Diversity of thought – why you need to think about it

A guest post by Marcin Durlak, managing partner of IMD Corporate

Durlak: Inclusivity is harder to achieve than diversity

A McKinsey report in 2020 reaffirmed what many had already suspected – a strong business case for diversity and that this continues to strengthen over time.

According to the report, “the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability”. Diversity and inclusion is certainly on the agenda for many law firms, however progress is slow.

For example, a report from Chambers last year showed that the legal market has not improved its performance in retention of female legal talent in the last six years.

Although representation of women at the top has increased by 5%, flat retention performance implies firms are doing little to change the problems, working cultures and other factors which cause women to leave their roles and instead bolster numbers by hiring more women at graduate level.

From my experience, many law firms are approaching diversity and inclusion as a simple tick-box exercise, focusing solely on hiring certain people in order to hit their targets. This in turn can lead to a sense of a ‘job well done’ without any thought towards the impact of this strategy and what this diversity brings to the firm – or how inclusive the firm actually is.

Diversity is not about just policies, procedures or recruitment quotas. By relying too much on numbers, law firms can miss one of the most important factors related to diversity – diversity of thought and how this can transform a law firm. And it’s not enough to hire the right people – you have to create a culture which enables them to flourish.

The concept of diversity of thought, or ‘cognitive diversity’ as it is sometimes referred to, is simple; the idea that people who come from diverse backgrounds think differently. They approach problems and issues differently and this creates innovation – and, as the McKinsey report shows, profitability.

That’s the diverse bit – arguably the next step, inclusivity is harder to achieve. Achieving true diversity is not about hiring a group of people from different backgrounds and demographics and hoping they’ll all contribute bright, sparky ideas, bouncing off each other to come up with great solutions.

It’s about investing in a workplace culture which truly supports diverse thought and ensures that everyone in the firm, from the most senior to the most junior, is encouraged to share their views and feel a sense of psychological safety to speak up.

In a traditionally hierarchical structure such as a law firm, it can be challenging to create this environment and for many firms which are embarking on a new world of hybrid work, this is an even greater challenge.

Those working from home more regularly, such as working parents could easily miss out on opportunities to contribute and participation in meetings over the ‘in-person’ attendees.

At IMD we’re naturally a very diverse firm. We focus on supporting international clients and speaking their language, so in a team of 29 we speak 15 languages.

However, we have never assumed we would naturally reap the rewards of a diverse team – we have instead worked very hard, investing in a firm-wide culture that supports and celebrates diversity.

We have found that clear, regular communication is a simple way to do this. In addition, coaching, mentoring and social and wellbeing committees also helps a firm like ours retain an open and caring culture.

Diversity of thought should also be factored into the recruitment process and this is really crucial. Although a cognitively diverse team can bring a huge number of benefits, it can also go wrong very easily – constructive discussions turn to arguments and disruption.

It’s a fine line to tread and although you want a team that’s diverse, you need to hire a group of people who ultimately share the same values.

Instilling and living your core values as a law firm is so important. These cannot just be words on a page but threaded into the fabric of everyday life at the firm. When recruiting, making sure those values match and personalities will gel will help ensure a team which can work together.

The ‘D’ in D&I gets a lot of attention and rightly so – a diverse team is a strength in so many ways. But by focusing on tick boxes and quotas, law firms are missing out on the diversity of thought they may already have, and the important ‘I’ in D&I.

    Readers Comments

  • Ngozi Adi says:

    I agree with most of what is in your article. Some of the bigger law firms are not making the required efforts to recruit in a diverse manner. They rely on diverse client groups and benefit from them, but fail to replicate this when recruiting. However, they continue to win diversity awards, which gives them a false sense of progress in this area. It is not a secret, that many of these law firms largely recruit young and recently qualified graduates, whilst sidelining older lawyers. Recruitment of lawyers should be holistic, not a straitlaced, exclusive affair.

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