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Inclusion and diversity: confronting uncomfortable truths

10 January 2018
Sarah Gregory

When I joined Baker McKenzie in the early '90s, the legal profession was very different from the one we see today, and in some respects a world away. There were no computers on our desks or mobile phones so work stopped when you left the office, the use of fax and even telex was still common as was the long lunch that lasted all afternoon (and sometimes into the evening). Few partners in law firms were female and even fewer were BAME or openly LGBT+. Coming from a state school, I was also definitely in the minority. Not that surprising at the time because, although we had already had a female prime minister, there was little diversity in senior posts in industry, government or academia. Some things were truly surprising and seem unbelievable now to many millennials. For example, there really was a rule (albeit unwritten) that women couldn't wear trousers in the office. Many of us also had LGBT+ colleagues who felt forced to cover up their private lives.

Fast forward to 2017 and the profession has changed a great deal. Advances in technology have driven much of this change. We are all connected pretty much all of the time and we can work as effectively away from the office as we can in the office. Societal and cultural norms have shifted too and businesses now understand the benefits of a diverse workforce. Inclusion and diversity are no longer buzz words but business-critical strategic priorities. The business case for diversity is clear: a diverse team is a stronger team and people are at their most productive when they feel able to be themselves at work. Recent research from Bloomberg has found that inclusive teams make better decisions, they make them more quickly and require fewer meetings in the process.

While the needle has certainly shifted, there is more to do. Women may now be free to wear what they like, but they are still under-represented in senior roles in law firms and at the bar. The same is true of BAME lawyers and so predictably the lack of diversity in the profession is reflected in the judiciary, as the recent review by David Lammy has highlighted. Achieving greater social mobility also continues to be a challenge for many firms and chambers.

So why has the pace of change not been greater? And what should we focus on going forward?

I know from my own experience in my role that real change requires bravery and an ability to confront uncomfortable truths. This is the journey we have been on at Baker McKenzie. Ten years ago, we became concerned about the lack of ethnic diversity among our trainee population. On analysing the data, we found that only three per cent of our trainees were from a BAME background, compared with 25 per cent of those applying to the firm. We reviewed each stage of our recruitment process and concluded that there was probably a mixture of unconscious bias, a lack of diversity in our interview panel and an interview-only process that didn't allow those with different skillsets to shine.

This was uncomfortable for us as a law firm that, even at that time, prided ourselves on our diversity. We had to be quite brave in admitting that something was wrong. This, in turn, gave us a platform for implementing real, tangible change. We became one of the first employers in the UK to adopt name-blind application forms, we broadened our interview panel to include more women and BAME lawyers, and we introduced mandatory unconscious bias training. The change came quickly, as within four years the three per cent had become 30 per cent.

Another key agent of change has been the impact of champions and allies. We have a long-established group of allies both in London and globally in the LGBT+ space, and our ethnicity network was championed at the start by an ally - a senior white male partner. They have helped bring these important issues onto the strategic management agenda and they have been important champions of change. In the last year, we have launched a HeforShe campaign to engage male partners and leaders in the efforts to reach gender parity, we have taken part in the This is Me in the City campaign for the second time, looking at ending the stigma of mental health, and most recently we have launched a campaign asking people to be Colour Brave and not be afraid to talk openly about race and ethnicity.

All of these initiatives have made a huge difference and they reflect how important it is that our firm is a truly inclusive place in which to work. They also highlight the fact that everyone has a part to play in ensuring that all our diverse talent can thrive. Change can happen but it requires bravery, an ability to challenge the status quo, and a desire to accept and address uncomfortable truths. After all, improving diversity in the legal profession, and in each of our firms, is not only the right thing to do to reflect society around us but is quite simply a key business issue.

Sarah Gregory, Inclusion and Diversity Partner, Baker McKenzie.

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