Posted by Alex Foster, a trainee solicitor at Legal Futures Associate Express Solicitors and a member of its diversity and inclusion group
There can be questions about why diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) are important within law firms.
However, it has been a longstanding expectation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Principle 6 clearly states that firms should act in a way that encourages DEI.
This can benefit law firms in highlighting areas that may discriminate against current or prospective employees; showcase different communities and talent; and ensure fair administration of justice.
This article will hopefully provide useful guidance and explanations as to why having a DEI framework is imperative for modern-day law firms.
DEI can be rushed in as a ‘reactive’ system for various reasons. This is not the most efficient way to promote DEI as it can be short lived; lacking power and drive; not properly resourced; and overall lack the credibility of a proper DEI framework.
If a firm has a set policy, framework and committee in place, they can draw and develop benefits to promote DEI at every opportunity, as opposed to when DEI topics are in the news.
The Law Society has provided guidance to law firms on how to take a “systematic” approach to DEI and ensure the impact is long lasting and positive. It offers a framework with a three-stage plan, providing assistance and examples of what a law firm can do to embed DEI into their culture.
The plan focuses on data analysis to measure DEI, leading on to goals, targets and action plans to ensure structure and capability.
The Equality Act 2010 provides several protected characteristics on which basis it is against the law to discriminate: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
These characteristics often form the basis for DEI discussion and events, such as Race Equality Week, LGBTQ+ History Month, International Women’s Day and South Asian Heritage Month.
Being truly inclusive is making your employees feel comfortable to go to work as their authentic selves.
By hosting events relating to the protected characteristics and others, law firms demonstrate a real commitment to awareness to both staff and clients and bring those conversations to the forefront of people’s minds.
Staff members will feel included, proud of who they are, and comfortable within the workplace, and clients will feel included and welcome too.
One important aspect of the DEI framework is how a firm recruits prospective staff members. Law firms will benefit from hiring staff based upon skills, not grades. This will often take the main focus away from university and college achievements – albeit that this remains important within the recruitment process – and on to assessing candidates’ hard and soft skills.
This will provide opportunities to those who may be of a less privileged socio-economic background to start and progress their career in law. Case scenarios, problem-based questions and interaction are all key elements of ensuring the recruitment process is diverse.
A more diverse workforce promotes inclusivity. These individuals may understand what it is like to be discriminated against, and in turn provide ways of preventing this in future. This would also feed into client care, as a diverse workforce will better understand a client’s needs and would know how to react to this.
All of this would benefit and help a developing law firm in 2023.
A DEI group/committee made up of people from across the firm is important but members of the senior management must be actively involved on it to ensure that an example is set from the ‘top’ and to give it credibility.
Transparency is another key factor in a DEI framework. If law firms are transparent about their policies, events and data, it shows a keenness to promote DEI and an intention to act on areas where improvement is needed.
Firms may be hesitant to share the data for fear that it can come across as negative. But sharing the data with an action plan to tackle the shortcomings identified demonstrates a deeper understanding of DEI and the commitment to ‘do better’.
Publishing gender pay gap reports is valuable and a great step for DEI after being made mandatory for business with 250 or more employees. Similar reports could be done on BAME employees, LGBTQ+ employees etc, and goals could be put in place to ensure equality.
At my firm, Express Solicitors, we have diversity at every level of our organisation, with 25% of our workforce identifying as BAME, from a wide spectrum of religions and speaking over 20 different languages.
Women make up 70% of our workforce and 53% of our partners identify as being female. We also make our gender pay gap reports freely available on our website.
Our diversity and inclusion group has representatives from each department to ensure that all staff feel represented and have a point of contact should they have any questions or want to raise any issues.
Some of the ways that we promote diversity and inclusion at Express include:
- A full calendar of events to raise awareness of topics and communities;
- A regular diversity and inclusion section in our monthly newsletter to highlight the fantastic work the team does;
- We give everyone the choice to have their pronouns in both their internal and external emails – to help with inclusivity of non-binary (they/them) or transgender people;
- We offer suggestion boxes in all buildings so our colleagues can leave comments anonymously;
- We have also introduced gender-neutral facilities in two of our buildings; and
- We invite external speakers to provide training and address the staff on specialist topics in order to educate, question and share experiences.
Further, taking steps such as ‘unconscious bias’ training benefits law firms in many ways.
Often people do not consider themselves to be racist, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic directly, but the unconscious elements or human tendency to judge people almost instantaneously is not considered.
Appropriate training can educate partners and staff on how they think and question whether their views stem from solid reasoning or perceived stereotypes. This will promote inclusivity and equality throughout the firm.