Diversity & Inclusion is an area that has increasingly focused the attention of all business sectors and companies in recent years, including the legal profession. Black Lives Matter protests across the UK in the summer of 2020 further elevated its importance, leaving many law firms more resolved than ever to make a tangible difference in the critical area of ethnic diversity.
While there are still leaps to take and goals to achieve to improve diversity in law, it is important to recognise that positive change has already started. Data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, for example, shows that one in five lawyers now comes from ethnic minority communities, rising from 14% in 2014 to 21% in 2017. More positively, the figures remain similar as seniority increases: ethnic minorities now make up 20% of law firm partners.
This only tells part of the story, however. All of us working in the sector know there remains a journey to be made to achieve true diversity, particularly among the larger firms (50-plus partners), where the number of ethnic minority lawyers drops to 8%*. Law firms are determined to improve these figures, with diversity featuring very highly in our conversations with clients.
Firms want to go much further to make real improvements in the numbers of ethnic minority lawyers across all firms and all levels of seniority.
Diversity initiatives in law
In our experience, law firms widely acknowledge the many benefits diversity delivers. It may be obvious that the legal sector should reflect the wider society it serves, but diversity also gives law a breadth of experience and a variety of cultural perspectives that inform good decision making and excellence in client service. Add to that the fact that today’s talented candidates vote with their feet – they want to work for firms that make a positive difference to society and will increasingly refuse to consider those that are not seen to operate progressively – and there is a clear need for diversity.
This has translated into action across the profession. Examples of diversity initiatives include internal committees, networks or taskforces dedicated to racial and ethnic diversity, summer internships for young people from ethnic minority communities and/or giving lawyers billable or pro-bono hours for activities that promote diversity and inclusion. As black lawyers still only make up 3% of the legal population*, some firms are also implementing initiatives to appeal specifically to the black community – for example, one magic circle firm offers scholarships to support young black people into the profession, with 82 individuals receiving scholarships between 2013 and 2020.
Importantly, this activity seems to be having a positive impact. In graduate recruitment, for instance, one top-20 UK law firm recently reported to the Financial Times that 44% of its recent intake of graduate trainees in London came from the ethnic minority community and another said it has increased from 10% in 2010 to 30% from 2015 onwards.
The challenge will be to ensure that these improvements continue up to the most senior levels of law, although we are seeing significant steps being taken here too. Law firms are now using training in unconscious bias, implementing targets for ethnic minority representation at leadership level or launching reverse mentoring programmes to help challenge ingrained ideas and break down barriers preventing career progression.
Such activities reflect an appreciation that strategies to improve diversity must cover every step along the career path in law, from opening opportunities in the education system right up to delivering equality in promotion at top partnership levels. In this sense, we recruiters play a key role too, in ensuring we support a diverse pool of candidates in law.
Recruitment for diversity
In recruitment, diversity starts in how we find and shortlist candidates. At Fox Rodney, we are increasingly using the Mansfield Rule** on retained searches, which means we commit to sourcing candidates where at least 30% are from a diverse pool – for example, ethnic minority candidates – the aim being to improve diversity at this crucial gateway into every level of the profession.
We also include this approach in our research work – for example, when producing a map of the market for a client, we identify partners from ethnic minority communities. This is part of a conscious shift to promote opportunities for more diverse candidates.
In addition, recruitment that takes a personal approach can work very effectively for supporting the different needs of diverse candidates on their career journeys. A recruiter that has extensive networks, deep market expertise and knowledge of different law firm cultures can tailor the process to meet individual requirements, resulting in more fulfilling and lasting recruitment matches, which also helps to retain diverse talent in the profession.
Other ideas to support diversity in recruitment may include specific tools like blind recruitment (removing personal details from CVs) or contextual recruitment (considering a candidate’s background in selection processes), although these strategies will be more successful if they are paired with a broad and underlying commitment to improve diversity across the sector.
The journey ahead
This is only the beginning, the road to lasting change is long. But there is a sense that the mindset has shifted: talking about diversity is no longer enough, we are focused on the actions that make a difference. That means that all of us working in law are undertaking activities to support greater diversity, as well as measuring the impact of our initiatives and adjusting our efforts as necessary.
This is all paving the way to a better future – one in which the legal profession will be widely known to offer progressive and fulfilling careers for all.
By Pooja Bhandari-Maroof, Senior Consultant, Fox Rodney
T: +44 (0)20 7337 2710
- *Source: ‘How diverse are law firms’, Solicitors Regulation Authority, https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/equality-diversity/archive/law-firms-2017/