Diversity and Inclusion: how are law firms changing?

I recently had the pleasure of attending a webinar chaired by Matthew Berrick of The Legal Line Up with a wide variety of panellists on the topic of diversity and inclusion. The panel consisted of Daniel Winterfeldt QC, Scott Halliday, Sana Shafi and Blaise Nsenguwera – each panellist is at a different stage in their legal career, with different firms and in different sectors. It was really interesting to hear their different viewpoints and angles on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the legal sector!

The webinar was split into three main questions, followed by a period of Q & A. I’ve picked the main topics that came up throughout the webinar and compiled the answers of the panellist:

‘Tokenism’ and retention

The panel firstly discussed ‘tokenism’, which was described as firms recruiting diversely, but only for the sake of statistics/as a ‘tick box’ exercise. The largest problem that remains, though, is that after people are recruited into a firm, the culture is not diverse enough to retain the talent. There is no one solution to this problem – Daniel suggested a cultural study of the firm. This study would involve reviewing work allocation, work advancement, promotion criteria, transparency of work etc. Clearly, this involves a large amount of work, which many firms are yet to invest wholeheartedly. Additionally, each firm is different so such a survey could be done to analyse what’s working within the firm, which can then be cross-checked with other data.

Scott suggested that firms need to invite a diverse range of people into firms to talk about their experiences to try and positively impact on the firm’s culture. The aim being to spread awareness throughout the hierarchy, not just for those starting out in their legal career. Scott also discussed how informal networking and informal methods (meeting for coffee etc) has been effective in increasing diversity and having people think about ways to increase diversity differently.

The panel also observed that whilst graduate recruitment may be quite diverse, the further up the hierarchy, the less diversity there is. The problem lies with lack of inclusivity in firms’ culture. Sana talked about her experience at some legal events where there was a lack of non-alcoholic and halal options, which ultimately did not make her feel included. Thank you for sharing about your experiences, Sana!

The different routes into/before a Training Contract

At present, the common route into a Training Contract is through a Vacation Scheme. It is worth noting that many firms also take direct Training Contract applications too. However, the problem that the panel wanted to highlight was that there are a few firms that only hire from 12-14 universities. Indeed, Daniel mentioned that there seem to be some firms who would prefer a ‘middle of the road’ graduate from Oxbridge, rather than a first class graduate from a non-Russel Group university. As such, what there needs to be a is a more diverse and flexible system, which takes a wide variety of factors into consideration.

Blaise discussed his experience at university and gaining work experience early on in his studies. It is clear that gaining Vacation Schemes and Training Contracts is very competitive, so starting to build your CV as early as possible is key! Scott shared that he completed a post-graduate degree in human rights law before starting his Training Contract, and whilst he isn’t a human rights lawyer, he was able to develop a further set of skills to bring to the table. He mentioned that it’s a shame that some candidates come to interviews trying to say the ‘right’ things to fit into the firm, when the best thing you can do for yourself is be honest about your experiences and reflect on what you’ve gained from them. Use your experiences wherever you can and own your experiences in the moment – here is value in having a different background from the linear progression!

Showing awareness of surrounding political issues

The panel suggested firms hosting events to increase awareness of the political issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. Firms need to be more proactive, and come together as a whole legal community. Daniel highlighted that whilst it’s important for the legal profession to contribute to society by supporting charities and doing pro-bono work, it is not a substitute for actively trying to increase the diverse culture within the firm itself. Only then, can all kinds of talent succeed and do well within the firm. Scott encouraged those within firms to use their networks to seek out and highlights diversity and inclusion points that are important to them!

Takeaway

This was a really interesting webinar, especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement. I think the panel were observant in that they recognised that whilst graduate recruitment can be diverse, there seems to be less diversity higher up the hierarchy. As such, the panel offered their own views and suggested solutions to this.

I also appreciated the diverse panel which included people from different backgrounds, cultures and career paths. It was insightful to hear about their careers thus far, and listen to little bits of advice along the way! Thank you to the Legal Line Up for this important webinar, and thank you to the panellists for taking the time to share your stories!

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