Diversity: all talk, no action?

Improving diversity within the legal profession is a subject that never seems to leave the headlines – at first gender diversity was top of everyone’s agendas, then it was ethnic diversity, and now social diversity is the hot topic.

David Press
David Press, Proceed UK

It appears that not a week goes by that we don’t see the launch of a new directive, scheme or initiative designed to redress the balance and attract graduates from a broader spectrum of backgrounds into the law. Indeed, there are many laudable examples, such as Aspiring Solicitors, which is providing underrepresented individuals with access to the profession, and Clifford Chance, which has introduced a ‘blind’ interviewing policy.

However, it’s a sad indictment that in many cases, it’s still all about ticking boxes – a lot of the developments talked about in the recent past have been largely cosmetic, with little meaningful changes in evidence. This point was underpinned by recent research*, which showed that only one in ten graduates would consider applying to a magic circle firm – a clear sign that the majority of non-Oxbridge candidates believe they will have little chance of success. Despite all the talk, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that within most law firms, the partnership table still looks very much like it did 20 years ago.

Why is this? In short, the law, more than any other profession, has been slow to embrace – and in fact often totally rejects – the reason why diversity is vital within its hallowed doors, namely that it’s good for the business case. If we never do anything different, and don’t innovate to reflect the world around us, then we are in danger of disappearing.

Just think about the organisations in the wider business world that have been lost to the annals of history because they failed to embrace new ideas – Kodak and Blockbusters being two such examples.

The same is true in the legal profession. Firms are failing to realise that their client base just isn’t like it was two decades ago – clients come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before and it’s often these clients who have the cash to spend nowadays. 

By filtering out CVs to omit non-Oxbridge or even non-Russell Group candidates, firms are missing out on literally thousands of bright, sassy, capable law graduates with the necessary work ethic and commitment, life experience and in many cases, the cultural awareness and linguistic ability to better meet the needs of their ever-changing client base. 

Moreover, when firms do send out the signal that they want to attract talent from a broad cross-section of backgrounds, they’re falling down at the final hurdle – because the culture within the firms isn’t backing up the message. Graduates who don’t look or sound like the typical individual round the partnership table are literally ‘bouncing off’ the firm’s culture.

So, how can the profession redress the balance? What is needed to solve the problem is not lots of different initiatives that pay lip service to social mobility in order to be fashionable, but a real belief in the value of change that filters down law firms from top to bottom and a genuine, committed ‘buy in’ to the real benefits that diversity can bring to the table.

David Press is CEO of graduate recruitment platform Proceed UK

* The survey was carried out by Proceed UK among 380 law graduates from a broad cross-section of universities