'I don’t have any professional people in my family. I thought you could only be a lawyer if you went to a private school.' - Pathways to Law student at Bates Wells
It’s hard to imagine that there’s a law firm out there which is not aware of the benefits of diversity to their business and the importance which clients place on it. Last year, the SRA reported on the business case for diversity, and the statistics speak for themselves. And earlier this year, a group of general counsels signed a letter urging law firms to ramp up their diversity efforts.
Great efforts are underway across the sector, from 'blind' and contextual assessment of job candidates, to unconscious bias training on the importance of recruiting for skills and potential rather than recruiting those in our own likeness. But there’s still much more that we can do as a sector to open doors for those who might otherwise be deterred from joining the profession. The question then is what steps can law firms take to increase their diversity?
One way of addressing this question is for firms to reach out to the local community and work in partnership with other organisations. This allows firms to connect with projects in a way in which they can use their legal sector experience for the benefit of the wider community, and not just in pursuit of the commercial bottom line. Being more visible to local communities is also one step towards law firms reflecting the people which they and their clients serve.
It might be a simple point to make, but when considering how you can make this kind of engagement happen, its often useful to go back to one of the most tried and tested ways of fostering social mobility: work experience projects. We all know that it can have a significant impact on your career choices. We both remember the first day we entered the legal world, on work experience, aged 16, and the trepidation we felt when we walked through the office door. But the skills, experience and ambition that we gained in that one week experience were invaluable.
To take one example of how this can work, we recently hosted four talented sixth formers who joined us through The Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Law, a programme that exists to widen access by inspiring and supporting students to explore a range of careers in law. One of our students said it helped them to 'grow as a person' as they 'didn’t just do legal work' but 'learned to communicate and face their fears of public speaking'.
And it’s not just the students who benefit. This partnership turned out to be as enlightening and educational for us as it was for the students. One mentor said:
'This was also an opportunity for me because I am relatively junior so it was a useful stepping stone to line management and learning how to get the best out of someone and help them to develop.'
The power of partnerships cannot be underestimated. We also work with Tower Hamlets Education Business Partnership and Brokerage Citylink, which both work to connect young Londoners and employers and to help young people achieve their career potential.
We have also successfully partnered with Breaking Barriers, which offers training and support for refugees in London, and we have provided six-month work placements to two refugees so far.
But it’s not just access to the legal industry which we need to focus on. The general counsels’ statement also notes the lack of diversity at the higher levels of the profession. As well as working to improve diversity, we need to promote inclusivity within the legal sector. This is where mentoring and internal and external networks can help.
So how can firms (even those who are moving from a standing start) begin to put their diversity commitments into practice?
We think that staff engagement is key to success. There are many people in the legal profession (us included) who feel passionately about diversity and inclusivity, and opening the door for under-represented groups. Law firms need to support their staff and provide the necessary resources in order to ensure that diversity initiatives succeed.
One of the points that we noticed about the general counsels’ statement is the reference to co-operation. Despite the competitive legal market, law firms should be working co-operatively to share ideas and best practice in order to improve diversity in the profession. We know from our firm’s experience of establishing an LGBT+ network, for which we were mentored by another law firm, that there is a lot to be gained from working with other law firms. We have also participated in cross-sector diversity initiatives such as the Law Society’s Women in Leadership in Law project and the 'This is me' mental health awareness scheme.
Ultimately, there are various pieces to the puzzle of improving diversity in the law and making our profession truly meritocratic. But as lawyers we are trained problem solvers, and we hope that by putting our heads together, we can find the best solution.
Mindy Jhittay and Claire Whittle, Bates Wells