The Law Society rightfully emphasise the need for law firms to facilitate diversity and inclusion through reports focusing on inclusivity and responsiveness. ‘Diversity’ itself, at times feeling a little worn out as a term, sometimes neglects to acknowledge those other parts of people that contribute to diversity. Religion is an extraordinarily large part of so many people’s lives. Solicitors and barristers at all levels including pupils, juniors and paralegals cannot be divorced from this reality.
‘FAITH AND LAW’ (1999)
In a Law Gazette article from 1999 titled “Faith and Law”, the holding of religious belief as a lawyer was thoroughly considered. Then-partner of Dibb Lupton Alsop Makbool Javaid, then-former chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, said: ‘There is still a problem with religious discrimination in the legal profession, but that should not come as a surprise as it reflects the prevailing values and attitudes of society.
The 1999 article references the experiences of some contemporary Jewish lawyers. Some were more Orthodox than others. Some did not work on the Sabbath; others were more Secular or Atheist and worked on the Sabbath. In the absence of protection from religious discrimination, they – like many others – were subject to discrimination by association regardless of their views, something which is now firmly against the law. In my network alone, I can point out a number of individuals who found it exceedingly difficult to progress their career in this period due to a lack of basic legal protections.
At the time, the Law Society rules did not even prohibit discrimination against political partners on grounds of religion. Under those rules, it is no wonder that individuals such as then-partner of Fairchild Dobbs, Nigel Spoor, stated:
‘Our clients have all different religious beliefs, and we do not discriminate on the grounds of religion, but at the same time, we do not make a secret of it, membership of the association is included on the notepaper.’
One such unstated benefit of that (then)-Association was that its firms only accepted partners who were Christian. To a competent Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, or Hindu solicitor capable of partnership at the time, their faith would not have positively influenced their career.
EMBRACING RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL NEEDS
Thankfully, times have changed, as have attitudes and behaviours. However, the facilitation of individuals’ religious and spiritual needs in the workplace must continue to evolve. Whether that be coming to arrangements for prayer spaces; being flexible enough to not make employees work at sacred times such as the Jewish Sabbath or some of the last ten nights of the month of Ramadan; to avoid bullying and victimisation due to faith, and to permit the wearing of sacred items of clothing in the workplace.
As revealed in a recent article by VOX on work-place biases toward Conservative employees in Silicon Valley, the lifestyles of religiously observant employees can lead to many feeling like they do not “fit in” when certain needs are not met. The author states:
“If you don’t embrace that [excessive partying] — whether because you’re older, belong to a traditional religion that comes into conflict with countercultural values, or just aren’t that into partying — it can be hard to fit in. And that matters in an economically dominant field that’s hard enough to penetrate even without cultural obstacles.”
While the legal profession has come a long way from the 90s, it still needs a gentle, continuous reminder. That just because a person’s religious inclinations and lifestyle might not revolve around what seems trendy or “modern”, they are not any less competent or capable as a lawyer. The legal profession holds enormous economic sway as a global industry that must remain open to hiring employees of different cloths and values. Without this, no matter the commitment to diversity and progressivism, the profession could once again risk becoming exclusionary and prone to ceaseless rigidity.