Company culture and core values are the backbones of every law firm. They inform the firm’s professional conduct, its strategies and systems, and form the basis of the firm’s individual brand. While some values are openly plastered across websites and articles published by the business, others are advertised during open days to prospective applicants to distinguish one law firm from the next. Some values, however, are unspoken but just as important in shaping one’s professional reputation.
Teamwork and public speaking have long been considered important transferable skills for lawyers. Now, personal branding has become a skill that is perhaps just as useful. To enhance one’s personal branding, LinkedIn remains the ideal and most popular platform to use, but Instagram and Twitter are likewise making rounds as they become increasingly popular among young professionals. On such platforms, young people are encouraged to speak about their achievements, to broaden their networks to like-minded peers, and occasionally write posts that will showcase their personal thoughts, values and ambitions to potential employers.
It’s common for lawyers on LinkedIn to claim to uphold the same values as many law firms: for example, Linklaters’ website boldly emphasises the importance of ‘respect’ and ‘embracing diversity’; Clifford Chance sees ‘inclusion as an intrinsic value of our firm’, even a ‘core part of our identity’; and CMS considers its employees to be ‘team players’. Unsurprisingly, such values are commonplace across LinkedIn posts made by legal enthusiasts ranging from sixth form students to law society presidents, from newly qualified lawyers to partners in law firms.
But once we look past these ‘cardboard’ values and investigate how unspoken presumptions and expectations affect young lawyers, then we might get to the heart of an issue that is affecting many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of young people in law.
Law firms lose little in claiming to respect other cultures and faiths, so long as those ‘alternative’ values do not enter important meetings or disrupt the law firm in any substantial, or merely noticeable, way.
Rukhsana Khan is not a lawyer: she is a Pakistani-born, award-winning author of children’s books and a beloved storyteller. But her testimonial to the awkwardness and tension in meeting rooms as a Muslim woman, when a male colleague extends his hand to shake hers at the start or end of a meeting, is invaluable and entirely relevant to the experience of many Muslim lawyers. As she notes, many religiously observant Muslim women believe they cannot have physical contact with members of the opposite sex outside of their immediate family; in a professional context, this mean that many Muslim women will be uncomfortable shaking hands with men – a gesture which in a secular, Western context is seen as a sign of mutual respect and cordiality. Khan admits that at times like this she would digress from her values and ‘count on the fact that God is merciful and would forgive me for the transgression’. This is a heart-breaking confession and must spur law firms to consider if there are other such cultural expectations they are placing on their workers, which young lawyers must accept as simply the ‘price of admission’ into the legal world.
An unconscious pressure faced by lawyers is that of drinking alcohol at social events. It is more common than not to centre social events around the consumption of alcohol, and those who don’t drink find they have few other options to enjoy themselves in a way that aligns with their personal, cultural or religious values. As the Law Gazette relates, a Twitter poll run in 2020 by the Junior Lawyers Division found that nearly 40% of respondents claimed they drank alcohol at a work event only because they felt pressured to do so.
The emphasis of alcohol in the legal world is, of course, entirely informal and one may argue that those who don’t wish to drink alcohol won’t face any deliberate scrutiny for not doing so: however, this doesn’t account for the empirical, lived experiences of many lawyers who have felt excluded by the lack of cultural and religious diversity in law firms. Muslims are affected by this as a faith group as it is expressly forbidden in Islam to consume alcohol; there are also stringent rules regarding whether Muslims can even consume food and other drinks from a venue where alcohol is served. But other groups, such as ex-alcoholics or those who simply wish not to drink in work settings, are also alienated by this informal policy of drinking at social events in order to make a good, friendly impression and score ‘likeability points’ with one’s colleagues.
The unregulated consumption of alcohol during internal social events can also result in wider legal and ethical issues, which law firms are just now starting to appreciate. Kieran Pender, a senior legal adviser at the International Bar Association, has stated that ‘we have seen alcohol involved in many cases of sexual harassment and misconduct, so the profession really needs to face up to this’.
It is not only Muslims who must wrestle with these unspoken values of professional ‘etiquette’; for observant Jews, as one example, it remains a struggle to discuss with employers why they cannot work on Friday nights or for most of Saturday because they’re observing Shabbat. Similarly, checking phones and emails is impossible, which makes many observant Jews completely unreachable during these days. This may set apart some religious Jews from other employees who do work on Saturdays, who do attend calls and even come into offices if need be. But such differences should be celebrated and welcomed in a diverse law firm, rather than tacitly shunned.
The next steps are easy and small: social events can exclude alcohol altogether and focus instead on team-building experiences: the Instagram user ‘@life.with.maab’ is a practicing Muslim who has written a post about navigating alcoholic events at legal institutions. She began by stating ‘I’ve had many DMs about [this]’, which proves that this is a real and burgeoning issue for many lawyers. Drawing on her personal experience, she portrayed the dilemma simply: ‘do we give in to the pressure to fit in or do we decline the invitation and potentially hurt our future career progression?’ – there is a palpable undercurrent of fear that law firms will not understand (or even respect) different religious values which conflict with their own.
Thankfully, the account does outline some potential ideas for non-alcoholic social events which are more inclusive- and fun! She suggests ideas like bowling, escape rooms, group volunteering, sports days, pottery and painting classes, team cooking classes, laser tagging and go-karting, flower arrangement classes, and going to amusement parks- all to name a few. Personally, I recently spoke with two apprentices who’d just begun their journeys at CMS; both were elated to discuss how CMS had arranged virtual escape rooms and a virtual pizza-making class to facilitate team bonding.
These alternative social events will help to create a more inclusive legal environment. It will also create groups of young lawyers who are more heavily involved during social events as there is no expectation to simply ‘drink and discuss’ but instead to properly get to know your team-mates. As such, lawyers from all backgrounds can form relationships outside of networking in bars, where there can be a constant air of competition.
Diversity will not be a given in the legal world; it must be actively sought and worked for. Law firms cannot merely pat themselves on the back for reaching their target rates of however many BAME or disabled lawyers they were able to take on board this year; there must be a constant endeavour to accommodate for the diversity of their employees.
Flexibility is often cited as a quality that is highly desired in a potential work candidate. But law firms should observe the same principle with just as much zeal, if they do indeed want a diverse and inclusive workforce. Not all employees will be able to work in the same way; this shouldn’t affect one’s chances of succeeding in the workplace so long as both the employer and employee reach a firm understanding of which values the employee is unwilling to sacrifice. Here, then, ‘cardboard values’ have no place in the discussion.