because they tend to be quite small firms,” she said. “[But I believe] that they can use this as a potential springboard to working with others by being part of a large organisation and they’ll get a wider opportunity to work with other people.”

The client view was given by three prominent general counsel: Trevor Faure of Tyco, Gareth John of Transport for London (TfL) and Mark Edwards of Barclaycard.

Faure argued that diversity “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”.

Faure added that, when he built up his own legal department from scratch, he was deliberately looking for a mix of skills and personality types. He said that mix then ended up producing a diverse team in terms of gender and ethnicity.

TfL’s John called on law firms to partner with in-house departments on diversity initiatives. His view – that candid dialogue between organisations was fundamental – was echoed by Edwards, who is chair of Barclays’ equality and diversity committee.

Edwards said: “It’s about the quality of discussion we’re having with law firms. Statistics in my view are helpful, but it’s what the firm is doing at a deep-seated level that counts.”

Herbert Smith partner and head of inclusivity Martina Asmar spoke about employee networks. She reported that, while the firm’s ethnic minority and gay and lesbian networks had been slow to get off the ground, the slightly longer-established women’s network had become soundly rooted in the firm’s culture.

“Over half the women at Herbert Smith have signed up to it, and we do have men who’ve come along,” she said. “Many of the junior women lawyers have said that it’s a way to engage with senior partners and role models – people they wouldn’t have met before.”