Diversity in law firms: slow progress

Thursday 21 July 2016



Achieving diversity is one of the most challenging management issues law firms now confront. For over a decade, firms have been seeking to raise levels of women, ethnic and other minority groups within their ranks and especially within their higher echelons. Yet, despite their considerable efforts, progress is proving to be frustratingly slow.

‘We’ve had years of initiatives to improve diversity in firms and to some extent they’ve been successful, but they’ve not had the full impact they should have had and this is a major concern,’ says Tony Hyams-Parish, a partner at English firm Rawlison Butler and Co-Chair of the IBA’s Discrimination and Equality Law Committee.

While what amounts to discrimination in different countries varies, firms are confronting the same issues wherever they are. ‘There remains widespread inequality between men and women and people from different ethnic and social groups at the top of the profession across many jurisdictions,’ says Hyams-Parish.

 Paulette Brown, ABA President

Paulette Brown,
ABA President

The statistics speak for themselves. The Law Society of England and Wales’ Diversity Profile for the Profession for 2015 reveals that 75.1 per cent of practising solicitors are white European, 13.9 per cent are from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and 2.5 per cent are lesbian, gay or bisexual. While 51.2 per cent of practitioners were male and 48.8 per cent female, 71.2 per cent of all partners were men.  In America, the ABA reports that 88 per cent of lawyers are white. Like Hyams-Parish, ABA President Paulette Brown says the profession’s diversity profile is disappointing. ‘We’re behind the other professions on this. People of colour make up 7 per cent of partners in American firms. We want to be better than that.’

One explanation is that the profession’s focus on diversity is relatively recent. ‘Industry was ahead of us on this. In the profession in England and Wales, the attention really started with our Legal Services Act of 2007,’ says Tony Hyams-Parish. ‘Our regulations now require firms to ensure that all their lawyers receive equal opportunities training and provide annual reports on diversity.’

‘‘We’ve had years of initiatives to improve diversity in firms and to some extent they’ve been successful, but they’ve not had the full impact they should have had

Tony Hyams-Parish, Co-Chair, IBA Discrimination and Equality Law Committee

The business drivers for embracing diversity are now also well acknowledged by lawyers. 'Clients have really focused on diversity and expect their legal advisers to do the same,' says Brown. 

Firms say large corporations expect pitching teams to be more diverse and for firms to demonstrate their diversity credentials.  With younger lawyers having different expectations about matters like equality, diversity programmes are also seen as central to retaining talent.

‘For me this is the biggest pressure for change (aside from the fact that it’s simply the right thing to do),’ says IBA President and Debevoise & Plimpton partner David W Rivkin. ‘The competition for the most able young lawyers is fiercer than ever. Any firm recruiting from a narrow sub-set of society will be missing out on lawyers with huge potential. There’s also the issue of maintaining effective leadership. Unless we achieve greater diversity among those leading the profession, it risks becoming out of touch with the wider world.’

As scrutiny of their diversity profiles has increased, many firms have invested considerable resources in diversity and have adopted a raft of programmes to facilitate change.

Initially, many aimed at gender diversity as the numbers of women and men entering the profession being equal, but relatively few women were gaining partnerships and, in particular, equity partnerships. Social background too has been a subject of attention while the focus on ethnic groups and LGBT lawyers has been more recent. 

 Tony Hyams-Parish

Tony Hyams-Parish,
Co-Chair, IBA Discrimination and Equality Law Committee

Training in equality and inclusion and in direct and implicit bias has become commonplace and recruitment processes shaped to address bias issues. Programmes aimed at women have included mentoring schemes and more flexible working arrangements to encourage working women lawyers to continue their careers. 

Firms are addressing social diversity by reaching out into universities and schools to encourage youngsters from diverse backgrounds to consider a legal career. Large firms now have dedicated diversity managers and some have announced aspirational targets for women partners. 

Firms say that now some progress is being made. Charandeep Kaur, Vice-Chair of the IBA’s Women Lawyers’ Interest Group, and a partner of Indian firm Trilegal, says that between 10–15 per cent of partners in Indian firms are now women and with the active encouragement of women lawyers to continue their careers, ‘I’d expect to see a lot more within the next 5–10 years.’ 

At Hogan Lovells, 23 per cent of the firm’s partners globally are women - up from 19 per cent in 2010. Baker & McKenzie reports that women now make up 25.3 per cent of its partners and 40 per cent of its most recent promotions are women. DLA Piper has 20 per cent women partners globally. At Debevoise & Plimpton, 40 percent of new partners in the last eight years have been women, which Rivkin links not just to successful diversity programmes but strong women role models in the firm. ‘Female partners have long led practices like litigation, private equity and investment management,’ he says.   

Charandeep Kaur

Charandeep Kaur,
Vice-Chair, IBA Women Lawyers' Interest Group

Whatever their level, however, diversity profiles aren’t altering at the expected rate and firms are therefore adopting more targeted approaches and initiating new projects to prompt greater change. Some are aiming to secure higher levels of various groups at the intern and trainee recruitment stage.

Brown notes that firms are now using sponsorship as well as mentoring programmes to help champion women and others.  ‘A mentor helps with advice, but a sponsor actively champions a person’s financial cause which can really help make a difference,’ she says.

At Hogan Lovells, Diversity Manager Alison Unsted says the firm is now concentrating on the retention and advancement of talent at more junior levels to sharpen its focus.  'We’re also considering if there are structural barriers to people’s progression, like the allocation of work,’ she says.

Brown agrees that firms must focus on lawyers from groups under-represented at partnership level at an earlier age. A programme being developed by the ABA aims to help women, ethic minority and LGBTI lawyers get greater opportunities to generate income.  ‘Our Division One Committee is asking Fortune 100 companies to give these lawyers work directly so they get the credit in their firms for the spend rather than a partner,’ she reports. 

 Yet Tony Hyams-Parish and others insist that even more radical approaches may be needed. ‘The traditional partnership model is not always conducive to helping women in particular,’ he says. ‘The demands of gaining equity partnership and lockstep remuneration arrangements are challenging – especially to working mothers. More flexibility is needed on working arrangements and targets.’ Despite the progress made so far, no one it seems is satisfied and so the diversity challenge continues.