Irwin Mitchell, a national law firm, have taken proactive steps to help and support BME talent progress within the profession. Amandeep Dhillon, a partner and catalyst of the Irwin Mitchell BME mentoring scheme, talks about why they introduced the initiative and what they see as the benefits.
What were the reasons for Irwin Mitchell running a BME mentoring scheme?
Diversity and Inclusion has and always will be an important agenda item for Irwin Mitchell. We have an internal Race and Diversity Group, ‘IM Respect’, that meets on a quarterly basis to discuss cultural diversity within the firm. Cultural diversity is, in our view, fundamental to an integrated workforce and promoting social inclusivity.
The group discusses different ways in which we can develop greater awareness of employees’ racial and cultural needs, building a greater understanding and a more inclusive and honest working environment. One of our main objectives as a group is to take practical steps in order to address the under-representation of BAME staff at middle and senior management level, which is an industry wide issue.
In order for us to help fulfil this objective, we approached the Network for Black and Asian Professionals to assist us with preparing a mentoring and coaching scheme for BAME employees at Irwin Mitchell.
The Network for Black and Asian Professionals used a similar programme in the further education sector, which saw a rise in the number of BAME chief executives/principals from two in 2002 to 17 in 2010, as well as an increase in the number of senior managers. The aim of the programme was to increase the presence of those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in senior business roles. It was also to make aware of some of the barriers BAME staff face to progression and to be able to support BAME staff in clarifying their goals and career plans.
A perceived disadvantage of mentoring is that its success is not guaranteed, since the programme is not compulsory, but voluntary. How have Irwin Mitchell addressed this potential problem?
Prior to the commencement of the mentoring programme, both mentors and mentees were given training by the Network for Black and Asian Professionals about mentoring and how it can benefit them both personally and professionally, an exercise in raising awareness and understanding among staff of the importance of cultural awareness and social inclusion both to our profession and to society as a whole.
There was a strong appetite for the programme, particularly among senior staff at the firm, which has been reflected in the number of partners and associates taking part in the programme.
Many mentoring schemes focus on entry level – given that according to Law Society statistics there has been a consistent and positive increase in BME traineeships, is there an argument for focusing mentoring higher up the food chain so that BME lawyers can be matched with mentors who can then aspire to senior levels?
Absolutely; and this was the driving consideration behind our implementation of this programme. It is important for BAME staff to be supported at all levels. The Law Society’s annual statistical report for 2014 shows that there was an increase in practising certificate holders within the BAME group to 15 per cent which has doubled since 2000. The number of BAME lawyers at partner level across law firms as a whole is 8.1 per cent, compared to 32 per cent of all Solicitors with practising certificate total 130,382. The number of Solicitors with a practising certificate increased to 130,382 in 2014, 32 per cent of which are partners. Of those partners, 8.1per cent are BAME lawyers. Clearly this is an issue, and should be an ongoing agenda item for all law firms to consider ways of ensuring that this statistic is improved upon.
Is there an argument that mentoring creates a climate of dependency?
I would categorise the climate as one of support rather than dependency. The mentoring programme is designed so that the mentor empowers the mentee, while broadening their own cultural understanding, thus creating a positive symbolic relationship.
How does Irwin Mitchell answer potential critics who argue that despite the positive outcomes of mentoring there are few opportunities for advancement?
Any such criticism levelled at our own mentoring programme would be premature and thus unfair. The programme does not intend to or profess to provide a quick-fix to what is essentially an industry-wide issue. It is aimed at addressing the root causes of barriers to advancement, and it will only be in the coming months and years that the true benefits of the programme will be seen. Advancement must be based on meritocracy, and the programme is designed to maximise equality of opportunity to a point where a true meritocratic system of advancement is in place.
What have been the benefits of your mentoring initiative to Irwin Mitchell?
One of the main benefits of the mentoring programme to Irwin Mitchell was raising awareness of the barriers that BAME staff encounter and how those barriers can be overcome. The mentoring scheme was a fantastic and ground breaking way for us to showcase ways in which we’re supporting those from BAME backgrounds and in turn has helped Irwin Mitchell to retain BAME staff members. The mentoring scheme has been a confidence building exercise for BAME staff and, from the feedback provided at the closing programme, has encouraged them to build a future here at Irwin Mitchell.