The City's lack of diversity is being blown OPEN

Josh Richman - The City's lack of diversity is being blown OPEN

LC.N was lucky enough to be invited to the OPEN event hosted at Linklaters earlier this month. Organised by Helen Cooke of My+ Consulting, the day drew attention to the issues surrounding disabilities and their potential impact on access to workplaces and careers. Several big-name City firms were represented at a day of sessions and seminars which offered a positive, practical, nuanced and mature approach to encouraging and facilitating inclusivity and diversity in the demanding world of corporate law. Attendees had the chance to network with firm representatives, learn more about the City and explore ways of removing disability as a factor in the competition for jobs and the workplace itself.

The day's seminars and discussions emphasised the attributes important to any City firm - outstanding ability and commercial awareness. The Cityslickers were refreshingly frank about the demands of working at a top firm - it's stressful, unforgiving and the hours are long. So how can the firms reconcile their high-pressure culture with regulatory measures to ensure that they do not exclude candidates with disabilities, or indeed social backgrounds other than the Eton-then-Oxbridge stereotype to which critics have long accused the City of pandering?

A cynic may suggest that the City's apparent interest in promoting diversity is no more than a PR exercise - but they would overlook the fact that times are changing. Working to ensure equal opportunities for all candidates regardless of social, religious or ethnic backgrounds or potential disabilities is of course intrinsically necessary - the right thing to do. Few would argue against this point of social and ethical principle, and yet what is right is often overlooked in favour of what is expedient in the business world.

Thankfully then, forward-thinking minds in the City have seen where the sector is going - having a diverse workforce is no longer just the right thing to do; it is, in the words of Ashurst's Deborah Dalgleish, "a business imperative". As markets become ever more global in their scope, the legal sector is waking up to the fact that it will need diverse workforces to effectively deal with the increasingly diverse range of clients and environments that characterise modern transactions. With markets growing across Africa, as well as in Southeast Asia, yesterday's monochrome City workforce of posh boys from Herts and Surrey just won't cut it. As the firm representatives explained on the day, tackling the unfair barriers to the profession will result in a workforce filled with more diverse ideas and cultural knowledge - two essentials for the global marketplace.

With this established, one of the event's discussion points centred on how to ensure that a potential candidate's disability creates neither a disadvantage nor an advantage in the recruitment process, which of course should only ever be based on the principle of meritocracy. Attendees were first asked what they themselves could do, as people with disabilities, to help potential employers ensure equality of employment opportunities. There were some thoughtful and constructive responses, which highlighted the need for candidates to inform employers of the crucial details regarding their disability in order for realistic and fair provisions to be made if necessary. One key point that I took from the discussion was that candidates should include information about any disability on their application forms - these pages will have no effect on the application's outcome, but they will help provide crucial information which the legal sector can use to monitor its progress on this important issue. Such openness also helps to move away from the tired and unnecessary ethos that disabilities should be kept secret and treated as taboo.

The employers present were also provided with feedback on what they could be doing to make sure that necessary adjustments are in place for fairness and equality when recruiting. Recurring themes were the need for transparent communication and the setting of realistic goals. Particularly salient was the suggestion that employers set up a contact for candidates with disabilities to go to throughout the application process, thus avoiding the need to continuously repeat explanations of a disability at the expense of focusing on a candidate's lawyerly merits.

Obviously there is still a great deal of work for this country's legal sector to do if it is to leave behind the stuffy elitism and cultural narrowness that by rights should've died with Queen Victoria. Events like OPEN show that, at the very least, the City is starting to think about this in the right way - practically and with intent.

If you're interested in learning more about what happened at the OPEN event, check out our interview footage from the day at our new LC.N Youtube channel. We spoke to lawyers, graduate recruiters and students about improving diversity and opportunities within the profession, with informative and educational results.

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