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Fostering diversity through innovation

Guest post by Trevor Sterling [1], partner for medical relations at Moore Blatch

Sterling: Employers should be re-evaluating their hiring procedures

As members of one of the world’s oldest and most respected professions, law firms sometimes struggle to innovate and adapt to the rhythms of modern society.

It is becoming increasingly more accepted that diversity is good for business: recent statistics suggest that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity outperform their competitors by 15% and those in the top quartile for ethnic diversity outperform their competitors by 35%.

We have certainly made progress, but nevertheless the legal profession, as with many others, is sometimes in need of a nudge to better embrace diversity and foster inclusion in the workplace.

My 35-year experience in law testifies to the immense progress we have made as an industry in welcoming and nurturing diverse talent. In particular, we are currently seeing for the first time that more women are entering law than men, which is a huge step forward to counter the exclusively male tradition that had become somewhat of a cliché in the profession.

Nevertheless, in the legal profession we still have a huge issue of representation of black and minority ethnic (BME) candidates, and candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds, both in terms of entering law and progressing up the ranks.

A large part of this problem can be traced back to issues within our education system regarding social mobility. BME candidates are more likely to come from less academic backgrounds, or from non-Russell Group universities.

There is a whole conversation to be had around accessibility to more prestigious institutions. However, in the meantime, employers themselves should be re-evaluating their hiring procedures so as to avoid exclusively hiring those who have pursued linear, Russell Group trajectories.

Rather than completing box-ticking exercises, we need constructive and long-lasting diversity in the legal profession, and innovation is the key to achieving this. As Moore Blatch’s first black full equity partner, I recognise that confidence has a huge impact on a BME candidate’s success in law.

Whether it is in negotiating salaries, applying for leadership positions or simply believing that success is attainable, firms should ensure that all applicants and employees have the self-assurance necessary to aim high.

We have set up several schemes and platforms to equip candidates with the tools and self-confidence to help themselves throughout their career.

Our aspiring lawyers group, for example, was established to help the professional development of trainee lawyers who have taken non-traditional routes into law. The group offers an environment for mutual mentoring and advice – meaning that members gain support in their careers, and they also advise the leadership on what they can do to improve access to legal careers.

We place equal emphasis on the status of legal executives and paralegals unable to secure formal training contracts in order to ensure that they are offered the same opportunities as solicitors with traditional training backgrounds.

The aspiring lawyers group not only enables a diverse cohort of solicitors to enter our business, but it also develops mentors for future cohorts, with each wave bringing new and innovative ways of thinking.

Indeed, it is crucial that we promote positive and diverse role models for ambitious lawyers, to encourage each of us to take pride in our backgrounds.

Moore Blatch’s support for the Mary Seacole Trust, of which I am chair, does exactly this. A resilient and courageous black woman illuminated in history for her role as a nurse in the Crimean War, Mary Seacole epitomises what you can achieve regardless of the barriers in front of you.

In addition, her symbolic position as a role model for BME lawyers materialises into concrete action. For example, we support the trust’s ‘diversity in leadership’ programme, and hosted a roundtable in partnership with the trust bringing together public and private sector leaders to discuss how diversity can be normalised in the workplace.

The ideas from the roundtable are now being taken forward into a report, which will compile case studies from across industry to demonstrate the different and innovative ways that diversity is being fostered across the country and showcase the success of individual diverse talent.

The legal profession must reflect the people and values it represents, and it is through innovation that law firms can best reflect the diverse populations we serve.

There are many ways to harness innovation to improve your firm’s diversity: from engaging externally with boundary-pushing organisations such as the Mary Seacole Trust, to setting up internal schemes such as the aspiring lawyers group.

To ensure our colleagues feel valued, it is essential that all staff members listen to one another to ensure our perception of an ambitious and experienced lawyer is constantly challenged and shaped by those around us.

By thinking outside the traditional parameters of what makes a great lawyer, we can welcome a more diverse range of talent across the profession and ensure that both individuals and entire businesses benefit from a diverse and confident workforce.