Business case for equality, diversity, inclusion within the legal profession
Many organisations within the legal profession already have commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and recognise the importance of integrating it into their business. However, inequality and discrimination remain woven into the sector.
The moral case for EDI, alongside the legal requirements of the Equality Act 2010, may be sufficiently compelling for some, but a clear understanding of the value diversity and inclusion can bring is more likely to lead to EDI becoming a strategic priority, embedded into organisational practices and culture.
Legal and regulatory requirements
You must meet your duties under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid discrimination in employment and service provision and to avoid the reputational damage of a negative court or tribunal case.
SRA Standards and Regulations
You should also meet the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)’s equality and diversity requirements and expected outcomes set out in its guidance on its approach to equality, diversity and inclusion.
These are set out in:
- principle six of the SRA Principles: “You act in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion”
- chapter one of the SRA Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs and the SRA Code of Conduct for Firms: “You do not unfairly discriminate by allowing your personal views to affect your professional relationships and the way in which you provide your services”
Attracting and retaining the best talent
An organisation’s biggest asset is its staff. Attracting, retaining and progressing the best talent is essential.
Inclusive recruitment practices attract diverse talent and help ensure they perform to the best of their ability in the process.
With diversity comes a spectrum of perspectives, approaches and ideas, alongside varying skills, expertise and innovation. These enhance the ability of your organisation to deliver first-class services to an increasingly diverse client base.
EDI-focused recruitment could include:
- ensuring diverse representation and inclusivity across your digital presence – for example, an accessible website, diverse imagery and inclusive language
- working with recruitment agencies who prioritise EDI
- making information on your EDI practices, agenda, strategy and policies publicly available
- using blind recruitment practices – for example, removing information, such as applicant name or university, which may evoke bias
- using contextual recruitment where a candidate's achievements are put in context of their background
They are likely to attract a greater number of applicants overall too, increasing your chance to find the best person for the role first time and every time, making the process more cost, time and resource effective.
According to a report by PwC in 2017, Magnet for talent: Managing diversity as a reputational risk and business opportunity, 18% of men and 22% of women answered “Yes - completely” to whether they research the diversity and inclusion policies of an organisation before applying for a position.
Engaged, productive employees
When employees feel they must present a more ‘acceptable’ persona to fit in at work, or entirely disassociate from their identity, it can take a toll on them and they may not be able to perform to the best of their ability.
A lack of authenticity may cause a higher rate of absenteeism and sickness, particularly due to the negative impact on mental health and wellbeing.
To truly feel valued, your employees must feel comfortable and welcome to be authentic and that their authentic identity is an asset to your business. They must feel represented within your organisation, meaning your workforce must be diverse and reflective of society.
Presenteeism can also be a by-product of exclusive working environments and is often a common behaviour within the legal profession.
People frequently work longer than required or while unwell if they feel insecure at work and that they have to prove their value or worth.
Creating an inclusive environment
It takes time and dedicated effort to curate an inclusive environment, but the advantages are worthy of the work.
Steps to create an inclusive working environment could include:
- creating staff networks and opportunities for employees with shared characteristics to connect
- providing regular opportunities for employees to give feedback on issues and culture in the organisation
- introducing policies that support inclusive working environments – for example, on flexible working, time off for religious holidays and reasonable adjustments
- offering training for staff to develop and practise behaviours that support inclusion – for example, on how to be an ally or how to lead diverse teams
There are several consequences of not adopting and maintaining an inclusive culture. For example, as well as the opportunity cost of losing talented staff, there are the recruitment expenses of replacing them.
Inclusive leadership for positive change
Overcoming barriers to achieving greater diversity in the legal sector and developing inclusive capabilities will require many law firms to introduce change – to do things differently.
This may affect how your organisation recruits, develops and promotes staff, as well as how you bid for and undertake client work.
Clients are actively seeking diversity reflective of society and inclusivity of all characteristics. A lack of diversity at pitch meetings, for example, is distinctly noticeable and can negatively impact your chance of success.
Increased diversity within your workforce, changes to processes and procedures and behaviours at work need to be championed from the top of your organisation by partners and other senior leaders.
There are many skills and behaviours which are key to inclusive leadership.
Adaptability in ways of working and utilising team strengths
Inclusive leaders should acknowledge the diversity among the people they work with and manage.
They should be comfortable with using different and flexible approaches to get the best results and the most from their team.
They should be skilled at adapting their style to complement others, shifting cultural perspective in authentic ways.
Building a diverse talent pipeline
Inclusive leaders should understand their own role and responsibilities in seeking out and supporting the development of the best talent from a range of backgrounds.
They are key to ensuring that the business has the range of diverse talent it needs and should be an active part in this process.
Curating innovation and practicing empathy
Inclusive leaders should be well versed in creating a working environment that fosters innovation – encouraging everyone in a team to share ideas, feel valued and have a voice.
They also need to be adept at managing differences, reconciling different viewpoints and challenging in a respectful and appropriate way.
It’s also important that leaders are compassionate and empathetic to their employees and recognise that each employee has different experiences, characteristics, responsibilities and challenges.
Building psychologically safe environments
Leaders have a responsibility to create a culture which encourages and welcomes employees and peers alike to behave authentically and discuss challenges and issues openly, without fear of blame or retribution.
Leaders must be willing to acknowledge and navigate the power dynamic between themselves and their employees, and how this impacts on employees' willingness to speak openly to them.
They need to be skilled in asking questions and creating an environment in which people feel psychologically safe.
It takes time for change to take place, and while it has been gradual, we have seen diversity within the legal profession improve.
If we all contribute, work together and prioritise diverse, inclusive and equal working environments, we will see positive action.
Suggestions to individuals
- Consider the extent to which your team reflects diverse backgrounds and how you leverage this to avoid 'group think'
- Take time to build relationships with your staff, colleagues and clients, and to understand those who may be different from you
- Build awareness of how unconscious and conscious bias can affect our judgements and what you can do to challenge and minimise its impact
- Mentor or sponsor someone with high potential from a group under-represented in your firm's leaders
Suggestions to organisations
- Make sure that decision makers within your organisation are clear on how diversity and inclusion can help your business, and that its role and importance is communicated to all staff. Don't make this a ‘nice to have’ issue but a necessity that supports business success
- Be clear about the EDI improvements you want to achieve as a firm and create an action plan to achieve them and a set of performance indicators to help you track progress. Make this part of your core business planning and reviewing process. This could include joining external initiatives which offer support, like the Women in Law Pledge
- Identify and develop the capabilities you need in your firm to create a diverse and inclusive work environment
- Make diversity and inclusion everyone's responsibility, not just those who are involved with HR work
- Work with your employees to develop skills and practise behaviours which support diversity and inclusion and allow them to utilise EDI effectively. It’s not easy, although it may come naturally to some, and people, managers and leaders might need practical help and guidance to achieve it