How to make a diverse legal profession
By Alex McPherson
This article was originally published in The Times Law Brief and can be viewed here.
Diversity is a much overused word with many shades of meaning. For employers, it involves mirroring society, with staff being disparate in gender, race, social and educational background, as well as sexual orientation.
However, most law firms are still struggling and routinely failing to meet diversity targets that they set. Half the legal profession may now be female, but not so those in charge.
Before David Childs stepped down as Clifford Chance’s managing partner three years ago, he acknowledged that despite aiming to have women comprising 30 per cent of the firm’s worldwide partnership, it had only reached half that figure.
But Clifford Chance is not alone; the same picture can be painted in numerous traditional law firms.
In response, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has begun to review its diversity guidance. It proposes delegating responsibility for diversity to allow the Bar Standards Board and Solicitors Regulation Authority to have “more freedom in determining their own targeted approaches to encouraging the diversity of their respective professions, whilst also encouraging those who have not taken their work as far to continue to develop”.
Meanwhile, the lord chancellor, Liz Truss, told the recent Conservative party conference that poor diversity in the legal profession was “hard to justify”. In her pledge, she said she would work to “break down barriers” ensuring that people from all backgrounds “can rise through the profession and that merit wins out”.
Politics apart, no one can disagree with her vision. As their client base is changing, so too must the profile of law firms.
The best way to think about diversity is not as a problem, but as a solution. Law firms should only care about competence and commitment and for those practices using agile working models, having talented staff from diverse backgrounds and with a diverse outlook makes good commercial sense. Offering diversity mirrors clients, reflecting how they think and see the world.
Technology also plays a key part. When providing legal advice online, how you look, which school you attended or your sexual orientation remain unknown; clients care only about the quality, accuracy and timeliness of the advice delivered.
Key technological aids – cloud-based folders, apps for real-time visibility of fees, MacBooks with encrypted solid state memory and antivirus security – all help to encourage excellent client service from diverse and footloose lawyers while keeping costs efficient.
Diversity is much more than a target; it is an asset. To dismiss the significant strides of some traditional firms in trying to catch up would be wrong, but most still have a long way to go and are moving too slowly – hence the LSB initiative.
As for the Liz Truss vision, several virtual firms have already got there. For their lawyers and clients, there is no diversity battle to fight and no target to meet. They simply do the job.
Alex McPherson is co-founder of Ignition Law, a law firm in London
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