Diversity and inclusion are hot on the agenda for law firms aiming to emerge from the pandemic more socially and environmentally conscious than ever. But those seeking to accelerate change must ask themselves: do inclusion initiatives go far enough?

This discussion was at the centre of The Lawyer’s latest roundtable led by Stephenson Harwood litigation partners Sue Millar and Donna Newman. Here are the key points.

Championing diversity in thought

Sue Millar

The ESG movement sparked by Covid has no doubt strengthened established efforts to include and empower women and racial minorities in the workplace.

But how can firms also include employees whose diverse characteristics, unlike biological sex and race, are not readily seen? These include levels of education, sexuality, religious beliefs, cultural experiences, disabilities – all intersectional traits that can bring new perspectives to the work at-hand.

“You want diversity in thought,” said one attendee. “Just by having people that look different, you’re not going to foster that. It’s more than just how people look.”

One way to foster such inclusion is providing non-judgmental forums to learn about those with visible and invisible differences.

For example, a number of attendees spoke of safe-space discussions allowing those from underrepresented minority groups to share their unique experiences. “Personal experience and stories are so powerful in getting people to think differently,” one lawyer explained.

For one attendee, it was “one of the good things that came out of the pandemic”.

Allies can seek answers to questions that can be tricky to find without having first-hand experience, while members of minority groups can learn about an ‘otherness’ different to their own.

“They were absolutely transformative. They really started conversations in a way that we hadn’t really got into the nitty gritty of. I think they were really important,” one shared.

One-to-one reverse mentoring, between top and bottom-level staff members, also has its well-documented benefits on raising awareness. “We’re all finding it eye-opening,” one delegate said.

Rethinking recruitment

Donna Newman

Creating an inclusive culture is one thing. Building a diverse work force is another. For example, one attendee, who was her firm’s first-ever social mobility and diversity champion, recalls finding that despite “becoming a little more diverse in terms of the visible”, their lawyers increasingly all came from the same backgrounds. “I’ve had to challenge myself to start thinking in a new way,” she explained.

One solution is for firms to look beyond traditional hiring pools and instead embrace contextual graduate recruitment, through which applications can be reviewed considering candidates’ social, financial and educational background.

For firms looking to rethink their London-centric mindset, especially following the remote-working revolution, such employment tools can help source talent from across the country. “Otherwise you get pockets of society where you find the must haves and must nots,” one stressed.

Another is to hire lawyers who pursued a non-traditional path to qualification – including career changes, solicitor apprentices or those boasting unconventional work experience under the new SQE system.

Establish an expectation

But how do you show this to clients, who expect greater diversity from their legal advisers but are unable to see the invisible differences between lawyers who may all look the same?

One attendee recalled a client previously asking for very detailed and sensitive statistics about their lawyers to ensure diversity requirements were met. In that case, however, it would have been possible to identify who was who due to the team’s small size. The request was refused. “People want their privacy protected,” they commented.

In such cases, another recommended being upfront with the details you can provide rather than avoid the question. At client pitch meetings, law firms should start by explaining how they assemble and deploy lawyers with invisible and visible traits right across a project’s lifespan– from trainees up to partner-level. If lawyers are not involved in their firm’s diversity schemes – from safe space discussions to contextual recruiting – they should be prepared to answer: Why not?

And if the client isn’t happy with the answer, be prepared to lose mandates.

As one general counsel put it: “Social inclusion and climate change are two issues that are so interweaved, two questions we keep asking law firms to start coming up with the answers. We’ve got to the stage now that any appointment is not long term anymore – it’s on a calendar basis.”

Looking forward – sponsor’s comment

Accelerating the pace of change was never going to be easy.  After all, we have had legislation in this area for decades but that has not, in itself, advanced change. But an open dialogue between in-house counsel and their law firms is key since in-house counsel and law firms’ interests in furthering the inclusion agenda are aligned.

In-house counsel should not be afraid to share with their private practice colleagues what “good” looks like when they see it as no one firm is likely to have all of the answers. In an area such as inclusion and diversity where firms do want to collaborate with each other, learning from others’ experiences is one of the fastest ways of moving the dial. Equally, effective communication goes two ways and the in-house counsel/law firm relationship can only be strengthened by honest conversations particularly in those areas where, for example, small group data requests may be creating tensions between firms’ competing desires to meet client expectations and to protect their employees’ and partners’ privacy concerns.