The emerging diversity standard
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You may not be able to change your firm’s make-up overnight, but you can be authentic throughout the diversity journey, says Julius Stobbs, founder of Stobbs IP.
Being authentic is often cited as being key to personal and professional success, as well as effective leadership. What does authenticity mean to you personally?
I think authenticity has to be focused on being yourself. The starting point, of course, is understanding what that really means, and I think a lot of us struggle with that. Often, we’re pushed into thinking that we should adopt a particular approach, and sometimes the so-called ‘right’ way is not always in line with who we are.
Authenticity isn’t the same thing as being individual or original—it’s more about being true to who and what you are. A lot of professional organisations think they need to change, but if they are only doing this because they feel compelled to do so, it's not particularly authentic.
What has been your own journey towards authenticity, and have you taken unconventional approaches that haven’t always been met with positive reactions initially?
Overall, our profession is still conservative, so there are a lot of workplaces where there’s a view on what a client wants from a highly paid adviser.
My first experience of this type of culture was at a traditional firm, when I dyed my hair white blonde. My firm had a partners’ meeting about my hair and, in a review, I was told that our clients wanted lawyers with a conservative appearance and dress.
In my experience, people prefer people to be people, not something that’s created and artificial.
One of the key things for me in founding Stobbs was ensuring that people could be themselves, and this is not entirely altruistic.
“We want people to embrace who they are as individuals, and for everyone else to understand and respect that.” - Julius Stobbs, Stobbs IP
My view is that people will perform better if they’re happy and able to be themselves. There are some clients who would rather have a really expensive suit or a brilliant haircut, but mostly they’re just interested in what you say.
But in choosing to have a particular culture and approach, there are both positives and negatives. Negatively, you’re being the outlier and standing out from the crowd. You’re always facing the challenge in persuading a client that you’re going to do a better job than others. The safe option is choosing to be the same as other firms.
The positives, of course, are that it’s very easy to stand out and you’ll find that quite a lot of people don’t really like that old-fashioned approach. There’s also a real opportunity for individuals to empathise with a cultural mindset that is refreshing, different and embraces their values.
Why is diversity so important to business?
Diversity is not something that you suffer as a business. You do not compromise by having a diverse workforce, you benefit by having it. By engaging with the diversity within the firm, we get different perspectives, we become more empathetic, more tolerant, more curious. Not only is this valuable growth as individuals, but it also helps us become better advisers. We should be listening, questioning, empathising, seeking to understand as part of what we do every day. After all, the more we understand, the more we can help.
What makes Stobbs different from other firms?
There are substantive and cultural differences. There are the ‘boring’ differences: we take a more practical and commercial approach and talk in simple and straightforward language, rather than worrying about the flowery, legal jargon. We operate with a much more down-to-earth approach.
Everyone in our industry says that they take a practical and commercial approach, but most don’t truly do this. It means spending more time with our clients and asking them the why’s of what they do so we can come up with an overall strategy.
Doing this means we’re not behaving like a traditional law firm—we operate a virtual in-house model, as we want to be seen as part of their team rather than an external operator.
“In my experience, people prefer people to be people, not something that’s created and artificial.”
But beneath all that is the culture. We want everyone to understand and empathise with each other, to help each other and to treat each other the same, whatever their level.
And that is something we instill from day one. We don’t hire anyone to compete with someone else, we hire people we want to stay forever.
It’s pretty simple—we want people to embrace who they are as individuals, and for everyone else to understand and respect that.
We encourage people to share something that’s important to them. For example, those from a different country or religion are encouraged to share a national dish or celebrate a certain day within the firm. Employees can raise it, and then it’s aired with the rest of the firm.
Many IP firms still really struggle with hiring and retaining a diverse workforce. Do you think that the way you’ve approached building your firm is a factor in attracting people from diverse backgrounds?
It certainly has to be one of the reasons. Obviously, we can’t force people to come and work for us, but the way we work, with a flexible approach, definitely helps attract people.
We always talk about our different cultures and faiths and encourage people to share and celebrate at Stobbs. We don’t just pay lip service to inclusion.
And our flexible approach means it’s much easier to accommodate differences. For example, people with different faiths may have different work patterns and approaches, such as different non-working days.
You can see how a traditional approach can discriminate against these needs very easily but, if you’re flexible about how people work, then it’s much easier to accommodate those differences.
I think that that’s attractive, and likely to be a reason why people stay long-term as well.
In leadership and management roles in Stobbs, 63% of our team are female (79% overall), 66% of our team attended a state-run or state-funded school, and 56% of our team come from a family where their parents did not attend university.
Elsewhere, 21% of our team are from an ethnic minority background, while a quarter of us have a nationality other than British.
What advice would you give to law firms looking to improve D&I?
You can’t change overnight. You can’t suddenly create a diverse partnership when you already have 50 partners in the firm who are all white and male, but you can change approaches to hiring practices and gradually improve them. Additionally, you can change the work environment and make it more welcoming.
The leaders of some companies and law firms are now thinking: “we have to change because everyone cares about D&I”, but they don’t really believe in it.
Instead, they should try to truly understand that diversity is genuinely a benefit. It’s a benefit to the company and to the people who will feel more comfortable in their workplace. Essentially, I think the key issue that gets overlooked is how positive diversity is.
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Stobbs IP, D&I, authenticity, leadership, ethnic minorities, law firm