Why diversity creates successful lawyers and law firms
Diversity in law is a key point of discussion, and something we haven’t yet cracked as an industry. We may have seen some slow and steady progress in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go.
While the legal profession is gradually setting itself on the right path, the lack of diversity is painfully obvious to many.
Studies show that diverse teams make better decisions, and there is also an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that the more diverse a business is, the more successful it will become. We discuss why diversity should be at the forefront of discussions for every lawyer, and in every law firm.
Is the law sector diverse? The state of diversity and inclusion in law firms today
The last few years have seen some big changes regarding diversity in law. The Solicitors Regulation Authority recently found that 53% of lawyers identified as women (up from 51% in 2019), while lawyers that identified as men made up only 46% (down from 47% in 2019). This is clearly a big step in creating an inclusive environment, but the differences become more apparent as we look into more senior positions. While women do indeed make up 63% of solicitors in the UK, they only make up 35% of partners. Obviously there is still a ways to go before we see equal representation across the industry.
This is in contrast to what we see over in America. The American Bar Association reported the percentage of women in law had actually decreased from 36% in 2018, to 35.2% in 2021. BAME representation had however increased from 16.3% in 2018, to 17%.
In the UK, when it comes to BAME, disabled, and LQBTQ+ lawyers, the statistics are less than favourable. 17% of all lawyers are BAME, while only 3.5% disclosed to the study that they were LGBTQ+. The number of disabled lawyers has increased slightly since 2019, from 4% to 5%, but this is still much lower than the UK national workforce average of 14%.
There’s clearly still a lack of representation across the board, so let's take a look at the benefits of diversity, and how it can be better achieved.
Is diversity good for law firms? Why diversity and inclusion benefits lawyers and law firms
There are many benefits to working within a diverse law firm. Research from Forbes found that diverse teams focused on inclusive decision making made better business decisions around 87% of the time. But that's not all:
- They made those decisions twice as fast, during only half the amount of meetings;
- The decisions they made delivered 60% better results;
- Gender diverse teams appear to make better business decisions 73% of the time, while all-male teams do so only 58% of the time;
- Teams that also included a wide range of ages and people from different geographical locations made better decisions 87% of the time.
Diversity clearly combats certain ingrained biases that a single group of people would find difficult to overcome. By diversifying those groups, these biases can be reduced.
As a lawyer working within a diverse team, you can expect to spend less time in meetings, benefit from a wider range of clients and projects, and work in a team that functions better overall. Law firms that make better decisions can expect to perform better, grow faster, and in turn offer a better working experience to their lawyers and other employees.
Diversity doesn't just affect business decisions. Representation is important to every marginalised group. Seeing a person that looks like you, in a position you desire, is validating and may give you the confidence to take your first step into that industry. This creates a virtuous cycle that can only benefit the law firm and all of its employees.
The best law firms for diversity and inclusion
A 2020 survey by Law.com International discovered the UK law firms with the highest number of BAME lawyers. The top five were:
- Boies Schiller Flexner
- Irwin Mitchell
- Sidley Austin
- Latham & Watkins
- Herbert Smith Freehills
The BAME representation within these law firms ranged from 22% (Herbert Smith Freehills) to 31.58% (Boies Schiller Flexner). Of the top 25, only the top 13 beat the UK average. For BAME partners this was even worse, with half of the top 25 remaining below 10%.
How can law firms increase diversity?
There are a number of ways to increase the diversity of a law firm. There are obviously wider challenges that start with better funding to underdeveloped areas, and improved education systems, but there are a number of ways law firms can help today.
The most important is to ensure that people from underrepresented backgrounds are able to apply for roles in the first place. This can be achieved by appointing a diversity partner, who will be able to support the firm with a recruitment and outreach strategy. Other ways include:
- Being aware of and educated in ingrained biases to identify where the firm is lacking in terms of diversity;
- Creating a name-blind or anonymous recruitment process to combat unconscious prejudices;
- Building a culture of diversity where people are allowed and encouraged to speak up against biases;
- Speaking with and amplifying the voices of marginalised groups currently in the workforce, and involving them when creating solutions;
- Working alongside diversity and inclusion groups.
How can law firms retain diverse talent?
Gender equality in law is heading in the right direction, but there are still great strides to be made in other areas. Fostering a workplace culture that encourages and embraces people of all backgrounds is essential for law firms wanting to retain diverse talent. Genuine opportunities for growth are also necessary, as is providing the resources and support diverse lawyers need to succeed. Initiatives firms can put into place include:
- A diversity committee to encourage an open dialogue around diversity issues;
- A mentoring programme to guide lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds to support and resources where necessary;
- A diverse management team is also essential. There must be change from the top down if there is to be any change at all;
- Expanding recruitment from only top tier law schools and considering candidates who performed well at other institutions;
- Appointing or hiring a Chief Diversity Officer to ensure diverse values are ingrained at every level of the firm.
Does diversity in law lack focus on students?
Law firms tend to only hire associates from top tier law schools, which creates the disparity we see in lawyers from professional socio-economic and lower socio-economic backgrounds. According to SRA, lawyers from professional socio-economic backgrounds make up 58% of the profession, compared to 37% in the national workforce, while only 17% of lawyers are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, compared to 39% in the national workforce.
23% of all lawyers graduated from a fee-paying school, compared to the national average of 7.5%. In 2019 it was reported that over 76% of trainees from the leading firms were Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates. This is, however, down 5% since 2015. These graduates are of the highest calibre, so it is logical that the top law firms hire many of them. However, the schools and universities themselves suffer from the same ingrained biases as the legal industry, meaning students from diverse and lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to attend. There is work being done to promote students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but some of the change must come from within these schools and universities, before it can filter into the law firms.
Why diversity is so important for lawyers and law firms
There is clear evidence that a diverse team will make better decisions than one made up of a single group of people. These benefits are useful to law firms particularly, due to the collaborative nature of the industry. They are also useful to lawyers on an individual level, who benefit from being part of a faster-growing law firm that makes better decisions and takes on a wider variety of projects and clients.
We must also consider that within the next few years, a whole new generation of people will be entering the industry — Generation Z. This generation is much more politically progressive and unafraid to voice their opinions. A law firm that welcomes and encourages diversity now will be in a better position to recruit and retain the best individuals from this group in the years to come.