The year 2020 was always due to be a year of change. As the end of a decade loomed – a period which brought an increasingly divisive world, a controversial political era and an increase in hate speech – conversations started to run deeper. Change was in the air. 

But among the division and alarm, a new and unyielding determination had started to grow. For many, 2020 signalled a new dawn where systemic inequalities no longer had a place.

Shortly before we went into lockdown, I had discussions with Raphael Mokades, managing director of Rare Recruitment concerning Rare’s research on the retention of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers and their white counterparts, the results of which were sobering. 

We have long known there was a problem with diversity in the legal industry. All you have to do is look around your firm each day – we do not reflect the diversity of the society we operate in. 

However, the results of Rare’s research, which highlighted both anecdotal experiences of BAME lawyers at top City firms and the disproportionate attrition of ethnic minority lawyers in law firms, struck a chord. You can’t argue with numbers and those numbers painted an alarming picture. 

An idea is born

It became clear to us both that the legal industry was not living up to its promise when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity. It was failing to provide an inclusive culture and a level playing field to those who managed to secure vacation placements and training contracts. It was a bitter pill to swallow and led to Raphael and I discussing what was going to make a real difference, with no more false platitudes.

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) 2019 diversity data collection, 3 per cent of solicitors and 3 per cent of partners working in law firms are black. Yet in large firms (those with 50 or more partners), just 1 per cent of solicitors and 1 per cent of partners are black. 

The Bridge Group’s research on socio-economic background and early career progression in the law found significant evidence of microaggressions in the legal profession – whether that’s being left out of a team lunch invite or repeatedly being mistaken for someone more junior. These microaggressions can lead those perceived as different, including those in ethnic minority groups, to feel inferior or excluded.  

Recruiting efforts have improved, increasing the pipeline of diverse talent at the bottom rung of the ladder – but retention and progression have lagged woefully behind. And so, the idea behind the UK Race Fairness Commitment was born. 

Fast forward four months, and the need for the commitment became even more pressing following the killing of George Floyd in the US in May of this year. This was not the first killing of a black person by police, but it sparked global outrage and protest against systemic racism. For the first time, all eyes were on not only the individuals responsible for this behaviour but the systems and structures perpetuating privilege and power – including the corporate world. 

The outcry filtered quickly through to the legal world, with firms across the City releasing statements of support, along with financial pledges. My own firm, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP), alongside Clifford Chance, White & Case, Allen & Overy and Weil Gotshal & Manges, were just a few who spoke out in support of their colleagues and condemned a system that continued to allow injustices such as this to happen. 

Firms promised to look inwards and work to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. It was the right time to launch the pledge – the UK Race Fairness Commitment. In the short term, the idea behind the pledge is to create conversation and to provide law firms with a platform and criteria from which they could start affecting change. Long term plans are much bigger; we are all ready to see real change in the legal industry.

Confronting reality

A huge amount of focus is, quite rightly, put on the representation of women and LGBTQ+ individuals in the corporate world and we are proud of our progress in this arena at BCLP. 

However, firms are opaquer when it comes to ethnicity. There has not yet been a real, concerted and industry-wide focus on addressing the challenges faced by BAME lawyers and business services professionals. We have a duty to make our profession diverse in every aspect. This does mean confronting uncomfortable realities; and it means accepting that previous approaches to inclusion and diversity have fallen short. 

The UK Race Fairness Commitment is a model to provide law firms with structured advice and support in their focus on creating a more racially diverse workplace. It is set out in three separate segments, as follows:

What we want – We wanted to make our goals and expectations clear from day one. Too many initiatives are set up without a clear idea of what success would look like. We wanted to make it clear that this was a long-term investment of people’s time and energy into driving greater racial diversity. Each firm that has so far signed up has committed to making certain goals a pillar around which they will build future diversity initiatives and company culture. 

Some of the goals include: 

BAME job applicants with given qualifications are as likely to be interviewed as their white counterparts.

BAME people performing at a certain level are as likely to be promoted as their white counterparts performing at the same level.

BAME people remain at the organisation on average as long as their white counterparts do.

The commitment also focuses on the need to be mindful of all BAME people being free to be themselves and not being ‘othered’, tapping into the long-discussed issue of unconscious bias and its consequences.

What we are doing – The commitment encourages firms to take a sense of ownership of their progress and sets out some clear guidelines on how they should be achieving this. The guidelines centre around monitoring and analysis, as well as having a focus on championing talent that could well find itself marginalised or sitting on the side lines – all with the aim to make findings available in the public domain. It’s important for us to make sure we hold ourselves accountable. Making our results on this journey publicly available is really the only way to ensure things actually change. The commitment also focuses in on the important conversation around culture. Without a supportive, tolerant and positive firm culture we will struggle to see the commitment really mean anything. 

Other examples concerning how to effect a change in culture include: 

Ensure everyone joining us gets a clear message in their induction that the organisation has zero tolerance of racism.

In every exit interview, ask whether the person leaving has experienced – or seen – racism in the firm.

Ensure that at least once a year, the firm tells all its staff that it has zero tolerance of racism and, if appropriate, shares examples of how the firm has dealt with any incidents of racism.

How to do it – Rare Recruitment set out to ensure that the commitment came with guidelines so that employers, both large and small and within any industry, had clear and easy to follow instructions on how to get started. This third section within the commitment includes guidance on how to collect recruitment, retention, progression and pay data. There are also detailed instructions on how to calculate the metrics. Up next will be the addition of an adverse impact calculator and ethnicity stay gap dashboard. 

Most importantly, firms who sign up to the commitment are not alone. They will be part of a community led by Rare Recruitment and actively supported by a number of major employers, including BCLP. This community will be there to answer questions, help find solutions and provide the vital support needed in order to fulfil these goals. 

United front

The UK race fairness charter presents an opportunity to unite the profession and for us to collectively lead the charge on an extremely important issue. Of course, we want large City firms to be involved but diversity is a priority for all corners of the profession. 

My aspiration is for firms of all sizes to consider taking a meaningful step towards race fairness by signing the commitment (for more information on the commitment visit racefairnesscommitment.com). We have an important job ahead and we will achieve more collectively than any firm can achieve on its own in isolation. 

So far, the commitment has attracted 30 firms. With more interested, this is just the beginning of this timely and important project. It will take time for us to see meaningful results but the team is fully aware that this is a project for the long term. We are not interested in a short-term reaction to the commitment because it is just that, a commitment. 

It is hugely important to ensure that firms put in the groundwork which means educating themselves on the realities of systemic racism, its effects and the issues that we are currently seeing within the legal industry.  

Segun Osuntokun is London managing partner of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner bclplaw.com

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