No time for a Diet Coke break when it comes to law firm diversity

The views outlined in this article are my own views.

It is very easy to say that law firms are not in a good place when it comes to diversity & inclusion. In reality, whilst easy to say, it would also be extremely unfair.

To be clear, we are not a D&I business, nor is that the primary aim of our services or products . Our focus in the legal resource management space is centered on efficiency and productivity, however, the impact we have on the career management and the allocation of work for lawyers, means that naturally D&I elements come into play. We do focus on reducing bias throughout the work allocation process, providing equal access for all lawyers to high quality work with high quality clients, supporting individual career development and tracking all of the data associated with this process. As a result, we work extremely closely with D&I teams within the law firms that we support. You can see why, as the data we create simply does not exist beforehand, and it is powerful to influencing specific aspects of process and behaviors that drive D&I strategies and agendas.

So back to the point raised – to label all firms in the same category when assessing their progress in D&I is not a correct view of the market. It is right to say that some firms are lagging behind where any business should be in addressing D&I issues both in business, and society. Others however are committed, focused and determined to make positive change. Within those firms, new initiatives are continuously being introduced to shift the needle, and engagement and sponsorship comes right from the top of the firm to generate an instilled culture around D&I. These are the firms that know that it is the right thing to do for all lawyers currently in the profession and for the good of the profession more broadly.

Business and commercial benefits in these firms are a secondary consideration which, in my view, is the right way round. There is overwhelming data that clearly demonstrates diverse firms have better commercial outputs and that has been the focus for firms who are looking to thrive in the years to come, and be proud of the change they are influencing in the process. There are others who focus solely on finances and commercials when looking at business initiatives and strategic priorities. The focus and demand on D&I has been growing with more clients of law firms highlighting the importance of this to make sure their law firm partners share the same values as them.

Until recently however, we have not seen law firm clients penalize firms financially or commercially for not doing so. That began to shift with companies like BT and those in the financial services sector over recent times and now Coca-cola have made a very clear statement of expectation to their law firms, as seen broadly across the legal press last week. If you don’t address diversity & inclusion, Coca-cola will penalize you financially. If you continue to ignore it, you may not be able to work with them again, until you can demonstrate a positive shift in D&I. Commercially for law firms this puts, or certainly should put, D&I at the top of any law firm leader’s agenda. Regardless of whether leaders accept this as the top priority now, clients are pushing firms to make sure that unacceptance is felt quickly through their pockets. A strong move, but one which will surely kick all firms into gear.

There are a few things that come to my mind about this:

1. To shift the structure of a whole industry is challenging and takes time. Even the law firms who have had D&I at the top of their agenda for a number of years still have more work to do. From an external perspective law firms are brushed with the reputation of their industry. If that reputation puts some groups of people off law as a chosen career, the supply chain of new talent entering the profession is impacted as a result and to change the perception of an industry will take some time. It needs to also be something supported by all, or at least the majority of firms, rather than just those leading the charge.

2. Another key point is around the clients themselves and the data that should drive D&I. Clients will demand and therefore drive change, which is positive. In the main there is an assumption that law firm clients have superior statistics around D&I to the law firms who support them. No-one is really sure however, if that is the reality. My personal view is that data will be key to the continued drive around D&I and this should go both ways. Clients will need to be absolutely clear on the ask from their firms and give them time to set up the systems and processes to provide that data. Equally, again in my view, I believe the clients themselves should also publish D&I statistics about their team – not the whole business – but the legal team within it. I think this would open up healthy challenge from both sides, where needed and appropriate, to drive positive change across the whole profession. I am a strong believer of not asking others to demonstrate what you cannot demonstrate yourself. It would open up positive exchanges to how the whole legal eco-system can work together and support each other.

As I say, I am not a D&I professional but I care about the future of work - legal and otherwise. I am a parent to two boys who will one day enter the world of work and I hope with all of my being that they’ll find a place where no one is described or viewed in a particular way because of their background, ethnicity, sexual orientation or beliefs. It is not right and it is down to us all, right now, to start making change that will make the world of work, the legal professional and otherwise, a fair and equal place for everyone to thrive.

Whilst some firms have a substantial amount of work to do, we are fortunate to work with so many firms that drive the right behaviors to make substantial and lasting change. They are focused on driving the legal industry forward to a profession that continues to be attractive to individuals from all backgrounds and most importantly, creating an environment that provides equal opportunity for all who enter it to flourish. We are proud to be a core part of the journey for those firms and amazed by what they are achieving for the industry right now, and for the future of the profession. Others will follow and hopefully, with a determination and focus, law firms will not need to be set targets by their clients around D&I, it will simply be at the heart of the culture of all law firms. Until that day, we all have a role in helping to achieve that goal.