David Press: Diversity must be in your DNA

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Improving diversity across the professions is a subject that never seems to leave the headlines – at first gender diversity was top of everyone’s agendas, then it was ethnic diversity, and now social diversity is the hot topic. Of all the professions that have come under scrutiny for a lack of social diversity in their workforces, the law has perhaps the most notorious reputation for exclusivity.

According to the 2012 Milburn report ‘Fair Access to Professional Careers’, 75% of senior judges attended an independent school and 75% went to Oxbridge – figures that had barely altered in the previous decade – while 64% of barristers hail from Oxbridge or Russell Group universities. Giving the 2014 Rainbow Lecture on diversity at the House of Commons, Lord Neuberger recently highlighted social mobility as being “the most difficult inclusivity problem” for the legal profession.

Many HR and recruitment teams within the profession are conscious of the need to address the imbalance. Not a week goes by that we don’t see the launch of a new directive, scheme or initiative designed to attract graduates from a broader spectrum of backgrounds to a career in the law. Indeed, there are many laudable examples, such as Aspiring Solicitors, which is providing underrepresented individuals with access to the profession, and law firms Clifford Chance and Mayer Brown, which have both introduced ‘blind’ interviewing policies.

However, it’s a sad indictment that in the majority of cases, it’s still all about ticking boxes – a lot of the developments talked about in the recent past have been merely cosmetic, with no meaningful changes in evidence.  This point was underpinned by recent research*, which showed that only one in ten graduates would consider applying to a Magic Circle law firm – a clear sign that the majority of non-Oxbridge candidates believe they will have little chance of success.

In the majority of firms, the partnership table still looks very much like it did twenty year ago. Does this matter, one could argue? I believe it does. To start with, there’s the moral argument. The law has one of the most powerful and influential roles in society and therefore has a responsibility to be broadly representative of the people it serves.  But, aside from the ethical standpoint, there’s perhaps a more compelling reason why diversity is vital within the hallowed doors of the law – namely, it’s good for the business case.

While it’s only natural for people to want to employ individuals from the same social background with shared experiences, having a homogenous team can seriously affect a firm’s competitiveness. Dysfunctional group dynamics or ‘groupthink’ is a phenomenon that can arise when there’s little outside influence within a group, resulting in a lack of independent, critical decision-making and a shared illusion of invulnerability. Disastrous consequences of groupthink have been well documented throughout both politics and commerce, from the invasion of Pearl Harbour to the collapse of the banking industry. By only recruiting individuals from a traditional public school/Oxbridge background, law firms risk losing out on the creative, lateral thinking that those with a different take on life can bring to the table, missing out on the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage as a result.

Law firms have for a long time rested on their laurels, wrongly assuming that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  But the world is changing and those who don’t innovate to reflect the environment around them are in danger of disappearing. Just think of the companies that have been lost to the annals of history because they failed to embrace new technology – Kodak, Blockbuster and Borders all being perfect examples. The same is true in the law profession.  Firms are failing to realise that their client base isn’t like it was two decades ago – clients come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before and it’s often these clients who have the cash to spend nowadays.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that by filtering out CVs to omit non-Oxbridge and/or non-Russell Group candidates, firms are missing out on a huge talent pool – literally thousands of bright, sassy, capable law graduates with the necessary work ethic and commitment, life experience and in many cases, the cultural awareness and linguistic ability to better meet the needs of their ever-changing client base.

So, how can law firms make changes that pay more than just lip service to the need for social diversity? Ultimately, inclusivity needs to be embedded within a firm’s DNA – it’s got to be ‘natural’ to see people from all walks of life round the partnership table. Until then, graduates who don’t look or sound like the typical partner will literally “bounce off” the firm’s culture. There’s got to be a real belief in the value of diversity that filters down from top to bottom, with a genuine, committed “buy in” to the real benefits diversity can bring. A good example of a firm that has created a culture that values diversity in its workforce is Hill Dickinson. With 59% of its partners coming from a state school background, it is the first law firm to achieve the Investors in Diversity accreditation and incorporates its diversity credentials into communications with clients to provide a competitive differential.

While cultural change is obviously a long-term goal, there are simple, practical ways in which law firm HR/recruitment teams can begin to address the imbalance. It may be inefficient to totally overhaul existing recruiting practices but it is possible to add to them. For example, allocating a certain percentage of internships and summer placements to candidates from sources that haven’t previously been used is a relatively easy and effective approach.  Likewise, when undertaking the interview process for training contracts, it’s easy to ensure that a proportion of interviewees are from diverse sources. Other relatively straightforward initiatives could include mentoring law students from disadvantaged socio economic backgrounds, supporting A-level students with UCAS applications and hosting workshops or events targeting students from non-Oxbridge/Russell Group universities.

Ultimately, the legal profession needs to walk the walk rather than talk the talk – without practical changes within organisations there is little hope of a cultural shift. Make diversity part of your DNA.

David Press is CEO of graduate recruitment platform Proceed UK

* The survey was carried out by Proceed UK among 380 law graduates from a broad cross-section of universities

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  1. Fear and groupthink does stifle creativity, productivity and profit, there have been numerous studies that evidence this fact. However, many law firms when challanged find it very easy to bring out their ‘silverware’ (low hanging fruits) of awards and ceremonies that they have attended (at a cost) as ‘evidence’ of how diverse they are. It is when you start looking further at representation of ALL the Protected Characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act 2010) that you see a picture often discribed as ‘snowy capped peaks’.

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