Diversity is the spice of law

Equal opportunities in law firms is athorny issue. Gemma Charles looks at the approaches taken to represent the community

Law firms are going to have to smarten up their acts when they approach the thorny but important issues of diversity and equal opportunities.

In the last issue, Lawyer 2B revealed that although there is positive work being undertaken by some firms, the legal profession is lagging behind professions such as accountancy and banking, which have been much quicker to realise the business case for creating and fostering a diverse workforce.

The survey found that, on average, 14 per cent of trainees are from an ethnic minority background which exceeds Law Society guidelines of 10 per cent but at partnership level, that figure plummets to 3 per cent.

It is not clear why, but anecdotal evidence suggests that ethnic minority associates see little hope of making it to partnership and leave for places at smaller firms or public sector organisations, where they feel they have a better chance of progression.

Earlier this year, Michigan University in the US had its right to use race as a factor in its law school admission policy upheld by the US Supreme Court, although it was also ruled that the universitys policy generally of using race to decide undergraduate places needed to be altered. Michigan claimed that favouring ethnic minority candidates helped create a more diverse student body. Law school dean Jeffrey Lehman said: The question is no longer whether affirmative action is legal its how to hasten the day when affirmative action is no longer needed.

In the UK setting enforceable targets of this kind is unlawful, but targets can be implemented. The survey found that firms were split on whether to set targets for the number of ethnic minority students recruited in their trainee intakes. Half do, and indicate that they follow Law Society guidelines of 10 per cent, with one firm, Allen & Overy, saying it aims for 15 per cent. The other half, however, say they recruit solely on merit.

Norton Rose emerged as the only firm to run compulsory diversity training for all staff, with most others confining this to recruiters. So solicitors supervising trainees arguably at the most vulnerable point of their careers are in most cases untrained on diversity.

Only Slaughter and May has implemented a formal diversity policy, triggered by an interest in recruiting more disabled lawyers. Most of the firms surveyed had an equal opportunities policy with diversity elements, but others such as CMS Cameron McKenna, Herbert Smith and Linklaters were in the process of establishing diversity groups or committees in a bid to implement a standalone policy.

Herbert Smith executive partner Iain Rothnie, who heads up the firms diversity committee, is wary of training schemes and diversity policies being seen as a panacea. Diversity is such a difficult subject to reduce to a policy, he says. Its more about mindset, thinking and awareness than it is about a policy.

The danger with having a high-blown policy is whether youre really taking steps to inculcate it into the culture. You can sit someone down in a room [for diversity training], but whether they learn anything is another matter.

The research found that leadership of diversity issues is largely the premise of the HR department, although in some firms responsibility lies with the executive partner and the senior board.

Linklaters divides the responsibility between its HR department, its change management specialist and its senior partner. It plans to introduce an action plan to firm up monitoring, recruitment and training and to pull together some activities, such as student mentoring, under the diversity committee.

It has to be credible and adopted by the partnership, says Linklaters partner and committee member Brigid Rentoul.

Rothnie puts this point across more strongly, saying: I think its very important that these sort of groups are not led by HR. If you dont have the buy-in from the partnership, this sort of thing can take a window dressing effect.

He admits to having a personal interest in the subject, but adds: Ive a much more material wish on behalf of Herbert Smith that we want to win the best people, and theres a concern that we might be missing out.

Reflecting on the growing realisation that diversity cannot be shoved aside, Yolande Beckles, the chief executive officer of Global Graduates, an organisation aimed at increasing the amount of ethnic minority people entering the legal profession, says: The law sector never really took the Macpher-son report on. They never saw that they had a problem. One of the key things for the law sector was when their clients started to say to them, Why arent the lawyers reflective of the communities they serve?

The Macpherson report was the result of the inquiry by retired High Court judge Sir William Macpherson of Cluny into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who died after a racially motivated attack nearly 11 years ago. One of the most controversial conclusions of the report was labelling the Metropolitan Police institutionally racist, marking the entrance of the term into the political lexicon and the public consciousness.

Beckles also claims that pressure from ethnic minority lawyers in law firms who, unlike their parents generation were not going to take any crap, brought a number of tribunals, which had the effect of mainstreaming the issue.

Government initiatives will also push diversity up the agenda.

In October, the Government announced plans to fight discrimination through a new Equality Commission. This will bring together the work of the three equality bodies the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission to form one super commission.

Then, in December, new regulations came into force outlawing both direct and indirect discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and religion or belief, to be policed by the new commission. Age regulations along the same lines will come into force later in the year.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Developments specialist adviser Dinah Worman says that organisations are beginning to realise that valuing and managing diversity is more than a legal compliance and is a must

for remaining economically competitive.

The message is clear on moral, legal and business grounds: sideline diversity at your peril.

Global graduates

Global Graduates was launched in 1999 with the aim of getting more ethnic minority lawyers into City firms through training in skills such as interview technique. A number of firms have also agreed to host open days for the students, where they get to meet trainees and receive career information from the firms graduate recruitment specialists.

Lawyer 2B caught up with some of the wannabe lawyers on one such day, held by Allen & Overy, to find out their views on the programme and their perceptions of the legal profession.

Minel Dadhania, a London School of Economics law student, says events such as the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry have changed the landscape, but believes that ethnic minority people have to work harder than their white counterparts to get the top jobs.

Omatola Awofidipe, a first year reading social and political sciences at Cambridge, agrees, but stresses that she is against positive discrimination, wanting only to be judged on her merits. Its hard to judge whether law firms are doing enough, because it depends on who applies, she adds.

Krupa Chandrana, a final year law student at Cardiff University, says that at one point she saw being female, Asian and working class as a major barrier to pursuing a career in the legal profession. But she says that Global Graduates is helping her overcome these feelings.

Nana Danko, a second year law student at Oxford, says being on the scheme is helping her believe in herself. The confidence instilled in pupils at private schools was missing from Dankos school experience, where she was told by my teachers that I was not good enough. Although she is beginning to believe in herself, having won a place at Oxford, she says she has a long way to go in her personal development and is finding Global Graduates useful on this front, and that it provides access to practical information on law as a career.