Firms will enjoy incredible benefits from diversity programmes if they give them the hammer-and-tongs treatment, says Jonathan Bond

There are a number of compelling reasons why law firms have developed coherent diversity strategies in recent years. These include research that shows that a diverse work group produces a superior product; the war for talent that necessitates looking more widely for lawyers and business support staff; pressure from clients to be proactive about diversity; and the priority given to the issue by the Law Society and other regulatory bodies.

Pinsent Masons’ diversity strategy was created in 2007, when a business case for a number of initiatives was written and approved by the board. An initial task was to create network groups designed to ­champion minority issues and contribute to the firm’s diversity activities, advise on developing policies, ensure these are applied in practice and suggest ways to improve the work environment for all.

Groups also recruit and help with the development of people from various nationalities and faiths as well as network with similar groups to build Pinsents’ profile.

Pinsents now has six network groups ­covering areas such as disability, black and minority ethnic, women and LGBT. To ­provide leadership the firm established a diversity strategy group that consists of the heads of each employee network group plus the diversity manager, HR director and two senior partners. This group meets quarterly to give strategic direction to the programme and make regular reports to the board.

Outside interest

Another early initiative was to seek the advice of external expert groups to help develop the diversity agenda. We became a Stonewall ’diversity champion’ and has ­benefited from Stonewall’s advice on the LGBT work and other aspects of diversity.

A key challenge was to achieve a place on Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index – the list of the top 100 employers for LGBT ­people in the UK. Achieving this involves a rigorous assessment process, but the firm has consistently achieved a placing and the feedback from Stonewall each year has been a prompt for new areas of work.

Promoting women

One diversity challenge for most large law firms is the gender balance at a senior level. At Pinsents 24 per cent of partners are female. This compares reasonably well with top 20 law firms, but is not good enough, particularly considering the fact that over 50 per cent of our trainees are female.

The firm has put in place a series of ­measures to improve this. This year it ran a female-only career development survey that asked females (both lawyers and business support professionals) for their views on the career development opportunities in the firm, barriers to progress and suggestions for change. This attracted a healthy response and a number of initiatives are being ­developed as a result. The firm also plans to run a male-only survey to be clear about the differences between female and male viewpoints on career development in the firm.

The career survey told us that women in the firm would welcome mentoring by ­senior females. Pinsents has subsequently selected and trained a number of senior women for mentoring roles. It also ­established a senior female steering group to provide leadership for its female agenda. This consists of three senior female partners who have been working with the head of the female network group to challenge policy and develop initiatives to help advance women to senior positions.

Additionally, there is a series of ’Women in the Boardroom’ events with clients. This involved providing a written and verbal analysis of the recommendations of Lord Davies’ Women on Boards report and ­facilitating a debate among clients on how they can develop and appoint a greater ­number of female board members.

Pearls of wisdom

An analysis of common deterrents to female career progression highlighted that there are three skills that commonly hold women back – networking, commercial knowhow and confidence. The firm therefore sought a programme that would help address all three areas.

The one chosen is called the Pearl Club. This consists of a series of activities for women involving networking skills development, commercial awareness input from female FTSE350 directors and exposure to senior female role models. Seventeen women were selected for this programme and, as well as having the opportunity to develop these skills, participants are also benefiting from extra opportunities to network with women in client organisations.

Another focus of the diversity programme has been to attract and appoint a diverse mix of talent through graduate recruitment work. As an example of this, Pinsents ­participated in the Black Lawyers Directory Legal Launch Pad initiative, focusing on work experience at firms for students from ethnic and disadvantaged backgrounds.

The firm devised a gap-year programme as part of the Pathways to Law scheme. This provides work experience for sixth-­formers who would otherwise have no access to a career in law. It also launched a graduate brochure and website entitled No Barriers, emphasising that applications from all ­backgrounds are welcome.

As reported recently in The Lawyer (12 September), Pinsents is also a founding member of the Prime project, an initiative that will give work experience to schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a good example of law firms working together to widen access to the profession. All firms involved in Prime have committed to give this work experience equivalent to at least half the number of places they offer in ­training contracts, with a target for the wider profession of 2,500 places by 2015.

As outlined above, there are considerable business benefits to be derived from a diversity programme, including talent attraction and retention, a broader perspective at ­senior level, a superior work product, enhanced client relationships and, in the case of Prime, a better future for young ­people and for the legal profession.

Jonathan Bond is head of HR at Pinsent Masons