how does diversity and inclusion benefit a law firm?

Pearl Moses, director of compliance, Setfords|Briefing November 2023

My personal experience in the legal sector has been very broad, and though I see the profession changing compared to when I started out, bias remains an issue.

The perception of a ‘good lawyer’ in traditional law firms is still of a young white man who goes on to become partner — because this is what other senior people at the firm typically look like. Turning to the in-house sector — where there are far more women practising at senior levels due to the greater flexibility for childcare and other commitments it affords — the perception of a lawyer may be slightly different but is still of a white person.

Neither sector instinctively sees ‘the lawyer’ as a black (or even brown) person — in many cases, they are perceived as excellent support staff. And while many do excel in these roles, they are more than capable, given the opportunity, of excelling as lawyers.

We are, however, seeing a shift as law firms adopt diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, seek to level the playing field for employees irrespective of their gender, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation, and challenge partners on their record in the DEI space.

The cynical view of DEI is that it’s primarily used as a marketing tick-box exercise alongside other corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies — akin to greenwashing — with the sole aim of maximising profits. While CSR undoubtedly has an impact on the bottom line, there are other tangible benefits for law firms with a more diverse workforce, some of which have been highlighted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Firms that make efforts to accommodate employees from a range of backgrounds — and ensure a harmonious workplace culture free from bullying and discrimination — are likely to increase productivity due to higher levels of contentment. Managers who take DEI into account in their decision-making will probably be considering overall staff wellbeing, thereby reducing stress levels and associated sick leave.

When seeking to attract and retain talent in a competitive recruitment market, it’s also worth noting that junior lawyers increasingly take a firm’s CSR commitments into account when choosing an employer.

Firms that make efforts to accommodate employees from a range of backgrounds are likely to increase productivity

Beyond productivity and recruitment, legal service delivery can also benefit from DEI. When potential clients are choosing a law firm they may be swayed by diversity, sometimes for practical reasons, as the SRA notes that clients “may be deterred if the firm does not have diverse staff, including people who they feel will understand them and their particular needs”.

The SRA’s Principle 6 requires all solicitors to act “in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion”, and its website includes a toolkit with useful information relating to Principle 6. So, besides having relevant DEI policies and regular trainings — particularly for practice managers and senior partners — what other practical steps can law firms take on their diversity and inclusion journeys?

At Setfords, we sought outside help and honed in on worrying statistics showing the number of black lawyers who begin careers in law but end up leaving the industry. With many experienced and inspiring lawyers from diverse backgrounds, mentoring felt like a good fit for our firm, which is why we have signed up to the Black Lawyers Matter Mentoring Programme run by the Stephen James Partnership, which aims to improve representation of black people in the legal sector.

Mentorship involves committing an hourly online meeting per month for 12 months, to support black aspiring lawyers and remove barriers to considering law as a profession, as well as junior black lawyers to reduce the high attrition rates among this group.

However you choose to make your workplace a more welcome environment for staff from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, there is much to be gained from pursuing the tenets of DEI.

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