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Pressure from corporate counsel is key to improving diversity in top-50 UK law firms

'Social imbalances are an issue because of the way many of the top law firms recruit,' says Funke Abimbola

13 October 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Gender and social imbalances are rife in top-50 UK law firm partnerships, according to research published today.

The research found that gender diversity levels are high at trainee level, but that this drops by more than half at partner level.

"Unconscious bias, lack of support and lack of confidence are a toxic mix for women. Not all factors may be relevant at the same time for each individual, but either way, it remains an uphill struggle," Funke Abimbola, head of Roche's UK and Ireland legal team and an originator of the research, told Managing Partner.

"I don't think law firms are inherently sexist nor do I believe that they deliberately choose not to promote women, but unconscious bias definitely plays a part in promoting those who are perceived as most visible, available and free of the burden of family care commitments."

She noted that this is slowly changing, with more law firms implementing flexible working policies and embedding flexible working as "an inherent and accepted part of the firm's culture, with those working flexibly being seen as adding value to the team".

Fifty-eight per cent of trainees in the firms surveyed are female, but the figure drops to 24 per cent at partner level. However, the research found that law firms are also increasingly trying to improve their talent pipelines to ensure they reflect more gender balance.

"The legal profession has been slow in waking up to the diversity challenge, but the good news is that we are talking about it and trying to find solutions," said Abimbola.

The vast majority (95 per cent) of the top-50 City law firms surveyed have a formal diversity and inclusion policy in place and 86 per cent conduct unconscious bias training.

Quantitative measures remain a divisive tool to achieve more balanced representation, with only 19 per cent of firms setting diversity targets or quotas.

For Abimbola, targets are better than quotas to improve diversity and inclusion in law firms.

"I do not believe that quotas are the way to improve diversity and inclusion in law firms, simply because of the implication that a set quota needs filling - this is insulting to all concerned and breeds resentment," she said.

"However, a target is a set goal that you can aim for whilst getting in place now the necessary frameworks and structures to empower you in achieving that target. I believe strongly in targets - without a goal to aim for, we will not see significant change in this area."

The survey suggests that corporate counsel are driving tangible measures of diversity in law firms, with companies increasingly assessing their law firm panels on their diversity levels.

However, results show that while gender, race and LGBT levels are still high on the agenda, disability and background are less of a priority for law firms and businesses looking at diversity measures.

A tenth of trainees at responding firms are black or have a minority ethnic background, but the percentage drops to per cent at partner level.

Education is still a main hurdle for wider access to the profession, with just 19 per cent of surveyed trainees holding a degree from a university outside of the Russell Group. In addition, 15 per cent of trainees at top-50 firms graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge.

"Social imbalances are an issue because of the way many of the top law firms recruit," commented Abimbola.

"To get into a Russell Group university you need top grades - to maximise your chances of getting top grades, you need to have had an outstanding education and teaching at school and strong support at home. If you are from a socially-deprived background, you are, statistically, less likely to receive an outstanding education and/or to have strong support from home.

"This makes the odds of achieving top grades heavily stacked against you from the start - for many, the obstacles are too great without additional assistance to level the playing field."

The key recommendations on the report for the legal profession are:

  • agree and maintain a set of key diversity data;

  • commit to being transparent about such data;

  • agree to the adoption of social mobility targets rather than quotas;

  • promote recruitment practices to broaden intake;

  • broaden access at entry level with apprenticeships, early outreach programmes, mentoring and sponsoring; and

  • promote unconscious bias training.

The report Opening up or shutting out? Social mobility in the legal profession, produced by Byfield Consultancy, is based on survey responses from 26 per cent of the UK's top-50 law firms.






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