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GCs in diversity warning to law firms

GCs in diversity warning to law firms


In-house lawyers wave buying-power stick in push to increase diversity and inclusion in law firms

More than 170 in-house lawyers have signed an open letter to law firms warning they will no longer instruct firms that fail to deliver on diversity.

The letter, which can be seen on the LinkedIn profile of Michelle Fang, chief legal officer for car-sharing start-up Turo Inc., reads as a damning indictment for law firms with shiny diversity policies that fail to turn their words into action.

While acknowledging the positive existence of such policies, the letter makes clear diversity and inclusion is an ongoing process across the whole organisation. This, it says, cannot be limited to the recruitment of junior lawyers but must be reflected all the way up to partnership level. At present, however, the letter continues, “partnership classes remain largely male and largely white”.

Challenging a perfunctory approach to diversity, the letter goes on: “It is not enough to commit your firm to diversity during the recruiting process or to hire a diversity and inclusion officer and expect that person can effect change without the full commitment of each member of the firm.

“Instead, the reality is that you must consciously and personally invest in diversity and inclusion and interview, hire, mentor, support, sponsor, and promote talented attorneys who don’t always look like you or share your background.”

And firms that, in future, can’t satisfy this expectation are left in no doubt about the consequences. The signatories will simply take the work elsewhere. “We, as a group, will direct our substantial outside counsel spend to those law firms that manifest results with respect to diversity and inclusion, in addition to providing the highest degree of quality representation”, the letter concludes.

The 170+ names on the letter, the majority of them women, are mostly in-house lawyers at US companies or the US arm of multinationals. Many of them are well-known names in the new economy, such as Mozilla, Netgear and Etsy, as well as more established businesses such as communications giant Cable & Wireless, the US division of electronic component maker Toshiba and Heineken US.

It has long been assumed that GCs’ buying power could be a significant driver of change in the sector. The letter suggests that reality is yet to catch up with aspirations.

Most recent diversity statistics in the UK show that while the legal profession was generally becoming more diverse, the proportion of BAME partners stagnated. Law Society statistics published in 2017 showed that overall the percentage of BAME solicitors had more than doubled in the previous ten years, reaching 16 per cent of the profession as a whole.

At senior levels, however, numbers had only gone up one per cent in the previous two years. “The pace of improvement in the senior ranks of the legal profession has been painfully slow”, Black Solicitors Network chair and Linklaters lawyer Paulette Mastin commented at the time.

Last year, a survey about women in the profession revealed similar trends. Women solicitors outnumbered men, according to Law Society findings, but they were still a minority at senior levels.

Unconscious bias and unacceptable work-life balance to reach senior levels were cited as the most significant barriers to career progression for women solicitors.

Traditional networks or routes to promotion were also regarded as male orientated by 46 per cent of respondents, and resistance to flexible working practices was seen as an obstacle by 41 per cent.

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