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Tom Hanlon

Director, Buchanan Law

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Family and a better work–life balance are cited as the most common factors, according to women who explain why they chose to leave

Diversity and inclusion in the legal industry

Opinion
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Diversity and inclusion in the legal industry

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Tom Hanlon, a Director at Buchanan Law, looks at why it is important for the legal industry to open up the talent pool

Law firm leaders routinely discuss how to address diversity. Yet despite multiple definitions, no consensus exists about what it means in practice. For lawyers who like certainty that can be challenging as firms seek to boost their diversity through recruitment, targets, retention and, of course, benchmarking against each other.

The situation as it stands

Law firms certainly fare well in the gender balance when recruiting. For the first time in 2023, just over half of all US associates were female (50.3%) according to the American Bar Association, while women have comprised the majority of newly-qualified UK solicitors for more than two decades.

But fast forward to partnership and the picture changes: among big US and UK firms, the drop-out rate for women is nearly twice that of their male counterparts. Because fewer of them stay on to become partners, the gender balance remains stubbornly unbalanced. At UK law firms with more than 50 partners, only 28% are female, while in the US, the figure is almost identical, 27.8%

The reasons behind this gender gap are complex. Family and a better work–life balance are cited as the most common factors, according to women who explain why they chose to leave. Since very long hours remain a cultural norm in Big Law, some decide to move on because they want to start a family, leaving most law firms unable to resolve the problem. They need some answers. How many firms offer child care resources, for example?

There has been progress with three of the five Magic Circle firms choosing women for the top jobs: Freshfields appointed Georgia Dawson as senior partner, Linklaters appointed Aedamar Comiskey as senior partner and Deborah Finkler became managing partner at Slaughter and May. But A&O Shearman has created the biggest headlines this year with the election of Hervé Ékué as the first Black leader of a Magic Circle firm.

Law firm success in racial diversity has, however, been slower, particularly for Black lawyers who remain underrepresented compared to their Asian counterparts. Black Lives Matter protests swept the US, further encouraging law firms to deal with inequality in their own ranks, a trend that gained momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. The renewed focus on diversity led to more chief diversity officers (CDOs) being appointed, with some global firms creating D&I teams of ten or more. These efforts have started to pay off with the percentage of Black lawyers rising, albeit slowly.

But the US faces other diversity problems after a Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action at US universities last year. Recruitment practices at some prominent firms were targeted with Perkins Coie and Morrison Foerster being forced to change their D&I criteria for their prestigious fellowships.

It is hard to determine whether the cultural divide on D&I between the UK and elements of the US will widen. According to Johnny C Taylor Jr, President of the Society of Human Resource Management, the largest HR organisation in the US, D&I policies within US companies will “come under full-out attack in 2024”. Let’s hope his prediction is wrong.

Intertwined with social mobility, the issue of inclusion can remain invisible, a problem that law firms sometimes struggle to acknowledge. But potential lawyers instantly recognise it when visiting law firm offices: they meet lots of people from a different social or educational background. They cannot vocalise it since they are not actively discriminated against, but they leave feeling uncomfortable.

Conclusion

Some law firms are struggling with the same issue as other professional services firms: trying to dispense with old fashioned snobbery and focus instead on candidates’ wider abilities.

Changing big institutions originally designed for and by a certain demographic takes time. But a genuine desire does exist to draw on a broader pool of talent. Certainly, the recent shortage of available talent became a key driver of change with law firms considering alternative qualification methods similar to apprenticeships and training paralegals internally, thereby dispensing with the costly post-graduate LPC qualification.

On the road to realising the potential that D&I can deliver, law firms recognise the elements that matter: gender, race and social background. It will take time to reach their destination. But reach it, they will.

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