Law firms adopt diversity initiatives “because they are fashionable”

Ashley: Diversity could end up being “a form of happy talk” for firms

Law firms often adopt diversity initiatives “because they are fashionable, not because they work”, an academic and diversity specialist has argued.

Dr Louise Ashley, associate professor at Queen Mary University London, said unconscious bias training was introduced by the legal profession “because it was fashionable and without any evidence that it was having a positive effect”.

The academic said diversity could end up being “a form of happy talk” for firms, where people “report the things that leaders want to find, with an emphasis on actions rather than outcomes”.

Speaking last week at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar on diversity, she went on: “In some places there is quite tight control over what can and cannot be said about this issue.

“There is an assumption that markets drive change. Many corporate law firms create structures which are extremely profitable and undermine efforts for change – the elephant in the room.

“Typically it is the highest earners who set the culture, which can negate policies, however formal they are.

“Organisations do not operate in a vacuum. They can respond to inequalities, but also contribute to them. Along with thinking about how organisations appoint and promote, we need to think about what they do.”

Dr Ashley said “in some ways” the legal profession had “come quite far” in improving diversity, “in other ways there is a long way to go”.

She said that while difference was “increasingly allowed and welcomed” in many elite professions, it was only when combined with assimilation.

“To some extent this is a consequence of a very competitive element. Extreme competition tends to iron out differences.”

In March this year, Dr Ashley argued that efforts of City law firms to become more diverse and inclusive were a form of “reputation laundering”, offering only the “illusion of change”.

Her comments sparked a response from Colin Passmore, chair of the City of London Law Society, who said clients were holding City law firms to account on diversity and firms that failed to respond to this pressure would lose work.

Earlier in the session, Nina Goswami, head of UK inclusion at Clifford Chance, said the firm’s target of 5% LGBT+ partners had been met last year, but the firm had “work to do” to reach its target of 30% female partners by 2025.

Challenged by conference co-chair Sara Carnegie, director of legal projects at the International Bar Association (IBA) on the 30% target, given that IBA research had shown that senior positions for women in the law globally were already at 31%, Ms Goswami replied: “For us, 30% is a stretch, but it is workable and achievable.”

She was also challenged about Clifford Chance’s target of 41% female partners by 2030, which was set before she joined the firm.

Referring to her previous role at the BBC, she said targets needed to be achievable and there was no point in setting a target of 50% female staff, which was applied elsewhere, to the BBC Arabic service, where women made up only 8%. Instead, the target set was 15%.

Waleed Bakali, senior solicitor at Zurich Insurance, said that growing up in the West Country, he had become homeless at the age of two and was the first person in his family to complete their GCSEs.

He said it took him three years to get a training contract at a law firm, despite having “straight As and a 2.1 degree from a red-brick university”.

Mr Bakali said senior people at organisations needed to be part of discussions about diversity, where staff could “honestly say what they think”. In the case of Zurich in the UK, he said both the chief executive and head of legal were part of those discussions.

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