What do the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have in common? For me, both have brought into sharp focus issues around society and what it means to live in the world today.
On the one hand, coronavirus has put normal life on hold, with many countries enforcing social distancing to keep us apart from each other. On the other, BLM has exposed divisions that have already existed for years, but it has also – encouragingly – galvanised large sections of society to come together to address systemic racial inequality.
The issues may be universal but there are significant implications for the legal sector specifically. If we are to hope that, despite the challenges posed by Covid-19 and the BLM struggle, both are ultimately likely to lead to a better world – and legal profession – we need a clear picture of what hurdles black and minority ethnic (BAME) professionals face in 2020.
Moreover, we need a revised understanding of what equality, diversity and inclusion should mean in this 'new normal'.
One of the biggest shifts triggered by Covid-19 has been the widespread move to remote working which now seems set to remain the norm for some time. This raises some vexed questions in a BAME context.
It’s true that working from home can be a real boon for many people, but not all. Though the issues different minority groups face are not homogenous, ethnic minority communities tend to be disproportionately more affected by digital poverty and less likely to live in settings that are amenable to effective homeworking.
Space free from distraction to think or to hold private or privileged conversations with clients and colleagues, plus robust digital connectivity is vital: without them, studying for the law or working from home become exponentially more difficult. Of course, social mobility is not predicated on race but the two are intertwined, as BAME lawyers are more likely to come from less privileged backgrounds and face more barriers to career entry and progression. The last thing these minorities need is even more hurdles.
Despite this, a continuation of remote working may be welcomed by some BAME professionals due to considerations around inclusion. Now that the partial return to the office many firms were planning has been countermanded by a re-think in government policy, in theory the playing field in terms of inclusivity should be levelled. Given that the BAME community is over-represented in Covid-19 cases, ethnic minority lawyers may well have been more reluctant to risk coming into work, potentially putting them at a disadvantage compared to colleagues who were willing to do so.
Clearly, human connections, fostered via closer collaboration and networking, are essential for career progression, enabling colleagues and managers to see an individual’s talent, intelligence, dedication and drive first-hand.
With everyone staying at home, there should be less opportunity for a two-tier system to develop, with the home-workers at risk of being overlooked in favour of those present in the office. However, as noted above, when (re)designing outreach and support strategies or assessment policies going forward, law firms need to bear in mind potential differences in circumstances which may make it harder for BAME lawyers to do their jobs, stay in touch with colleagues, and make new contacts, so that a remote two-tier system does not emerge inadvertently.
All this matters even more in a tough economic climate where the possibility of job losses is very real.
Several major international firms have recently announced redundancy rounds, and high street firms must be contemplating similar action, given that almost three-quarters are at risk of closure, according to the Law Society’s research. Just as eliminating unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion processes should be a priority to ensure firms are selecting the best talent, they must apply the same rigorous processes when considering candidates for retention versus redundancy.
Ways this can be achieved include unconscious bias and leadership development training, greater BAME representation on boards and committees that decide on HR and restructuring issues and encouraging staff to talk about diversity and inclusion. At a time when some firms are grappling with a slowdown in activity in certain practice areas, these initiatives may feel like a 'nice-to-haves' rather than essentials, but in fact it is the reverse.
If law firms want to put themselves in the best position to survive this crisis (or indeed capitalise on the opportunities it presents), they need to focus on people: having the right individuals in place and keeping them motivated.
Obviously, the people piece is central to Black Lives Matter too. BLM is not just about tackling injustice, prejudice and discrimination, it’s also about greater recognition for the contribution BAME people make to society, and highlighting that in many areas - the legal profession being one – their potential still isn’t being fully appreciated or tapped.
Rather than drowning out the equality agenda, Covid-19 is throwing new light on it and that requires a response. October is Black History Month, but as well as looking to the past, let me also urge a focus on the future. More can be done to promote BAME equality in these challenging times, in life and in the law, and it’s pleasing to see more and more people from all walks of life and across the legal sector committed to making it happen.
As we move to a 'new normal' let us begin to think in a new way. Let us think of 'conscious unbias' rather than 'unconscious bias'. Let us not just think about 'equality', where we seek to treat people the same but also think about 'equity' where we focus on a fair outcome.
Placing people at the same start line will not necessarily address the many obstacles some will face further down the track.
Let us also understand the distinction between races, as one size does not fit all. Whilst many firms may boast improvement in terms of racial representation, they fail to acknowledge issues in respect of social mobility as they simply recruit high academic achievers from BAME groups.
The law underpins (or should do) the very fabric of society, so our profession should be leading the way. We will succeed if we all work together in a 'new way'.
Trevor Sterling is a partner at Moore Barlow