Diversity: law firms push for BAME representation amid Black Lives Matter protests

Margaret TaylorTuesday 4 August 2020

When Black American citizen George Floyd was killed by a white police officer at the end of May, anti-racism protests were sparked globally. With his death giving fresh momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement, businesses of all stripes declared that racial equality would become a key feature of their employment practices.

In the legal sector, organisations were quick to mobilise. In the United Kingdom for example, over 20 firms signed up to recruitment consultant Rare’s Race Fairness Commitment, which requires signatories to collect and publish data on the proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers they hire as well as on how those lawyers progress in comparison to white colleagues.

Law firm Baker McKenzie also set up its own taskforce to advance racial and ethnic diversity across its 77 offices.

Some clients, when they are selecting counsel, will say at the outset that diversity and inclusion is going to be a factor in their decision-making. It’s not universal, but it’s pretty common

Stephen Bowman
Co-Chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee

Such initiatives enable firms to publicly commit to improving their records on promoting racial diversity.

However, Stephen Bowman, Co-Chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee and Vice Chair and Managing Partner of Canadian firm Bennett Jones, warns that as the ultimate goal is to make legal businesses more representative at the senior end, it will be some time before any of these pledges start to bear fruit.

‘The pipeline to become a partner in a law firm in Toronto is somewhere between eight and 12 years after you become a qualified lawyer and on the day they get their diploma [students] will have done seven years at university,’ he says. ‘That’s a long road.’

Clients are increasingly becoming involved in ensuring their advisers remained focused on the end result. Last year technology corporation Intel announced that as of January 2021 it will no longer instruct firms whose United States equity partnerships do not include at least ten per cent under-represented minorities.

Despite this trend, Bowman notes that clients can fail to hold their advisers to account because they are not always consistent in ensuring their demands are met.

‘Some, when they are selecting counsel, will say at the outset that diversity and inclusion is going to be a factor in their decision-making. It’s not universal, but it’s pretty common,’ he says.

‘But there will be cases when they will contradict themselves by saying “on this matter we want the best team”. There may be a sense that they are not seeking diversity on that day,’ adds Bowman. ‘It’s not like they are going to say explicitly “forget about diversity”, they will just underscore this has to be your very best people.’

Given that the partnerships and management teams of most international firms remain dominated by white, middle-aged men, implicit in the demand for the ‘very best people’ is the notion that those people will be white, middle-aged men. If firms are not hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds they cannot promote them into senior positions, leading the idea that firm’s white male leaders are ‘the best’ to become self-perpetuating.

Abhijit Mukhopadhyay, Secretary of the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and President (Legal) and General Counsel at Hinduja Group, notes that, even when they have made their own commitment to promoting inclusion, clients sometimes have no choice but to accept a lack of diversity from their advisory teams.

‘I’m fighting a cross-border litigation in different countries, which is extremely complex and I have ten law firms in different jurisdictions,’ he explains. ‘Absolutely, I’d choose the most diverse firm if [on all other measures] there were two the same. We’re a business of Indian origin and I’d love to go with a firm that has complete diversity, there’s no doubt about it, but at the end of the day I need to win.’

Law firm Clifford Chance has set itself targets for ensuring its commitment to racial diversity does not wane. Putting a numerical figure on where it wants to be and when was judged to be the best way of ensuring success, with the firm pledging that 15 per cent of new partners and 30 per cent of senior associates in the UK and US will come from a minority ethnic background by 2025.

‘We had some prior history of knowing that our gender balance target did inspire change,’ says Laura King, Clifford Chance’s Global Head of People and Talent. ‘If you set targets it’s incumbent on you to publish the results every year. We emphasise with the entire firm that the people who are interested in that are the people we are interested in attracting: clients and talent.’

King notes the data they’ve collected so far indicates that, unlike with gender diversity, where women have been shown to face discrimination at the promotion stage, those from minority ethnic backgrounds are disadvantaged ‘right back at the recruitment stage’. To address this, it appears that firms will have to intervene even earlier in prospective candidates’ careers. This, King says, would require a ‘sector-wide, industry-wide or even countrywide’ focus.

Amir Bocayuva Cunha, Member of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Advisory Board and Corporate and M&A Managing Partner at BMA, believes that is the correct route to go down, with Brazilian law firms only able to start addressing their own racial inequalities after inequalities at the educational level were looked at first.

Noting that Afro-Brazilians in particular are under-represented in education and the professions, he says a 2012 law requiring 25 per cent of public university places to be reserved for candidates of African or Indian descent has meant firms finally have access to a more diverse pool of talent. ‘In the past you could do anything you wanted to try to hire Afro-Brazilians, but you couldn’t find anyone. The quotas have made a huge difference.’

‘On average it takes 12 years to become a partner so to reach the highest levels will take some time, but if you took a picture of my firm three years ago you would hardly see a Black lawyer,’ he adds. ‘Now we have been able to engage ten to 15 Black lawyers. They are still few, but it is the beginning.’