The value of diversity

DiversitySacha de Klerk explains how one global legal practice is aiming to take a leading role in encouraging inclusiveness

Published in ITMA Review, May 2014

An unprecedented number of drivers are collectively propelling diversity and inclusion onto organisations’ leadership agendas. For the legal sector, the momentum is even greater, due to the changing demographic profile of the workforce, a stronger regulatory environment (for example, law firms are required by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to report and publish diversity data), globalisation of the legal sector and client pressures.

In the past, diversity objectives have been driven by legislation (ie the Equality Act) and by “visible” differences between people. While this is still relevant, diversity now means more than tokenism; the value of diversity is in developing an inclusive workplace, and this means changing behaviours, not just developing tolerance and saying the “right” thing. Instead, diversity today is centred on recognising the differences that make each of us unique, such as life experiences, parental status, education and cultural background. Leading organisations see the value that different perspectives bring to the table and the importance of diversity of thought.

This new perspective provides fresh lines of thinking when considering diversity and moves us on from the question of “How can improving gender balance at partner level impact our business?” to “Do we have the right variety of perspectives to deliver innovative solutions to complex global problems?”

This outlook means organisations can move away from box-ticking exercises and see people for the individuals they are, rather than viewing them as representatives of a group. It is no longer good enough to just have a boiler-plate diversity policy in place and to keep tabs on the demographic breakdown of your workforce. The most successful firms can illustrate the impact of diversity initiatives with clear measures of success relating to recruitment, promotion, retention and staff engagement.

Pressure for change

The pressure for culture change on the legal sector is enormous, with achieving a better gender balance a key target. According to the most recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the graduate population in the UK is nearly 60 per cent female, which is reflected in the gender balance of the trainee intake among legal firms. This balance is maintained at associate level, but at partner level the change is drastic: across the top 100 UK law firms only 9.4 per cent of the equity partners are women, reported The Lawyer in October 2012, slightly lower than the current figure for female FTSE 250 board members – 9.6 per cent.

So where are all the women going and why are they not making it to the top?

Many attribute this attrition to the progression to parenthood, which may not be compatible with the demands of a legal career. This more often than not affects the advancement of women because, even when both parents work, it is often the mother who takes the role of primary carer or is most responsible for childcare.

Flexible working can assist those who have a carer role, and has been on the agenda for law firms for well over a decade, yet the take-up of flexible working is still minimal and remains the domain of working mothers. The majority of working mothers across the profession are senior associates and partners the minority.

And, while flexible working is challenging in the fast-paced legal environment, in which visibility is seen to be essential and a long-hours culture is linked to work allocation and career advancement, it is not impossible. However, many women who return from maternity leave with the intention of adopting a flexible work arrangement don’t stay, as they struggle to find a balance between work and family commitments.

For firms, the cost of failing to retain women who do not progress to more senior roles is substantial. For example, the cost of replacing an associate was calculated by the Law Society at approximately £125,000 in its 2010 report on the “Obstacles and barriers to the career development of woman solicitors” (a “conservative” estimate that does not include “the impacts of lost client knowledge, disrupted relationships, and loss of organisational knowledge and legal expertise”). Considering the gender demographic in the legal sector up to associate level, firms cannot afford to sit on their hands and must put plans in place to engage and retain working parents. At the current rate of progress, our granddaughters will still not be equally represented in the boardroom. Now is the time to be forward-thinking and to make bold moves.

At Norton Rose Fulbright, we have improved retention following maternity leave by 14 per cent since 2011 (from 71 per cent to 85 per cent, measured one year following return from maternity leave). We asked all women who had been or were still on maternity leave for their feedback on their experience of becoming a parent at the firm and their input on what changes we could implement that they would value most. We launched a three-part maternity group coaching programme, which includes workshops before leave, during leave as part of a structured keeping-in touch day, and a returners’ workshop. A pilot Managing Parenting Transitions workshop and guide to support managers have also been produced.

Correct focus

Progress should not be predicated on changing or “fixing” women, which is the focus of the majority of workplace gender initiatives. Organisations need to start thinking in an entirely different way to adjust attitudes and see real change. Women are different to men. They communicate differently, lead differently and are motivated by different things. This difference represents an opportunity, rather than a difficulty.

Why is this so important? For a start, the client demographic is changing and often law firms face a panel of female decision-makers across the table. In addition, clients demand that their suppliers are as diverse as they are and are leveraging their influence down their supply chain. In-house teams want to see their panel firms reflect their own diversity and bring new perspectives to the table. These changes to in-house teams provide an opportunity for law firms to engage with clients in a different but meaningful way. The Law Society has put together a “business case” for diversity, available at lawsociety.org.uk, which offers a compelling case on this subject and also advice.

Other challenges

Simply having a diverse workforce is not enough to deliver positive outcomes. The most important piece of the puzzle is inclusion – the extent to which individuals feel authentic and valued. If people feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work, they are more engaged and will also bring the full spectrum of their capabilities and renewed energy to the table.

An awareness of unconscious bias (that is, a subconscious preference that can result in, for instance, the tendency for a recruiter to favour employees that have similar traits or characteristics to him or herself) and an understanding of how assumptions based on one perspective or frame of reference can have an impact on decisions relating to recruitment, work allocation and promotion is key.

We consider the full spectrum of diversity and inclusion challenges and, for example, have a very successful lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender network. We have also recently launched a network for both Muslim and non-Muslim employees, and external contacts interested in Islamic culture and affairs. Our Family Matters network runs lunchtime seminars for working parents and carers on topics such as family finances, first aid for families, unhealthy relationships and raising resilient children.

As founding members of Prime, the legal sector initiative to improve access to the profession for young people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, we have provided work experience and mentoring to more than 80 people. Also in 2012, we launched a guaranteed interview scheme as part of the Disability Two Ticks initiative and offer guaranteed interviews to applicants with a disability who meet the minimum role criteria.

Sacha de Klerk is Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Norton Rose Fulbright