It’s time to try something new in debates on the legal profession’s diversity.
In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a bowl of petunias falling from a great height thinks ‘oh no, not again’. I suspect the same quote runs through the minds of lawyers on both ‘sides’ of a diversity and equality debate that is very polarised.
Right now, debates on this seem as attritional as the battle of Jutland. I’m done with the way this discussion tends to go – I wonder if it’s a cycle we could break before we get to its centenary.
First a recap on how this plays out.
Take a recent example. Herbert Smith Freehills this week announced it is offering one-year ‘fellowships’ to women lawyers who have had an extended career break. The online comments that follow these stories could be written by an algorithm – shouldn’t everything be on merit; what about men; isn’t this discriminatory.
A story on racial and ethnic diversity prompts responses in similar vein, as do stories highlighting the apparent over-representation of privately educated lawyers and research on class and the law.
Let’s then walk round to the other side of the games board and see how it looks. We have sole practitioners and two-partner firms baffled by exhortations from the Solicitors Regulation Authority to be more diverse.
Lawyers painted as insufficiently diverse have no way to change their maleness nor the fact that their parents sent them to private school – the legal market’s tough, they’re doing their best, and characterising them as part of a ‘problem’ is chipping away further at their self-respect.
It’s unhelpful to say these lawyers are ‘dinosaurs’, and their strongly held views are not the dying gasps of folk who’ve had their day, and are about to be crushed by the diversity juggernaut.
As SRA research on social mobility shows, it’s not like very much changes.
In fact, the SRA is contributing to the poor quality of this debate. The regulator has the duty to promote the diversity and equality of the legal profession – this is set out in the Legal Services Act, and is part of the ‘public interest’ commitments law has made.
But it interprets this as a duty to measure, not manage, diversity. And those letters and surveys asking sole practitioners for diversity data make ‘diversity’ open to ridicule.
To paraphrase Admiral Beatty at Jutland, if they keep blowing up, then there’s something wrong with our bl**dy arguments.
The message to the legal profession from its diversity-supporting critics is often crudely uniform, and too little time is spent showing what good looks like.
If a profession that is diverse is a good thing (and I think it is), a much better account needs to be given as to why. If it is more profitable, more appealing to clients, better to work in, comes up with more imaginative solutions, attracts and retains cleverer people, then that needs to be front of shop in the stories we tell.
The story book also needs another chapter – in (terrible phrase, but you know what I mean) ‘celebrating diversity’ we need to work at including lawyers who can’t help the fact they are male, had no control over the year they were born, and didn’t decide which school they went to.
I’ve lost count of the number of private chats I’ve had with managing partners at elite firms who tick all those boxes, but who now talk authentically about the, entirely selfish, reasons their firm needs to succeed in becoming more diverse in its intake and its hierarchy.
In that, they’re not the poor poster boys for the profession we tend to assume. Let’s hear from them more often.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor