Helping you with diversity and inclusion

In our monthly newsletter, we run a Q&A segment which aims to help with personalised issues you may be facing. We try to offer practical steps you can take, information you may need and guidance on where to go and what to do to help you with challenges or obstacles. 

Take a look below at the questions we’ve answered so far. This page will continue to be updated.

Do you have a question we can answer or a problem we can help with? Submit it anonymously here.

I've just secured a job and I did not share my disability beforehand for fear of discrimination. I need some reasonable adjustments and I don't know how to go about it.

Sharing your disability with your employer can be daunting, but your employer has a legal obligation to ensure workplace adjustments are made to support you. Working without the support disabled lawyers need mean they are often unable to bring their whole self to work which can negatively impact their physical and mental health.

Telling your employer, colleagues or anyone else about your disability is your choice but, if you decide to do so, we recommend speaking to HR and your line manager first. Advise them of the adjustments that you need and work with them to ensure they’re suitable. If your organisation has a disability network, get engaged with it. Peer support is a great way to know that you are not alone.

For more information on support, visit Access To Work.

My firm has very few ethnic minority employees so doesn't see the point in setting up a staff network, but I think that my colleagues and I would really benefit from having one. What should I do?

Staff networks can be effective vehicles to support colleagues and raise awareness. If you don’t feel that your workplace is engaged with the idea of starting one, partnering with local firms who may be in a similar situation to you is a great way to form a supportive network with your peers.

You also have the option of finding other external networks within the legal profession like our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division or regional forums. These can be helpful tools in growing your professional connections, discovering new perspectives and strengthening the agenda.

In the meantime, it may be a good idea to talk to your HR department about their recruitment policies. If you have identified that there are few ethnic minority people at your workplace, it would be helpful for your firm to understand why this is the case and how to change it. Senior buy-in is key to addressing issues such as this so having a conversation with your firm’s leadership team would be vital.

I've been a partner at my firm for seven years and haven't told anyone that I'm gay. I do try to get us involved in History Month and Pride celebrations in case there are other people in my situation but feel it may be time to tell my colleagues. What's the best way to do this? Have I been setting a bad example?

Coming out can be a stressful time and you should not add to that stress by thinking you have set a bad example. Deciding to come out is an entirely personal decision and something you do when it’s right for you – you should never disclose this information if you do not feel completely happy to do so.

A good place to start would be talking to colleagues you feel most comfortable with. You may find they’ve already guessed or suspected but have taken their lead from you and so haven’t mentioned it. It’s likely they’ll be relieved you’ve spoken about it and your relationship with them will instantly be more open and genuine.

They may know if others have been speculating and their knowledge of the firm will help you gauge how others might react and decide who to tell next.

It’s entirely up to you whether you want to make a big announcement to your team and fellow partners or let word trickle out. Once you stop censoring what you’re saying (for example the pronouns you use when referring to partners), you’ll find that you’re naturally ‘being out’ rather than actively coming out which will put much less pressure on you and the situation. You should also consider clients and other contacts.

They may find out through your colleagues so you should think about whether you would prefer to tell them yourself. Again, you do not have to say anything if you would rather not at this stage.

You are unlikely to receive as many negative reactions as you fear; often those are far outnumbered by the positives – including the positive impact on your own mental health and wellbeing. Your firm will also benefit; your performance is likely to improve once you can be yourself, you’ll be a role model for others and are likely to ‘do’ History Month and Pride even better!

My colleague is really struggling with her mental health. She isn't concentrating in meetings, she's exhausted all the time but refuses to stop or take breaks as she's worried she'll be judged by more senior staff. I'm supporting her as much as I can but not sure what else there is to do? Do I go to HR or straight to our managing partner?

While peer support is incredibly important, the wellbeing of your colleagues should not fall solely on your shoulders or be a cause of negative impact to your own mental health.

Mental health is a very personal journey and there could be many contributing factors as to why she isn’t seeking internal support, including fear of stigma as you’ve mentioned and the perception that it could have an adverse impact on her career.

We suggest that, before speaking to HR or a partner, you give her the opportunity to speak to people equipped to support mental health challenges.

If possible, find out if your organisation has mental health first aiders and suggest to your colleague that she should speak to one. Mental health first aiders are a great first step for signposting without stigma and for offering a listening ear. If your organisation doesn’t have this internal resource or your colleague would feel more comfortable speaking to an independent party, we suggest that she contacts LawCare.

LawCare is a charity which offers independent, free and confidential emotional support. They understand the pressures of working in the legal profession, how it can affect your mental health and will listen and advise where possible. You can contact them via email, phone or webchat.

Read about organisations that can support you across a range of personal and professional issues

I'm an LLM student and currently looking for ways I can engage with the legal sector and make connections. Where should I start?

There are a number of ways to keep in touch with the legal profession. Stay updated by following those that inspire you and learn about the ins and outs of becoming a solicitor.

Social media is a great way to keep in touch with news and events that may be of use to you and to connect with individuals. We update our Twitter and LinkedIn daily and share articles, guidance and opportunities. Most law firms and organisations in the sector do the same so we'd recommend following any that you're interested in.

Our social mobility ambassadors act as role models for the profession and can be a good place to start if you're looking for advice or inspiration, particularly for a specific area, or route to, law.

Even outside of the social mobility ambassador scheme, we often receive offers from those within the profession to be mentors, so get in touch if this is the kind of connection you're looking to make. Generation Success also offers mentoring opportunities as well as the chance to become a student ambassador and join useful networks.

Physical events are a ripe opportunity to network and offer the chance to do so around specific topics. There are frequently free events across the country around dates within the diversity calendar. If diversity and inclusion in the profession is something you’re enthusiastic about, it may be worth keeping an eye out, or actively searching for, these kinds of events.

This calendar by Inclusive Employers is a fantastic tool to check which dates are coming up.

If you’re looking for work experience, these resources may be useful:

Volunteering at law centres is a fantastic option for work experience, too, if you're in a position to do so. Using your university’s career service may also be helpful.

There should be greater awareness and support around fertility treatment and baby loss. Currently this is an area I feel is suffered in silence, even in my large global law firm. It is not referenced in any policies around maternity or absence and yet is a source of enormous strain to deal with in silence.

It's important for organisations to take a proactive approach when it comes to infertility, particularly as statistics show that one in six couples are affected by it.

Due to the stigma, individuals going through treatment often do not share their experience. It’s vital that we create environments which enable people to feel comfortable discussing this topic and feel supported when doing so.

Suggestions on how you may do this as an employer

Employee communications

Use opportunities such as Infertility Awareness Week (19 to 25 April) and other dates within the diversity calendar to raise awareness. Posting a blog on your intranet, making external resources readily available where there’s no internal alternative and ensuring staff are aware of the date would be easy ways to do this. Open conversations are essential to lifting the taboo and so it’s important all staff see communications on topics which are often not discussed.

Start a staff support group

People may feel more comfortable to share with their peers (in contrast to HR departments or managers) and so staff networks are a great way to encourage support within your organisation.

Employees will have a safe space to share experiences or worries and receive help and advice from others in a similar situation. Such groups can be operated very discretely, and with membership kept private – so long as there is at least one named person for people to contact.

Work with charities and support networks to help create new and inclusive policies

According to Fertility Network UK, having a supportive “Fertility in the Workplace” policy is good for business and employees – levels of distress associated with fertility treatment are reduced and employees are more likely to be productive and remain in work.

Treat fertility appointments as you would all medical or maternity appointments

Employees should not have to take these days off as annual leave.

Offering employees both empathy and flexibility is paramount. Adopting a proactive approach to topics such as these is good for both the employee and the business. If you have experienced miscarriage or baby loss you may want to consider bereavement counselling.

Sands is a charity that supports people through the loss of a child. It has online resources which might be helpful, or you can contact them directly on 0808 164 3332 or via email.

Asperger’s syndrome is a previously used diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Autism spectrum disorder/condition (ASD/C) is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how a person thinks, communicates, relates to other people and experiences the world around them.

Autism is one example of neurodiversity, meaning simply the variation in human brains – others with names include dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many neurodivergent people choose not to describe themselves as disabled, despite their condition satisfying the definition of disability within the Equalities Act 2010.

Organisations do not always appreciate the strengths that people with autism may have. For example, attention to detail, methodical/novel approach and observational skills are all hugely beneficial traits but often the focus is on the possible challenges, such as difficulty with social-emotional interaction, sensory processing sensitivities and anxiety.

Firms and in-house teams are gradually becoming more and more aware of the experiences of disabled people as a result of dedicated, thorough work like the research recently conducted by Legally Disabled.

The recruitment process at most organisations still needs work in order to be more inclusive of those with autism (as indeed it does for other disabled people). Together with Legally Disabled, we're working on ‘easy wins’ and action points to address this.

We’ll be asking organisations to consider and evaluate:

  • how accessible their online recruitment forms and processes are
  • their use of artificial intelligence and other technology to ensure it does not perpetuate unconscious bias
  • whether their recruitment processes and job descriptions have been prepared with only a non-disabled person in mind

We are also encouraging them to include in all recruitment processes the question ‘What adjustments would help you realise your full potential?’ and to send applicants (or include on their website) maps, plans and photographs of their offices to relieve anxiety.

You can only be asked about your health or disability in very limited circumstances as explained in this guidance from the government. It is for an individual to decide when in the recruitment process, if at all, to mention their condition.

When deciding to do so, consider if the organisation has clearly stated diversity and inclusion policies, or displays membership of Disability Confident, Business Disability Forum or similar.

If you do mention your condition you can request a reasonable adjustment during the recruitment process, which many include not having to take a psychometric test or having longer to do it, for instance.

What could I do to get my firm and colleagues passionate about gender equality and diversity and inclusion generally? I'm sure they care about it greatly, but we don't impact or influence the profession in any way when it comes to this. What can we/I do?

Raise awareness 

Offering information and education on various diversity groups and the challenges they face is a great place to start for driving passion for equality. It is difficult to feel passionately for something you know very little about and so education is absolutely key.

A perfect opportunity to do this is to mark dates from the diversity calendar within your organisation. Make staff aware of the dates by using resources such as this calendar from Inclusive Employers and publishing them alongside a brief description on your intranet pages.

Take a look below at what you could share with your organisation for LGBT+ Pride month:

June is LGBT+ Pride month and is dedicated to increasing the visibility, equality and acceptance of the LGBT+ community. This month is a perfect opportunity to seek out information on issues the LGBT+ community continue to face and find out how you can be an ally to help progress equality and inclusion.

Find out more from Stonewall

Join existing initiatives

There are a huge range of initiatives you could encourage your organisation to get involved in. Many are focused on specific diversity areas rather than encompassing all of D&I but that may make these easier to adopt. Below are a couple of examples.

The Women in Law Pledge

A transparent commitment to gender equality which requires organisations to create targets which will enable positive change for women in law.

The Mindful Business Charter

Focused on mental health and practising mindfulness in the workplace across things like meetings, working hours and workload delegation.

Make small changes

If your organisation is not at the stage where it can make drastic D&I implementations, like policy changes, making small changes still achieves progress and should not be discounted.

Changing your vocabulary and being more mindful of your language is an easy way to begin your journey to inclusion and can be implemented at any time with minimal effort.

Including your pronouns in your email signature for example is a simple way to show a commitment to inclusion, both within your organisation and to clients and peers across the profession. Also using gender neutral language where possible, such as “To whom it may concern” as opposed to “Dear Sirs” is another easy way to contribute to your inclusive future.

What is white privilege? Does it apply to all white people?

White privilege is the innate advantage white people have within society solely based on their race. This can manifest in a vast variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • people that look like you are largely represented within media
  • you can easily find products which match your skin tone and hair type
  • your history is a part of the curriculum
  • you generally have a positive relationship with the police
  • and many more

The term does not discount the challenges white people have faced but describes the reality that, although white people and people of all races can have similar negative and disadvantageous experiences, white people will not suffer the biases of race in addition. The word “privilege” is intrinsically associated with wealth and power and while you may not have these attributes physically, it is true that you will, as a white person, have them socially.

It is not racist to have and/or acknowledge that you benefit from white privilege. Simply accepting and being aware that many situations are often much less difficult for you because you are white is not discriminatory – that awareness is both beneficial and necessary to dismantling racism.

Understanding this term will make you more aware of your biases, which should allow you to address them and ensure they are not affecting your ability to practise equality and inclusion.

Often people are not consciously aware of this advantage and so it is perpetuated. It's important to be constantly aware of your privilege and how it could affect your decisions and behaviours.

Is there another alternative to "Dear Sirs" than "To whom it may concern"? Where possible we write to the recipient in the first person but that isn't always possible. "To whom it may concern" seems too vague and often frankly a little pompous.

Language plays an incredibly vital role in inclusivity and has been used to perpetuate exclusion and inequality throughout history.

There is a balance to be achieved between what is best practice, what is inclusive and what is appropriate; however, as the world, and legal profession along with it, is evolving it may no longer be necessary to uphold traditional vocabulary customs such as the infamous “Dear Sirs”.

With the changing times, it is increasingly easy to adapt your vocabulary to be more inclusive.

In terms of addressing an unknown recipient in a legal context, or any professional context, it should always be appropriate to address them as “Dear” followed by their name.

With resources such as LinkedIn and other public online communication channels and platforms, it should be relatively easy to identify the person you're contacting.

It's worth noting that if you do use online resources to identify your recipient, you should not assume their pronouns. Often people will establish their preferred pronouns on their online channels/platforms so they may be readily available but, if they're not, avoid using them.

As mentioned in the question, if this information isn’t known or you cannot identify the person, we would still suggest using “To whom it may concern”. There are very few alternatives which do not assume the gender of the recipient, thus also excluding “Dear Sir/Madam”.

Less formal alternatives could include “Good afternoon/morning/evening” or addressing them by job title if you know that information. Also, consider if a salutation is really necessary – could you just use the matter or case name?

In almost all circumstances there will be an inclusive alternative to an outdated salutation which may cause hurt and offence.

We must all be aware of the perpetual discrimination associated with language, from greetings to slurs. A dedication to diversity and inclusion is thorough and visible in all areas of work and life.

Our top tips for navigating language

If in doubt, don’t

If you’re questioning whether a joke or comment is appropriate in your professional or personal life, simply don’t say it. If you’re questioning whether a greeting is inclusive, find another way to say hello.

If you’re unsure, ask

If you don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, ask them what they are. If this is coming from a place of learning and compassion, the other person should not be offended by your question.

Keep on learning

The D&I space and language is constantly evolving and, while it can be overwhelming to keep up, it is an important part of being inclusive. Find a reputable source of information, for example, Stonewall has a robust glossary that may be helpful, and take the time to update and educate yourself.

Members of my team make me feel inadequate and undervalued, frequently ignore me and refuse to help me. Is this bullying? What can I do about it?

It’s common for victims of bullying to find it difficult to recognise if they're being bullied. Frequently, bullies will ignite and perpetuate feelings of blame or guilt in their victims, but it's important to remember that it's not your fault.

According to the National Bullying Helpline, asking yourself these questions can help in determining whether you're being mentally and/or emotionally bullied:

  • do I feel intimidated or threatened at work?
  • am I regularly humiliated or ridiculed in front of my colleagues?
  • have I been called names?
  • are my efforts consistently undervalued or disregarded?
  • do I feel sick or nauseous when working with a particular colleague or manager?

Bullying is usually a sustained issue. Isolated incidents on their own may seem relatively insignificant, even manageable, although this does not discount them. If you answered yes to one or more of the questions above, especially if you've been feeling this way for a long time, it's very likely that you're being bullied.

As mentioned, it's normal to feel as though you're to blame. Starting to keep a diary of incidents may help you reflect and gain perspective on the situation. A simple record of what happened, who was there and how it made you feel will also be useful if you report or escalate things to a formal complaint.

You should also seek emotional support. Bullies often make people feel socially isolated and undermined, and this can make it harder to find the confidence to take action. LawCare, for example, often deals with calls about bullying at work from those working in the sector.

If you feel comfortable doing so, you should have a conversation with your manager about the situation or approach HR and have an initial discussion with them. It would also be helpful to familiarise yourself with your organisation’s policies and processes for dealing with bullying.

Reporting concerns about bullying is daunting and many fear the consequences of speaking up. Some organisations have confidential advisers, guardians, or options for anonymous reporting to encourage people to come forward. A good process will offer a variety of channels for raising concerns, take prompt action to investigate and resolve them, and keep you updated through the process.

However daunting it may be to report a problem to your manager or HR, remaining silent is likely to perpetuate the problem. Bullying behaviour, if not challenged, often escalates and can become endemic in a workplace.

If you witness such behaviour, it's important to act too, checking in with the victim, signalling the unacceptability of the behaviour, and reporting concerns. No one deserves to be bullied and your employer has a legal obligation to support you and create an environment in which you feel safe and respected.

Further resources are available from the National Bullying Helpline, ACAS and LawCare.