BLP boss Mayhew: Diversity is essential for success

Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) managing partner Lisa Mayhew outlines how diversity can impact business results and how her firm is implementing its 2018 diversity strategy ahead of the Business Leadership Summit.

What do current partnership pipelines look like?

It is fair to say that current partnership pipelines are not nearly as diverse as they could be.

Lisa Mayhew

This is illustrated by the most recent SRA statistics, where for law firms with over 50 partners, the average percentage of women in partnership stands at 33 per cent, but at associate level there are 57 per cent women.

This illustrates that there is now a much better attraction and recruitment of diverse talent at junior levels, but sadly this isn’t as yet following through to partnership level. However, there is even more of an imbalance when you look at ethnicity, for example there are just 4 per cent Asian partners and 9 per cent at associate level.

Exploring the partnership pipeline of tomorrow and creating diversity within that pipeline. Quite simply having diversity in your pipeline and partnership is essential for future business success.

McKinsey & Co found that companies (across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom and the United States) in the top 25 per cent for ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Conversely, companies in the bottom 25 per cent for ethnicity and race are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns. Similarly, the Financial Times recently reported that a major study of more than 21,000 public companies in 91 countries found increasing the number of women in top management positions notably boosts profitability. Research suggests that firms that include and manage their talent have 2.3 times higher cash flow and are 1.7 times more likely to be innovation leaders in their market. This highlights the true business benefits of diversity and as such it is something that we are focused on at BLP.  Not only is it the right thing to do but it also makes business sense.

At BLP we launched our new Inclusivity Strategy in June 2015 having six months earlier set ourselves a gender target of 30 per cent women in our UK partnership by the end of 2018 and an increased number globally. The focus for us at BLP is very much about continuing to embrace diversity coupled with creating an environment in which diversity can thrive.

Alongside many other law firms we recognise that there are not enough women in partnership and we have a focus on this alongside other areas.

There is a lot of talk about targets vs quotas. At BLP, setting ourselves the target has given us a clear measurable to monitor our progress against and it has helped us to put the spotlight on what is working and areas where we might improve. We are pleased that since setting ourselves the target when the percentage of female partners in the UK stood at 22.1 per cent, we now stand at 25.8 per cent. Equally importantly, we have not compromised on quality.

There are a number of critical success factors that have enabled us to deliver the above and are fundamental to our inclusivity strategy.

  • It’s a core part of our business strategy
  • It’s owned and led at senior level. In relation to gender each of our five departmental managing partners have their own gender target and associated action plan that supports the overall firm target. We have a set of partner principles, one of which is to “value diversity and be inclusive” which are assessed during the performance review and allocations processes.
  • It must be engaged in at all levels. Many diversity strategies fail because not everyone believes diversity and inclusion to be a priority. Recognising that diversity is part of us all and that everyone contributes to the culture of the firm, we have employee led task-groups that work to drive forwards the strategy.
  • Flexibility is vital. Historically there has been a traditional well-trodden route to partnership and a narrow way in which the role is transacted, which has effectively limited progression and stifled ambition of those that don’t ‘fit the mould’. Recognising that individuals are different, face different challenges at different points in their personal and professional lives, and that careers are long and talent retention is critical, we now encourage flexibility on both sides to find an arrangement that works for the individual and us.

How do you get more women into partnership?

When I decided to put myself forward for the managing partner role at BLP, I did so because BLP’s future really mattered to me. I had been on the board for three years and gained a good understanding of the business and built relationships. I thought that I could make a difference. I was also mindful that irrespective of the outcome (it was a contested election), I would demonstrate to other women that we are just as capable as male colleagues of putting ourselves forward for such a responsible position.

The lack of female managing partners in part stems from the fact that there is a limited number of women in partnership in general, so naturally there is a smaller pool to draw from. This is a consequence of it already being difficult for women to achieve a balance between a professional and family life. The role of managing partner takes this to another level and requires a very substantial commitment as well as a number of other things e.g. a significant amount of international travel, which then makes it incredibly hard to juggle the personal and professional aspects and a requirement to network extensively to name but two.

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2015 report highlights factors that resonate with this and help us to understand this further:

  • Women continue to do a disproportionate percentage of child care and housework.  At every level, women are at least nine times more likely than men to say that they do more child care and at least four times more likely to say that they do more chores.
  • Perceived difference in ambition levels, although this may reflect the fact that women are less comfortable promoting themselves compared to their counterparts.
  • Men predominantly have male networks, while women have mostly female or mixed networks. Given that men are more likely to hold leadership positions, women may end up with less access to senior-level sponsorship – and I would think support when it comes to a MP vote.
  • Across the legal sector and in other sectors lots of good work is being undertaken to get more women into partnership or C-suite positions. For example, the establishment of women’s networks, women’s leadership programme and, coaching among other things have proved hugely beneficial. But there is no one magic pill; there isn’t one initiative that is going to provide the solution. I believe it will take a combination of initiatives combined with a commitment for things to change which comes from the top.

A few key activities that we at BLP are focusing on currently are:

  • Encouraging much more flexible working – in order to deliver to our clients, we do not need people to be ever-present in the office. In addition to having a good number of people in formal flexible working arrangements, we increasingly have more and more teams adopting informal flexibility, where people work from home or fit when and where they work around other commitments. Partners are leading by example and being supportive of this change in working patterns.
  • Mentoring programmes – to provide the support and guidance which addresses the point on networks already mentioned.
  • Profiling partners – Partners are hosting sessions where they share their path to partnership, to provide much more transparency around the role and how partners balance their work and home lives.

These initiatives are ones that both men and women can benefit from and they help to ensure that we progress and retain the very best talent.

Does social mobility underpin diversity?

An individual’s socio-economic status or background is just one facet of an individual’s diversity. Tackling social mobility won’t solve diversity. The key to really embracing diversity is to address the culture of the firm. It is important to remember that if a firm’s culture isn’t consistent with its efforts to attract and recruit diverse employees, it will continue to suffer from the corroding/leaky pipeline.

An inclusive culture drives diversity not the other way round. Social mobility is just one diversity characteristic that along with others (gender, ethnicity, disability etc.)  there has been a focus on for a number of years now, but progress remains slow.

Progress in the legal sector will only be made when law firms have inclusive cultures. Diversity is the mix, inclusion is getting the mix to work well together – creating a level playing field to allow the best diverse talent to rise to the top.

For the law to become more diverse there really requires greater education in schools and colleges in socially deprived areas about the sector; the career; the opportunities and the route into the profession to begin to make it genuinely accessible to all.

The law prides itself on attracting many of the brightest and best. Until we can fully access talent from minority groups we will never be able to say we have fulfilled our objective.

BLP managing partner Lisa Mayhew is part of The Lawyer Business Leadership Summit 2016 advisory board and featured in this year’s Hot 100. Find out more about the event and register your place to attend here.

For further interviews with speakers about the Business Leadership Summit, click here.