Denzel Washington is right! Three key steps firms must take for diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) advocate Dr Funke Abimbola MBE explains the three key steps firms must take to create a truly inclusive workplace, and why D&I can no longer be viewed as a box-ticking exercise to win new clients.

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To what extent do you think there has been real change in the legal profession around D&I?

When I look back over my almost 21 years as a solicitor, I can see that there has been a tremendous amount of change in so many respects.

At the time I qualified, there was very little awareness of the real challenges that those from under-represented groups face.

For example, I experienced name discrimination when trying to enter the profession.

Despite top grades and a good degree from a Russell Group university, I only secured my entry-level role in law by making 150 phone calls to the heads of corporate teams within law firms and to heads of legal/general counsels in-house.

It was only later that name discrimination was more widely recognised as a barrier to entry, with various practices being put in place to mitigate against this (for example, using anonymised CVs).

There are other forms of discrimination at play too which were only recognised and truly acknowledged more recently. With more awareness comes a responsibility to do something about these challenges, and the profession has responded.

Many diversity strands are being focused upon with measurable goals and targets being set; firms are being more transparent and accountable in driving change and making it sustainable, rather than simply conducting a ‘tick-box’ exercise.

So, yes, there has been real change, but this requires constant and consistent effort.

As actor Denzel Washington said: “Without commitment, you’ll never start. But importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish.”

What can solicitors do to help create a truly inclusive workplace?

By far the most popular keynote speech I offer to clients is ‘why diversity matters’, in which I break down the three steps that I have seen work for firms and organisations time and time again:

  • set time-specific D&I targets at all levels of leadership and build those targets into performance reviews for senior leaders and relevant staff
  • be transparent on the actions you are taking to reach those targets – start with a data-based approach, share progress and look at specific actions around recruitment and talent management
  • create an inclusive culture – create and support safe spaces in which to have open and honest conversations about the challenges faced by those from underrepresented groups; staff networks are critical to supporting inclusion, as are coaching, mentoring and sponsorship

What are the core challenges the profession must prioritise addressing?

I still see far too many firms paying lip service to D&I, often only putting in place initiatives as a box-ticking exercise and a tool to win client pitches.

Having twice served as general counsel for global organisations, this was something I saw several times when reviewing our panel of external legal advisers.

Clients will be looking for genuine, not surface-level commitment from their firms.

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We must prioritise moving beyond merely talking about and being made aware of the barriers to entry and progression, to putting in place sustainable, measurable action plans based on data. I still see and hear far too much discussion about the very real issues that exist, without much proactive follow up and action.

What were your first impressions of the room named after you in 113 Chancery Lane?

I was absolutely floored when I received a letter from the Law Society president, I. Stephanie Boyce, informing me about the creation of new meeting rooms and that Law Society staff had voted to name a room after me to recognise my contribution to the solicitors’ profession.

I cannot thank the Law Society enough.

Seeing the room with my son was an unbelievable and emotional experience that rendered me speechless. My son was so proud, and this meant the world to me.

I could never have anticipated this when I was entering the profession almost 21 years ago.

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