Diversity in the Workforce - Sushi Rolls not Gender Roles Are law firms really promoting diversity and inclusivity in the workforce to minority groups?


Diversity is defined by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) as, “where difference is recognised and emphasised, but not actively leveraged to drive organisational success. There is acknowledgement of the benefit of having a range of perspectives in decision-making and the workforce being representative of the organisation’s customers”. Diversity includes both visible and non-visible factors such as ethnicity, financial background, gender, and sexual orientation. The question that remains is whether firms truly embrace diversity in the workplace. Although there are measures in place to try and tackle the ever-present lack of diversity in the realm of legal practice, there seems to be little to no change in the current diversity of firms in terms of ethnicity, financial background, gender, and sexual orientation.  Now, the question posed is if this is due to an ineffectiveness on the terms of current diversity promotional programs or if the problems lie rooted in the culture surrounding our society.


There are several promotional diversity programs in place at various firms. In addition to this it seems that universities are also following suit by creating schemes. The University of Bristol Law Club has introduced a fee waiver scheme that is designed  to promote diversity by waiving the membership fee for the society.  The waiver is meant to help those that come from a low-income background. The university also supports and promotes the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme, a programme which supports men from African, Caribbean, mixed-African, or mixed-Caribbean heritage to gain employment in the City. Firms such as Herbert Smith Freehills, a leading firm in diversity, have established projects like the Inclusivity Group that promotes and implements different diversity initiatives. Another example is the PRIME program, the main goal is to improve access to the legal profession through work experience for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Although there seems to be an increase in these types of programmes, statistics have not yielded progressive results or trends in terms of increased diversity. According to a published report by The Solicitors Regulation Authority, although nearly 18% of solicitors in the profession are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, they make up only 6% of partners. Similarly, 97% of all lawyers identify as heterosexual, yet it is estimated by Stonewall that 5-7% of the entire population are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Additionally, women make up almost half of all solicitors across the profession, but they represent less than one third of partners. These shocking statistics pose a very important question, do promotional diversity programs get tangible results? It appears that the answer is that the existence of such programs isn’t enough to create diversity in the workplace.


Another important factor to consider when analyzing data about diversity is the sensitivity of some topics, a key example being sexuality. Optimistically speaking, modern day society is a world where we preach inclusivity, many places in the world are a lot more progressive than they were 20 or 50 years ago. Although this may arguably be the case, such topics as sexual orientation are very much taboo when in practice. Would one want to disclose information that could potentially harm their career aspirations or success? For example, Stonewall reported that 25% of lesbian, gay and bi workers are not  open to colleagues about their sexual orientation. This may in part be due to a real fear of rejection by colleagues or family. Gay in Britain reported that 42% of trans people are not living permanently in their preferred gender role. Respondents stated they are prevented from doing so because they fear it might threaten their employment status. Therefore, it is with great scepticism that people must view not just data regarding diversity but also the way society functions as a whole. Society cannot be and will never have the same views. One person’s kryptonite is bound to be another person’s greatest asset. Applying this way of thinking to law firms and diversity, one has to look at the entire scheme surrounding firms from the point of view of those that come from diverse backgrounds that aren’t seen as “conventional.” Although there are these programs in place that promote diversity, it is reflected in statistical evidence that they do not work. Is this because of the mindset of society itself? In my opinion, these programs seem to contract contradictory results as to what their goals seem to reflect and are ineffective as shown through the statistical numbers. Ultimately, even if one tries to argue that it is because of society itself, it doesn’t change the fact that these programs aren’t doing their job. These programs are meant to promote diversity whether it be in an environment of a society that purpotes those same values. As the British Psychoanalytic Council states, “Our society today is multi-cultural in every sense, and it is an on-going challenge for all of us to learn how to live harmoniously and with understanding with all of our neighbours”.


Before concluding this argument of diversity in law firms I would like to address a very popular antipodal side of thinking that many preachers against diversity in the workforce like to use. Part of the culture surrounding our society is the belief that hard work will result in better payout/results. This belief fuels one of the main arguments against diversity in the workforce. People tend to argue that things such as hiring practices should be merit-based rather than based on creating a more inclusive and representative workforce. While at first glance merit-based hiring practices appear to be a sound and logical idea, there is evidence to the contrary. For example, statistical studies by McKinsey & Co. support the ideology that a more diverse workforce produces better results. One particular study showed that companies with top quartile diversity (defined as women and foreign nationals) on their executive boards generated ROE (returns on equity) that were 53% higher, on average, than companies in the bottom diversity quartile. Similarly, Emilio Castilla of MIT and Stephen Benard of Indiana University’s study, “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations” illustrates how the ideology of meritocracy results in the unfair treatment of women in the workforce. This is particularly evident when an organisation is meritocratic. Individuals in managerial positions favour a male employee over an equally qualified female employee by awarding him a larger monetary reward. It is studies such as these that seem to debunk the stereotypical argument of merit-based hiring over diversity hiring.


In conclusion, it is nearly impossible to determine whether the fault lies with diversity programs instituted by law firms and universities or if it is exclusively a deep-rooted societal issue. Some may even argue that it is a mixture of the two issues at play that stem the diversity issues that are ever present in law firms today. Although things may seem bleak it is up to every person to help promote diversity. You may say that one person’s thoughts and opinions hold no power but, it is the impact that one person has on others and the domino effect that transpires. Change is a slow process. But, as George R. R. Martin said, “Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle”. It is important that we pave a pathway for future generations to realise the strengths in the difference of these roads and to be respectful of one another’s differences. With the right thinking and initiatives, not just firms but the world will hopefully be a better place because in the end, what do we all have in common? We’re human.

Article written by Matthew Lu (1st year, LLB Law), in conjunction with Dicta 2018.

Ben Lin