Clients “holding City law firms to account on diversity”

Passmore: Client and societal pressure

Clients are holding City law firms to account on diversity and firms that fail to respond to this pressure will lose work, the chair of the City of London Law Society has said.

Colin Passmore was responding to comments from academic and diversity specialist Dr Louise Ashley, who accused City law firms of “institutional inertia” and using diversity initiatives as a form of “reputation laundering”.

While accepting that client pressure did drive some change, Dr Ashley said clients “did not always hold firms accountable”, leading to “cosmetic changes without fundamental change”.

Mr Passmore, client development partner and former senior partner of Simmons & Simmons, said his firm “engaged in detailed diversity audits with many of our clients”, like all the big City firms.

“There are clients who say the diversity of your teams will be given a significant percentage in the overall score they are using to decide whether to give you a job.

“If we did not respond to that, some clients would stop giving us work and that would not contribute to our success. Clients are holding us to account and we don’t mind that.”

Mr Passmore said in-house legal departments had become larger and more diverse, and client pressure on diversity had intensified in the last few years.

“There is client pressure, there is societal pressure, but the reason we want to improve diversity is not because we want to look good but because it is right thing to do.”

Mr Passmore, who went to a grammar school in Essex and is the son of a carpenter, said he knew from meeting “many partners and HR professionals” over the years that Simmons & Simmons was not alone in endeavouring to change its diversity profile.

He said it would “take time” for large law firms like his to increase the proportion of female partners, and there must be a “laser focus” on helping female associates prepare themselves for partnership.

Mr Passmore said the growth of flexible working arrangements in the last few years would help improve the gender balance.

However, large firms could not “make up 100 female partners just like that” and this would remain a “medium-term project”.

He said there was “no question” of institutional inertia on diversity at his firm, where diversity programmes had been “championed and led by senior management” for some time.

On recruitment, where Dr Ashley argued that City firms preferred “polished candidates” from elite universities, Mr Passmore said his firm had made it clear to recruitment agencies that it did not “want just white middle-class males at partnership level” and the agencies had replied that they were “already under pressure” on the issue.

Mr Passmore went on: “We are constantly looking for as diverse a range of candidates as we can, but everyone has to have the merit to survive and thrive in this profession.”

He said law firms did not want “just middle-class trainees” and the way they had embraced solicitor apprenticeships showed that.

“None of these changes are happening fast enough, but many firms are trying really hard to implement them.”

He added that he had contacted Dr Ashley and would hopefully be meeting her soon.

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