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The importance of diversity at law firms remains a center of conversation. Sarah Morgan reviews the status.
2019 is a landmark year for women in law—it marks the centenary since the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in the United Kingdom, which allowed women to become barristers and solicitors for the first time.
Yet, while it’s been 100 years since women were given the right to practice law, gender diversity as well as other aspects of diversity remain hot topics today—not just in the UK but around the world.
While global statistics on diversity at law firms are not available, data on women and minority ethnic lawyers in some countries show that numbers are increasing—but slowly.
For example, in the UK, women make up just under half all lawyers at law firms, but only 33 percent of partners, reports the Solicitors Regulation Authority (United Kingdom). In North America, according to McKinsey & Company (USA), while law firms are taking important steps to increase gender equality, as of 2017, only 19 percent of equity partners were women, and women were 29 percent less likely than men to reach the first level of partnership.
“We are making progress, but likely still have decades of work ahead before achieving true equality in the legal profession,” says Brian Winterfeldt, Principal of Winderfeldt IP Group (USA).
Business Side of Diversity
Diversity is important: firms that understand this and ensure it, are likely to benefit in the long run.
“Growing research shows that improving diversity within companies is not just about ‘doing the right thing,’ but actually helps businesses and economies grow, providing a real business case for change,” says Martijn Schouten, Singapore People & Organisation Leader, PwC South East Asian Consulting (Singapore).
Along with bringing a variety of perspectives to the table, diversity can help lawyers connect with clients who themselves have diverse teams, according to Mr. Winterfeldt. “The increasingly global nature of business makes it important to have perspectives that are as broad and creative as possible,” he says.
Lynell Tuffery Huria, Principal at AJ Park (New Zealand), agrees that a diverse team will better reflect its clients.
“The world is becoming more and more diverse, and we need to understand the ideas, values, and needs of our clientele to ably assist and advise them,” she says.
Hilton Worldwide, Inc. (USA), which was named as the best workplace for diversity by consultancy Great Place to Work (USA) last year, is one example of diversity and inclusivity.
Christian Eriksen, Senior Counsel Brands and Intellectual Property at Hilton Worldwide, Inc. (USA), says: “From a big picture perspective, we believe an inclusive approach supports our hospitality culture, provides access to better and more diverse talent, and gives Hilton distinct advantages in the marketplace.”
If Hilton Worldwide, Inc. believes a law firm is not committed to or operating in a way consistent with its values, he says, “They are not likely to be our counsel for long.”
Commitment Is Key
Obviously, diversity makes sense, but how can the legal profession achieve parity? In recent years, law firms have worked hard to employ diversity-focused professionals, and to make diversity commitments, and have built up committees to improve hiring, retention, and advancement prospects.
“It’s not complicated. It’s very simple in concept but very difficult for law firms to follow through,” suggests Chasity Wilson Henry, Assistant General Counsel of Corporate Affairs and Legal Strategy at Kimberly-Clark Corporation (USA).
Unfortunately, a “lack of role models, allies, and networks, and the assumption that one must conform to a presumed standard as you advance in your career, lead to diverse talent seeking opportunities at other companies,” adds Mr. Schouten.
“Networks make a huge difference. You can be introduced to others who have already ‘made it’ and you can learn from it,” adds Ms. Henry.
In 2014, Ms. Henry launched the NEW Roundtable (USA), a nonprofit organization. Through a mix of relationship-building, professional development initiatives, and mentoring, the organization aims to drive the inclusion and advancement of African-American women attorneys.
Leading From the Top
What’s also important for law firms is not only to make a commitment to diversity, but also to effectively communicate that message to their employees.
Trish Mundy, Associate Dean at the University of Wollongong, Australia (Australia), says: “I don’t think leading a firm culture needs to look a certain way, but it does need to be communicated to everyone.”
Ms. Mundy and Nan Seuffert, Professor of Law at the University of Wollongong, Australia, conducted the Advancement of Women in Law Firms: Best Practice Pilot Research Project in August 2017, which investigated current best practices on gender equity criteria in four of the top-achieving national law firms in Australia.
Echoing the study findings, all interviewees saw a commitment from the top as extremely important to achieving diversity.
Mr. Eriksen says: “The responsibility for advancing the culture of an organization lies with every individual within that organization. It is not enough to hire a diverse team. Leaders should work to ensure diverse voices are heard and part of the decision-making.”
While everyone is a “culture-carrier” in their own capacity, Mr. Schouten notes, “Leaders cast long shadows and influence employees in the way they behave and communicate, which makes their role critical by embracing diversity and inclusion and role-model supporting behaviors.”
Irene Caboli, Visiting Professor at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), suggests that ensuring that both men and women can take advantage of these policies can benefit all involved.
“Our society stigmatizes men who decide to take time off from work to spend time with their families. We need to have more men leading the way so we can all benefit, and women can see that it is acceptable,” she says.
Ms. Dean agrees: “It’s extremely important not to water down diversity policies in anticipation of that resistance. We need men to actively be a part of creating this culture and modelling it.”
During their research, Ms. Mundy and Ms. Seuffert found two areas in which law firms appear to go beyond the current best practice.
First, one of the firms had a series of programs to ensure pay equity, including reviewing the performance appraisal process and lawyers’ salaries for gender bias.
“This involves looking at pay raises and particularly at bonuses and comparing them to performance ratings to ensure that what lawyers are being paid reflects their performance without gender bias intervening,” said the research.
Mr. Winterfeldt adds: “Attorney performance criteria should be applied fairly and transparently, particularly so that diverse attorneys will have a clear sense of what standards need to be met for retention and advancement purposes.“
Second, the research found an example of a practice group in a large firm that had broken down the traditional siloed approach to work, where one lawyer only works on certain issues/industries, into a team effort.
“If a person only works in a certain area they will become very proficient, but if that person wants to go part time or chooses flexible work, it can make it difficult to share the work,” says Ms. Seuffert.
Juan Acosta, Director of Litigation and Alternate Dispute Resolution at OlarteMoure (Colombia), notes that most firms that have decided to invest in diversity in Colombia are self-regulated. Many Colombian law firms have implemented different diversity practices, such as extended maternity and paternity leave and mentoring opportunities.
“We are getting there,” says Mr. Acosta, “but we still believe there is a glass ceiling that has to be broken when women face challenging positions in which traditional views push them to decide between family and work.”
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