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Covid-19: diversity and inclusion in law firms

updated on 07 July 2020

As the UK’s lockdown measures are eased and the job market becomes increasingly competitive, it is more important than ever for law firms to ensure that their diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts are effectively implemented.

Over the past few months there have understandably been concerns regarding D&I within the legal profession – with parallels being drawn between the 2008 global recession and the economic impact suffered as a result of the pandemic. Fears surfaced about whether coronavirus would erase the D&I progress that law firms have been making as they try to weather the economic downturn following the global pandemic.

Meanwhile, the death of black US citizen George Floyd while being restrained with excessive force by police officers resulted in global protests demanding an end to the systemic racism within our justice systems and law enforcement. Founder and chief executive of legal diversity organisation Aspiring Solicitors (AS) Chris White says: “Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement have finally struck a chord with senior management across the board.”

While change is long overdue it is vital that the current movement remains in the spotlight and law firms continue to implement and act to improve D&I within their businesses for the long term.

SRA diversity findings

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) collects data every two years from the law firms that it regulates in England and Wales. In its most recent report in 2019, 96% of law firms reported their workforce data across categories including age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief, social mobility and caring responsibilities.

The report revealed that:

  • only 3% of all lawyers have a disability, compared to 13% of the wider UK workforce;
  • there has been no change in the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers working in law firms since 2017 – the figure is 21%; and
  • 49% of lawyers in firms are women (an increase of 1% on 2017’s figure), with women making up 33% of partners in firms and 69% of in-house solicitors.

This data shows just how much more work is required to ensure that law firms are recruiting the best talent: “It’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘must have”, says Chris. ‘Diversity’ covers a considerably broad spectrum, so it is vital that firms develop and actively implement initiatives to address the various diversity aspects reported in the SRA’s data collection. Chris adds: “Coronavirus is going to pass at some point and diversity should be at the forefront of every business plan.”

Student concerns

Covid-19’s impact on D&I budgets

Considering the effect of the 2008 global recession on law firms’ D&I efforts, many are concerned that the economic impact of covid-19 on some firms (ie, those that have furloughed or cut pay) could have similar consequences, with firms reducing their D&I budgets. Justifiably worried about the impact of coronavirus on her route to becoming a solicitor, future vacation schemer Fatima Patel says: “After the financial crisis law firms really reduced the number of trainees in the legal sector and I am worried that this will happen again.” Fatima will complete a virtual vacation scheme this summer.

Chris says D&I is “critical” to the future of law firms and that AS has seen an increase in firms wanting to invest more into their D&I initiatives. Meanwhile, Naomi Kellman, senior manager for schools and universities at legal diversity organisation Rare Recruitment says that Rare’s partner firms have diversity as a “long-term focus within their strategic plan, so they are committed to their strategies despite the pandemic’s economic impact.”

Chris adds: “It’s all about service to clients and if firms are not getting the right services to clients, they will suffer commercially. This service is dependent on different views, different perspectives or ways of approaching something in a different way. D&I isn’t just important, it is fundamental to the future of any law firm and those who embrace it more than others will rise to the top.”

Meanwhile, Rare is encouraging aspiring lawyers to continue to work towards their goals: “We have seen that firms are still committed to recruiting in the next cycle,” says Naomi. “They might be doing so online but they are still looking.”

The move online

Alongside virtual vacation schemes, the global pandemic has meant an increase in online interviews, virtual assessment days and other online events. For Fatima, the thought of an online interview or virtual assessment centre is daunting: “I am worried about how disability comes across in video interviews or virtual assessment centres. It’s already quite difficult when you walk into a room with a crutch, for example, and people sometimes assume that because your body doesn’t work as well as theirs, your brain will also not work as well.”

While many will be experiencing similar concerns, Chris encourages aspiring lawyers to be proud of who they are as individuals and to “use this time to recognise their strengths”. He adds: “Take this time to understand how you can add value to a firm.”

Confidence is an issue which “straddles all diversity groups” and Chris urges law firms to understand and acknowledge this, particularly in the wake of coronavirus. “Law firms must be aware that candidates are in a challenging situation because they’re trying to get into a profession which has effectively transformed overnight”, he explains.

Naomi urges recruiters to understand the differing circumstances that some students will find themselves in during lockdown, as well as longer term as a result of the pandemic: “It is important to not make a judgement on somebody’s interview performance, which is actually due to circumstances that are quite challenging. Law firms must be attuned to these different circumstances, so everyone has a chance to perform well.”

Moving assessment days, interviews and vacation schemes online has been an essential transition for law firms during this challenging time. Alongside these transitions, it is vital that they do not lose sight of the bigger picture and the diversity issues that are so prevalent in businesses across the UK.

Chikira Smith-Richards, an aspiring lawyer who is currently seeking training contract opportunities and has dyspraxia, opened up about her recent experiences: “I have applied to firms who have asked me to specify whether I need any adjustments for the application process, but after replying that my adjustments have been noted, the firms very rarely introduce extra time or provisions to support me through the process.” This is disheartening for candidates and is also likely to knock their confidence during the application process.

It is crucial that universities and law firms acknowledge that students and candidates need more support now than ever before.

Home setup

Fatima considers her setup for working or studying from home to be sufficient, explaining that she receives support from the Disability Students’ Allowance: “I have a standing desk, decent WiFi and a good laptop.” However, she also points out that not all underrepresented candidates receive this same level of support, which can make studying, working or taking exams from home extremely challenging.

She adds: “Not only are students with disabilities isolated during the pandemic, home working set ups are also not ideal; they might have the incorrect desk or chair, which can impact how accessible remote opportunities are, particularly if they don’t have the financial means to buy new equipment.”

Chikira explains the challenges she has come across following the UK’s lockdown and the move to online learning: “While many universities have made provisions for online learning and exams, the ability for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to effectively make use of such provisions has not been fully considered. It is assumed that all students have a quiet place at home to study, can access a computer and have a good internet connection – all of which are crucial to studying and taking exams at home.”

For some candidates, not having the correct equipment is due to socioeconomic circumstances and having to share devices and workspaces with family members. Naomi explains that Rare is “advising clients who are putting on virtual events to not assume that all students can be in front of a device all day, as they may not have access to the device or a quiet space all day.

“It’s important that law firms’ ensure virtual events are accessible to people in various circumstances – for example, shorter sessions, sessions that people can tune into at a later point or sessions they can do offline.”

By doing this, law firms will not only make candidates feel more valued as their needs are considered, they are likely to help candidates to perform better under less pressurised circumstances. Candidates can approach a video interview, online assessment centre or virtual exam in the knowledge that their individual circumstances will be addressed.

The future of law firms is D&I

Finding a network that looks like you

The evident lack of diversity in law firms is disheartening for aspiring lawyers who cannot find or even envision a network that is similar to them: “It is hard when you can’t find the network that looks like you. This can really knock your confidence”, Fatima explains when discussing how she has been networking during lockdown.

Firms must acknowledge their unconscious bias and address this issue face on. Yes – it is critical for law firms to recruit diverse candidates, but more action must be implemented to retain and promote diverse lawyers and their work. Everyone should have a network where they feel welcome, valued and included.

Gemma Baker, graduate recruitment manager at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, says: “Supporting diverse candidates starts with educating yourself – reading and understanding why people are underrepresented and recognising the need for social change.”

What can law firms do to improve D&I?

In good news, many law firms are continuing to recruit in Summer 2020 via their online vacation schemes. And while the move online continues to pose challenges, there is a huge opportunity for law firms to “use virtual platforms to reach more people from more universities, both in the UK and overseas”, says Gemma.

As well as reaching out via virtual events, there are plenty of tools available to firms that will facilitate connections “with a broad pool of candidates”, including Vantage, Rare’s online portal that matches diverse candidates with opportunities at top law firms. Gemma says that Willkie Farr & Gallagher is using Rare’s contextual recruitment system, as well as Vantage during its recruitment process.

Naomi explains that Rare has been having conversations “with the firms we are working with about the current grading systems being used because of coronavirus potentially disadvantaging students from underrepresented backgrounds” to make sure they are aware of this. She adds: “Where firms are contextualising students’ attainment and achievement, we have explained the importance of doubling down on that and making sure they are paying attention to the context in which students who do meet contextual recruitment criteria will have been hit harder when it comes to the academic situation.”

Recruitment manager Gemma says: “In terms of this year’s grades, it has been an abnormal year – law firms will be aware that candidates were not able to fulfil their full academic potential.”

Diversity issues are increasingly dominating the discourse regarding law firm recruitment. “There are so many initiatives, organisations and platforms available – there really is no excuse”, Chris says. AS and Rare support candidates who are being prevented from entering the profession as a result of testing methods and processes that Chris describes as “arbitrary”.

Chris’ plea to law firms is to “turn the rhetoric into action and to focus on results. There has never been a better time for change. Senior partners and decision makers in the business must commit to this long term.”

The recent appointment of Raffia Arshad as the first UK deputy district judge to wear a hijab must be a sign of things to come and a catalyst for the future of D&I in law firms. Raffia views her appointment as a “huge achievement for anyone from a diverse background”. Although law firms still have a long way to go in terms of improving the representation of all diversity categories, and while covid-19 has changed the way that law firms will be recruiting for some time, the outlook for aspiring solicitors is one of hope, change and action.

A list of diversity access schemes is available at LawCareers.Net.

Olivia Partridge is the content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.