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Law firms take action to increase diversity in the legal profession

updated on 21 September 2021

Diversity and inclusion is being talked about more than ever. For the legal profession, a commitment to ensuring candidates from all backgrounds feel welcome and supported, as well as implementing inclusive policies and outreach is paramount to its recruitment strategies, and is often splashed across law firm websites and brochures. Sometimes it might feel like this is just lip service – buzz words used for marketing purposes.

The truth is that there is a lot of work happening in this area, and any aspiring lawyer should know what is happening internally within law firms of varying sizes, as well as externally in the profession. Aspiring lawyers want to see what initiatives are in place to improve the workplaces of future lawyers, as well as understand how firms measure success.

Each year LCN asks law firms to submit details of their D&I activities for the LawCareers.Net Commendation for Diversity, which is judged by LCN, Aspiring Solicitors and Rare. This year, the Commendation for Diversity was awarded to Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) with Clyde & Co LLPDechert LLP and Mishcon de Reya LLP each receiving honorary mentions.

Here are the highlights from the submissions broken down into attraction, outreach, recruitment and internal activities.

Talent attraction

The key to a diverse and representative workforce is ensuring that candidates from underrepresented backgrounds apply to law firms in the first place. Therefore, fostering an inviting and inclusive atmosphere that attracts all groups, or targeting specific underrepresented groups, is an important aspect of many law firms’ recruitment.

A popular and successful way firms can reach an array of students is by partnering with diversity organisations such as Aspiring Solicitors, upReach, the Interlaw Diversity Forum and The Law Collective. By working with Aspiring Solicitors, for example, and collaborating on initiatives like the annual AS Commercial Awareness Competition, firms such as BCLP, Dechert and Pinsent Masons LLP can engage with more than 48,000 aspiring lawyers from underrepresented groups at an early stage in their legal careers.

Leading the way in engaging with Black candidates is BCLP. Initiated in 2015, ‘Race for Change’ is an award-winning event that supports Black aspiring lawyers entering the legal profession. In 2020 BCLP expanded its ‘Race for Change’ network to launch Commercial Cafes – a series of informal group discussions on current affairs (legal and non-legal) to improve the confidence and employability skills of Black aspiring lawyers. Several training contracts and vacation scheme offers were awarded to ‘Race for Change’ attendees and alumni.

In 2019 Dechert held its first open day for 30 members of The Law Collective, an initiative for young Black lawyers and aspiring lawyers in the UK, which resulted in members of The Law Collective receiving vacation scheme offers at the firm. Dechert has since run another successful open day in collaboration with the organisation.

In a different area, Clyde & Co seeks to engage with LGBTQ+ candidates and highlight that it is an LGBTQ+ friendly employer by advertising its vacancies with myGwork – the LGBTQ+ professional network and business community.

While in the past Russell Group universities received the lion’s share of law firm attention, now many firms have increased their presence on non-Russell Group campuses by attending law fairs (virtually or in person), hosting events with student law societies and sponsoring the British Inter University Commercial Awareness Competition, which is designed to support candidates who attend non-Russell Group universities. Macfarlanes LLP targets universities with a high proportion of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and socially mobile students and works with diversity groups within these universities to reach a wider audience. The firm recently introduced a new programme, ‘Macfarlanes First Year Skills Development Initiative’, which involves partnering with seven non-Russell Group universities nationwide to work with some of their first-year students to develop the skills required to succeed on assessment days.

Outreach

The word ‘outreach’ is a nebulous term, but to many law firms it is about expanding the firm’s culture and people outside of the office walls and into local communities as a development of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and D&I activities. An example of this is Pinsent Masons, who participate in the ‘Big Sister Programme’ run by the Girls Out Loud Foundation in Manchester. This programme runs alongside the firm’s existing schools mentoring programme, but involves more in-depth one-to-one interaction targeted at girls who are at most risk of failing to meet their potential.

Meanwhile, Clyde & Co runs a community investment programme in the UK that focuses on social mobility, with many of its UK offices partnering with schools. This involves providing volunteer support for reading partners programmes, mentoring and careers days. The firm also runs a work experience programme in London called ‘Bridge to the City’, which is designed to help young people from less advantaged backgrounds improve their understanding of professional careers and enhance their employability skills.

Similarly, Dechert is planning to introduce a programme for sixth form and first-year university students. Participants will be paired with diverse Dechert lawyers and invited to a variety of skills workshops to nurture and develop their talent.

These kinds of outreach initiatives not only practically support students from underrepresented backgrounds, but also build a connection between the firm and candidates to create a pipeline of future talent.

Recruitment and assessment

The days of turning up to a law firm to chat to a senior partner about golf and where they lived when they were at Cambridge are long gone, with many law firms now strategically analysing their recruitment and selection processes to make them as equal as possible.

Many firms use the Rare Contextual Recruitment System (CRS) which enables them to identify high potential candidates by assessing their achievements in context. Rare’s system uses data to measure academic performance at the applicant’s school or college (if in the UK), as well as social mobility factors. Its aim is to ensure that employers don’t miss out on top talent. Firms adopting Rare’s CRS hire 61% more people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It has become apparent that traditional assessments, such as verbal reasoning tests, might not give all candidates an equal chance to perform their best.

BCLP has replaced its traditional verbal reasoning test with a new tailored strength-based online assessment that was stringently tested to ensure that no diverse populations were negatively impacted. Similarly, Mishcon de Reya is set to introduce an online gamified behavioural assessment that will provide the firm with objective data to help make more informed, unbiased decisions.

CV blind assessment days mean that partners and those running assessments are unaware of candidates’ backgrounds or experiences, and can subsequently judge them solely on their performance on the day. This is a recruitment tool adopted by Macfarlanes who ensure that all questions relate to a candidate’s CV and are picked from a standardised list. The firm has also trialled pairing each partner with a HR representative as another precaution against any unconscious bias.

In 2020 17 law firms signed the Rare Race Fairness Commitment which commits firms to measuring ‘application to interview’ and ‘interview to offer’ rates for different ethnic groups, as well as monitoring how people from different groups progress through the firm. As of 2021, a total of 48 law firms and employers have signed up to the commitment which will help to combat career obstacles faced by Black and other minority ethnic lawyers.

Internal support and initiatives

D&I does not end at the front door through which junior lawyers enter their legal careers. The ways that businesses can support employees vary greatly, and are limited only by the vision and commitment of the firm itself. Here are some of the initiatives law firms are running within their businesses.

Wellbeing and mental health

With the effects of the pandemic and remote working taking a toll on many employees, wellbeing and mental health has become a top priority for many firms, especially as societal conversations around mental health become more positive. From mental health champions to dedicated wellbeing programmes (including meditation and yoga sessions), the legal profession is becoming more open to supporting the health and resilience of those who work within it.

At Dechert, some employees have undergone accredited mental health training with St John’s Ambulance to support colleagues with mental health issues. As well as offering support, the mental health champions are invited to quarterly meetings to communicate feedback and ideas to senior management.

Another firm making great strides in this area is Pinsent Masons who, alongside Addleshaw Goddard and Barclays, founded the Mindful Business Charter with the intention of “re-humanising the workplace”. The charter is a practical framework that consists of four pillars: openness and respect; smart meetings and emails; respecting rest periods; and mindful delegation. More than 80 law firms, chambers and businesses have signed the charter so far.

As flexible working becomes more embedded within the legal profession after the pandemic, law firms have seen the value in trusting their staff to work responsibly, and prioritise their wellbeing during times of stress and uncertainty. At BCLP all employees have access to 10 free days’ worth of emergency care per calendar year; care can be both for elderly relatives and children. The firm also provided its employees with access to blogs and webinars that focus on navigating the impacts of coronavirus on work and family, and giving advice on home working and schooling.

Gender equality and support

At the heart of many firms’ D&I ambitions is supporting women throughout their careers and ensuring that they can reach the upper echelons of the firm’s partnership – a place long since dominated by men.

At Clyde & Co, female partners have focused on de-mystifying the route to partnership through a series of associate lunches. These sessions give the firm’s women lawyers the chance to find out about the routes to partnership at the firm, ask about challenges and how they have been overcome, and understand how to drive their own careers. At Macfarlanes, all women solicitors at four years of qualification are invited to take part in external mentoring via the 30% Club. Additionally, the firm delivered a bespoke gender-focused programme during 2019 for all of its female solicitors - the ‘Female Lawyers Forum’ (FLF). The FLF was delivered by external consultant Alison Temperley, and involved live workshops, smaller focus group discussions and podcasts.

Meanwhile, Pinsent Masons has adopted a strategic and comprehensive approach across the firm to enable women of all ages to develop and nurture successful careers. This includes the establishment of several senior groups that facilitate discussions about gender balance, requesting gender-balanced shortlists as part of external recruitment and internal promotion processes and a programme of inclusive behaviour training to combat unconscious bias.

To tackle gender equality in the workplace, parental leave is an issue that can’t be ignored. In line with this, Dechert offers bespoke coaching to help employees prepare to become a working parent before parenthood and coaching to transition back to their roles with confidence. The firm also provides gender neutral parental leave. Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP offers paid parental leave to both fee earning and non-fee earning staff.

Racial equality and support

Retaining employees from ethnic minority backgrounds should be of the utmost importance to the legal profession. Aside from implementing infrastructure to actively support this agenda, like the Mansfield Rule mentioned below, many law firms have also realised the importance of fostering discussions about diverse issues.

Pinsent Masons created a firm-wide publication called ‘Talk about Race’ which included the use of quotes gathered during consultation with employees, along with other themes relating to race and ethnicity. In 2020, the firm launched a supporting film which sought to debunk the myths and stereotypes around race.

Many other firms regularly run internal and external training on topics such as unconscious bias, discrimination, harassment and inclusive leadership.  Dechert has launched a comprehensive D&I Toolkit on the firm’s intranet to deepen understanding of racism, anti-racist practices and allyship. The toolkit includes media articles, podcasts, book recommendations and training.

LGBTQ+ equality and support

At Squire Patton Boggs (UK) LLP, the firm’s LGBTQ+ pillar used Pride month as an opportunity to share their personal experiences with their colleagues – which led to discussions around coming out and how to be an ally.

Clyde & Co has hosted several sessions on the importance of race and LGBTQ+ allyship in the workplace. These sessions outlined the importance of allyship and supporting colleagues from minority backgrounds in the workplace without overshadowing or causing conflict. To support this training, the firm put together ally documents for all to access, in order to provide top tips on how to be an effective ally and clarifying the use of appropriate terminology.

The Mansfield Rule

Created in the US in 2017, the Mansfield Rule aims to boost the representation of historically underrepresented lawyers in law firm leadership. Firms subscribing to the rule must demonstrate that they have considered at least 30% diverse candidates in senior recruitment and leadership decisions.

Meanwhile, US firms such as Dechert achieved Mansfield Rule Plus Certification, which means that the firm reached 30% diverse lawyer representation in a notable number of current leadership roles and committees. A pilot version of the Mansfield Rule launched in the UK on 15 July 2021 with firms including Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co and Taylor Wessing pioneering the commitment on this side of the pond.

Disability

There is no one single approach when it comes to supporting employees with disabilities. BCLP aims to foster an environment where everyone can thrive and achieve their full potential, including those with or affected by a disability or long-term health condition. This means capturing information about any disabilities or long-term health conditions from an employee’s first day by completing a personal adjustment plan. Any employee who chooses to disclose a disability is invited to have a one-to-one conversation with their HR business partner to discuss any individual needs and relevant workplace adjustments. Creating an atmosphere in which employees feel comfortable to disclose their disabilities and needs means that the firm is then in the best position to provide support.

In September 2020 Squire Patton Boggs launched its ‘Reasonable Adjustment Passport Scheme’ to trainees as part of its Disability Confident Employer status. This was accompanied by a campaign to generate greater awareness of neurodiversity and resulted in several trainees coming forward to be more open about what support they needed to succeed during their training contract. The process has resulted in an increased awareness of assistive technology and a greater understanding of the benefits of being proactive in offering reasonable adjustments.

Mentoring

Across all diversity strands, mentoring is a fantastic tool to support and learn from colleagues at all levels of the business. At BCLP, all trainees are assigned a partner mentor who provides objective, senior-level support.

Meanwhile, Clyde & Co recently launched a reverse mentoring programme that focuses on developing mutually beneficial relationships between senior staff and underrepresented individuals, and helps to deepen the understanding of D&I issues in addition to career development opportunities. A similar reciprocal mentoring scheme is run at Pinsent Masons where senior male and junior female colleagues are paired together to share perspectives and experiences.

Affinity groups

Internal affinity groups (or employee networks) provide spaces for employees to come together, make changes, educate, build awareness, promote allyship and, above all, influence and shape D&I strategies within the firm. Most law firms have women’s, LGBTQ+ or race/ethnicity groups, while more specific networks provide tailored places to address these issues specifically and support employees from varying backgrounds. These networks include: the Neurodiversity Networks at Pinsent Masons, Balance at Macfarlanes (which focuses on work/life balance), social mobility networks at BCLP and Pinsent Masons, disability networks at Paul Hastings, and EnABLE at Macfarlanes (which focuses on mental health, wellbeing and disability). At BCLP, emerging talent subgroups for each affinity group allow future trainees to access these networks before they have started at the firm.

Law firms should be proudly shouting about the work their networks are doing – candidates can find details of their activities on firms’ websites and social media. In addition, if a candidate is interested in becoming a member or ally of a group, they should speak to firm representatives and ask questions at relevant networking opportunities – it will help to paint a comprehensive picture of the firm’s culture and experiences of those who work there.

What’s next?

To ask what more law firms must do to reach a truly diverse and equal environment where everyone can thrive, is to ask how far society has to go with the same issues. There is still much to reach for, and the conversations around the best ways to achieve this will change and develop over time. The important thing is to include everyone in the conversation – the future lawyers who come from underrepresented backgrounds and those who face added challenges and obstacles on their way to becoming a lawyer.

There is more happening in this area than ever before and the above examples provide just a snapshot of the many ways law firms are working to tackle these issues. Lawyers-to-be should keep an eye on these developments and know that they are not separate to the changes being made. Above all, they should keep pushing and challenging law firms to do better. With the continuing progress of D&I initiatives, new and ongoing discussions about the best ways to support those from underrepresented backgrounds and, most importantly, tangible action and results, law firms can belong to everybody.

Have you visited LawCareers.Net’s dedicated Diversity Hub? It is updated regularly to keep future lawyers in the know regarding what law firms, chambers and legal education providers are doing to remove existing barriers and work towards a more diverse and inclusive profession.

Bethany Wren is the content & events manager at LawCareers.Net.