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Law’s ethnic diversity challenge – levelling the field

Diversity is one of the hackneyed buzzwords that everyone agrees is a priority for the legal profession but few do enough about. Here, Ann-Marie Goodbody, Managing Director in the Partner Practice Group of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, shares some insights on how law firms and their recruiters can start making a difference.

In the UK, ethnic diversity in law is the proverbial elephant in the room, a topic that the entire profession has been reluctant to tackle head-on. It’s not that the country hasn’t made some progress in advancing black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers, but that progress has been woefully slow.

At partner level, a recent survey by Legal Business found that of the more than 2,300 UK-based partners at the top 12 firms in the Legal Business 100, 7% currently identify as BAME – for the profession as a whole, The Law Society says 10% of partners classified as BAME in 2018 versus 7% ten years ago.

Ann-Marie Goodbody
Ann-Marie Goodbody

There is plenty more to the figures if you scratch below the surface, with much more progress being achieved in the representation of Asian lawyers than it is for black lawyers, for example, and smaller firms are doing better for BAME representation than larger players.

But whatever the nuances, what is clear is that even though modest strides are being made, the industry is still struggling to attract, retain and promote BAME talent. One underlying factor seems to be the fact that the value of a more diverse workforce is still not fully understood by many law firms.

Current barriers to BAME recruitment, retention and advancement

At the end of 2019, I was delighted to participate as a panelist at an InterLaw Diversity Forum event that drove forward a passionate debate about what is standing in the way of progress and what both law firms and recruiters can do better to improve BAME recruitment and retention. I spoke alongside Ijeoma E. Okoli, Global Asset Management Compliance Lead, Executive Director, JPMorgan Chase & Co; Charlene Brown, Co-Founder & Director of Howlett Brown; Legal Counsel, BNY Mellon (former); and Daniel Winterfeldt, Founder, InterLaw Diversity Forum; Partner, Reed Smith.

From this lively discussion we crowd-sourced three principal barriers that firms and their lawyers currently face: a lack of sponsorship; ethnically homogenous interview panels; and too few role models.

A sponsor: When it comes to sponsorship, we all recognise that for a lawyer, the route to career progression involves more than just working hard. Whether we like it or not, to a certain degree it’s about who you know. That is where having a sponsor can be invaluable. More than a mentor, a sponsor takes an active role in advancing a BAME lawyer’s career, helping their protégé secure high-profile work, navigate firm politics and prepare for senior roles. Sponsors publicly endorse their protégés while ensuring they have the tools and resources they need to excel.

For BAME associates, we know that securing an influential sponsor is easier said than done. When choosing a protégé, there is much evidence that sponsors tend to choose people who are a carbon copy of themselves – consciously or unconsciously – and that doesn’t bode well for BAME associates who are already underrepresented in the workplace.

Interview panels: While blind CVs have been helpful in getting BAME candidates through the door, too often candidates are then confronted by an all-white panel at interview. While this may make white candidates more comfortable, it can feel worrisome and intimidating to BAME candidates and hinder their ability to perform well. Whether such panels go on to deliver the fairest outcomes is a moot point.

Many ethnic minority candidates come into interviews already expecting a lack of relatability to BAME culture within the firm. They worry they will not fit in and will not be able bring their “true selves” to work. That’s why diversity needs to be seen at the front door of the organisation. Assembling more diverse interviewing panels is a start and is an area where the recruiting profession has its own role to play in driving forward change.

Role models: Finally, the issue of role models, and while successful BAME lawyers are more prevalent in the UK today, there are still not enough ethnic minority role models leading by example and actively working to remove barriers for BAME lawyers.

What can we do?

By identifying some of the challenges hindering progress, we can start a conversation about what law firms and recruiters can do to narrow the gap and foster a more inclusive workplace environment. Some of the solutions that were crowd-sourced from the attendees included:

Sponsorship programmes: A lack of access to compelling role models and critical networks can be a detriment to BAME employees. That is why formal sponsorship programmes can be instrumental in propelling them to higher levels in their careers. Determining the logistics of a BAME sponsorship programme would require some thought, but it might involve assigning sponsors to BAME associates based on certain criteria or providing access to networking events that make it easier for ethnic minority employees to meet a potential sponsor.

Blind CVs: Blind recruitment involves removing fundamental information from a candidate's CV – such as name, age and education details – before it reaches a hiring manager. This shifts the emphasis from ethnicity and other unrelated factors to the candidate's skills and experience. Although there is never any guarantee that conscious or unconscious bias will not kick in down the line, blind CVs help ensure a more diverse candidate mix at the outset.

Reverse mentoring: Understandably, some senior white partners may not be adept at mentoring people from different ethnic backgrounds (though some are better than others). Reverse mentoring addresses this issue in a unique way, by having younger BAME associates mentor senior associates and partners by sharing their personal insights and experiences on issues relating to ethnicity and culture. Successfully piloted at firms such as Linklaters and Slaughter and May, reverse mentoring can benefit both the mentor and the mentee and make a pivotal difference to retention rates.

Minimum targets: Targets are always controversial. Some UK firms have already set minimum targets on gender, and Macfarlanes is currently looking to increase BAME representation to 10%. But the jury is still out on whether this is an effective practice. While there is a reasonable argument that if you don’t measure something you cannot change it, no BAME lawyer wants to be ticking a box and second-guessing their worth. They want to feel confident they have secured a place at a firm based on their own merit.

Bias training: Racial bias is a powerful thing and still pervades nearly every aspect of modern life. In one study, white job applicants were found to be 74% more likely to be successful than ethnic minority applications with identical CVs. Bias training has been a go-to tactic for organisations wanting to do their part to tip the inequality scales, and many feel it has had a positive impact. Yet there is not much evidence that bias training actually changes behaviour. Opponents cite a study in which it was shown to have the opposite effect of what was intended, with biased individuals apparently feeling more entitled to discriminate after undergoing training.

Law firm open days: Open days allow candidates to spend the day at a firm familiarising themselves with its lawyers, working environment and culture. Some feel these events can alienate BAME graduates and associates, since they often display the stereotypical monoculture of the city. However, if approached strategically, open days could provide an excellent opportunity to extend a warm welcome to BAME candidates.

Open, ongoing dialogue: Law firms should make it a point to connect with their current BAME staff and associates to find out what can be done to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment, perhaps via more mentoring or employee focus groups. These conversations need to be had openly and honestly, without worry of retribution.

Role modelling: It goes without saying that successful BAME lawyers play a critical role in promoting diversity. Ethnic minority graduates and associates can feel a sense of isolation as they seek out a place where they feel comfortable, appreciated and enabled to reach their potential. They benefit immensely from the support and camaraderie of those facing similar challenges. Networking associations like the Black Solicitor's Network provide a platform for experienced BAME lawyers to share advice, inspiration and personal experiences with others. The industry would most certainly benefit from having more accomplished BAME solicitors and partners out in the field speaking and working with firms, schools and colleges to empower minority lawyers.

The truth is there is much we can do, and we all have a responsibility to ensure people from BAME backgrounds get the same opportunities as their non-BAME peers, so that law firms can better reflect the communities in which they operate. It is not a matter of sitting back and waiting for progress to happen, and it is not an issue for someone else to deal with.

As a recruiter for the legal market, it is incumbent on my profession as much as the law firms themselves to make sure we seek out BAME candidates, put forward their CVs and do as much as we can to give them a fair crack of the whip. We need to cast our nets as wide as possible and make our processes as inclusive as they can possibly be.

In recent years we have seen the arrival of specialist recruiters focused on aspects of diversity, which are great for promoting the conversation but in many ways are a rather sad development. It will be a disappointing day for the profession when firms are selecting a BAME recruiter, a female-only recruiter, an LGBT-only recruiter as well as a “regular” recruiter when they seek to fill a role; legal recruiters should represent absolutely everyone, seek out the best candidates for the jobs they’re recruiting for, and make the field as level as possible for all.



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