[Main source of news: Financial Times]
The death of George Floyd was a prominent event and sparked efforts to improve diversity and inclusion within law firms. Many law firms have made progress in improving diversity, but many feel that anger caused by George Floyd’s death has called for deeper change. This has long been discussed, but nothing has been followed up.
A lasting change is needed in an industry that is so dominated by white lawyers and only draws from a small pool of elite graduates.
What have firms said?
The managing partner of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s (BCLP) London office, Segun Osuntokun, said the situation has improved since he joined the profession nearly thirty years ago. He said there is a “strong pipeline of BAME junior lawyers, but the challenge is to see those junior lawyers promoted as associates and partners”.
A survey conducted by the SRA, the regulatory body in England and Wales found that BAME lawyers had risen from 14% in 2014 to 21% in 2019. Lawyers from an Asian background make up two-thirds of the total and, black lawyers make up just 3%, the same as in 2017. The worse was at the partner level with 8% of partners at big firms; those with 50+ partners were BAME.
Law firms had success in recruitment but a failure in retention and promotion. A number of law firms have tried to fix the problem by trying different solutions. Ashurst has worked with recruiters to widen its pool of potential new hires with more than 40% of the most recent graduates in London coming from BAME backgrounds. Linklaters engages with BAME-owned recruitment firms to identify BAME candidates, and Hogan Lovells has increased its ethnic minority graduate intake from 10% to 30%. Miguel Zaldivar, the new global chief executive of Hogan Lovells, has made diversity and inclusion one of his top five priorities.
Constance Ulmer-Eilfort, a member of the global executive committee at Baker McKenzie who leads the firm’s global diversity and inclusion efforts, says discussing racism openly was an important first step. She adds that current momentum is key and seizing on it is so important.
Some firms are rethinking how work is allocated. The tradition was that partners chose their associates on projects, but senior lawyers have typically favoured those of a similar background. Segun Osuntokun of BCLP is considering employing a third-party adjudicator to determine how work is allocated rather than let partners decide. Regardless of this, some believe a more radical approach is required for firms’ business models.
Moni Mannings, former partner of Olswang and an FTSE 100 board director, says the situation has improved so much since she began law and was once the only woman of colour at her law firm. However, she says senior levels remain “astonishingly white male”. She goes on to say “law firms are a club” and “self-interest is closely aligned to managerial interests”.
Ultimately, law firms have come a long way to improving diversity since those days, but there is still further action required and law firms are being told not to ‘talk the talk, but to walk the walk’. Actions speak louder than words.