Vos tells white male lawyers to be more inclusive in work conversations

Vos: Micro-aggressions need addressing

White male lawyers need to be more inclusive of others in their conversations so as to make them they feel comfortable in the workplace, the Master of the Rolls said yesterday.

“If white male lawyers are regularly talking about subjects that do not interest women or ethnic minority lawyers and those from less privileged backgrounds, they will inevitably feel excluded,” Sir Geoffrey Vos told a conference in London organised by the Legal Services Board.

“It is difficult to generalise about what topics might make particular groups feel excluded. But women are often less interested than men in sport. Talk about elite schools and universities is likely to make those that did not have the opportunity to attend them uncomfortable.”

Acknowledging that the failure to provide an inclusive working environment was “not normally deliberate”, he argued that “subtle factors are very important to attracting, and particularly retaining, diverse lawyers in the profession”.

They needed to be talked about more as “many simply do not realise that exclusion is going on”.

Sir Geoffrey continued: “There is a similar issue in the judiciary, where judges in regional courts and elsewhere often have lunch and take other breaks together.

“If the conversation is exclusively about Oxford, cricket and the latest operatic production at Covent Garden, it will exclude judges from backgrounds where none of those things is of interest.”

There were positive signs, however, of “the younger and more diverse judges starting to set the agenda in judges’ common rooms”.

While this was “obviously” not the only diversity problem in the law – “the incidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination is less rare than many in the profession may have thought” – he explained that “the micro-aggressions that are reflective of a lack of inclusive behaviours are something we all need specifically to address”.

His speech to the Reshaping Legal Services conference identified three pressing issues facing the legal profession in 2022: its approach to diversity, its “ambivalence, or at least somewhat contradictory approach, to the adoption of new technologies” and “the need to find ways in which lawyers can add value and, therefore, be properly and appropriately remunerated for work in the brave new world of 2022, without so often following the business practices and methods of the 20th century”.

The three issues were all connected, Sir Geoffrey said, with the greater adoption of technology allowing for “remote, more flexible and more accessible working patterns”, which in turn enable “more women and more ethnic minority lawyers, in fact any and all of those with other demands on their time, to combine this with their professional practice”.

Sir Geoffrey stressed that technology would also “revolutionise the kind of work that lawyers will be doing”, rather than just how they did it – but lawyers were “often the last to let go of outdated practices”.

He said: “In my view, at least, the watchwords of all legal services should be that they provide a service that clients need and that that service adds value for the client and is not simply part of a process that technology could quite easily perform without input from trained lawyers.

“Let us take the example of transactional work undertaken for business clients. Lawyers have for many years now been conducting a love affair with Microsoft Word. But Word is not smart in any meaningful sense.

“Every time a lawyer starts to create a new transactional document using Word, whether it is a share purchase agreement or a conveyancing document or an employment contract, all they have is a template.

“It is now perfectly possible to use smart programming to create any kind of transactional documentation electronically by simply filling in the fields that are required, leaving the basic form to be created by the machine.”

Another example was probate and conveyancing work, with the judge observing “how little those processes have changed in 50 years”. In personal injury litigation, meanwhile, the various electronic portals now in use “have had a salutary effect on the process”.

“The argument last week in Belsner v Cam Legal Services has shone a spotlight on how technology can assist. Much of the process of making RTA claims through the pre-action online portals could be more streamlined and less costly if the technology were embraced.”

    Readers Comments

  • Frances Marshall says:

    Once, when I was a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, I joined a group of male colleagues who were having a conversation about a disputed try in a game of rugby that I hadn’t seen. When I asked what was controversial about it, a newly arrived 2nd Lieutenant took care to involve me in the conversation, explaining the “two movement” rule in simple language. I appreciated that he was trying to be inclusive, but one of my fellow officers quickly and rather sharply told the him that I was in fact a qualified rugby referee (possibly the first woman in the Army to take the course).
    I shall continue to talk about cricket and opera with my female colleague, and frankly, I don’t really mind if this makes the (straight, white, male, privately educated) senior partner feel excluded, as he’s not interested in either subject.

  • Emilda Morgans says:

    The tone of this article is simply condescending and makes so many assumptions and generalisation at so many levels. I’m astounded these views are seen as progression on inclusivity!

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