IBA European Regional Forum Diversity & Inclusion Survey report: Building active engagement with Diversity & Inclusion

Thursday 13 January 2022

Margareta Sovova
bnt attorneys in CEE, Bratislava; Chair, Diversity and Inclusion Working Party, IBA European Regional Forum

Antonia Verna
Portolano Cavallo, Milan; Vice-Chair, Diversity and Inclusion Working Party, IBA European Regional Forum


What is Diversity & Inclusion?

Everyone talks about it  however, are we sure that we all agree on what it really means?

The desire to learn more has been the main driver for our survey. Indeed, the survey is an attempt by the Diversity and Inclusion Working Party of the International Bar Association (IBA) European Regional Forum (ERF) to understand how Diversity & Inclusion is perceived by European law firms and to try to learn from each other’s experiences.

The results of the survey enable us to get a better view of practices and policies within law firms, focusing on what law firms have done so far, whether policies are already in place, or whether firms rely on informal initiatives by individuals. It also looks to see whether external regulation is driving change in different jurisdictions.

The survey is just the starting point in the analysis and discussion that we wish to encourage on this topic, and a first step on a path towards promoting a more diverse and inclusive future in the legal profession. It is also intended as a means to build an open dialogue among lawyers, law firms and public institutions, with an exchange of experiences and best practices, and through collaboration with our ERF members and others.

Therefore, our intention at the ERF is to continue building on this survey, and to work together to support lawyers and law firms who want to fully engage with Diversity & Inclusion.

How the survey was conducted

The survey consists of 11 questions addressed to European law firms of different sizes. We counted more than 100 participants (109) and we are very grateful to those who decided to be part of this project.

The survey has been structured to have, at the beginning, questions of a more general nature, followed by those that are more specific and technical. This is a sensitive and complex topic that we wanted to approach with targeted questions.

From the survey, we noticed that a significant proportion of the participants came from: (1) law firms with more than 80 employees (45 per cent); and (2) law firms with 15 employees or less (just under 30 per cent). One could conclude from these figures that participants from medium-sized law firms were less inclined to answer this survey and be proactive on this project. This may be one of a number of aspects to focus on in the future.

What the survey revealed

  • Law firms associate Diversity & Inclusion mainly with issues of gender;
  • Slightly over half of the law firms participating in the survey are aware of diversity issues;
  • Gender diversity is ranked as the topic that receives most focus, while religious orientation scored lowest of the four Diversity & Inclusion groups examined in the survey (specifically, these were: gender diversity, race diversity, religious beliefs and sexual orientation);
  • The majority of law firms do not have a dedicated person responsible for Diversity & Inclusion issues;
  • The majority of law firms do not have an internal policy on Diversity & Inclusion – this is a key area of focus for us. However, the majority of participants state that they apply Diversity & Inclusion principles in practice;
  • The majority of law firms want to address Diversity & Inclusion principles to become better law firms and deliver better services to clients; and
  • Last but not least, the responses show that there is still a potential lack of regulation in this area and arguably, it may be anticipated that if behaviours do not change, more legislation may be required.

The detailed results of the survey and our recommendations are set out below.

Analysis of the answers

Question 2:

Pavla Přikrylová
Peterka & Partners, Prague

In your opinion, which of the following topics should fall under the Diversity & Inclusion matter?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

The above results show that Diversity & Inclusion is perceived predominantly in the context of gender, followed by race, age and sexual orientation, with religious orientation last. It is likely that these results are strongly linked to the region where the survey was taken, that is, Europe, where race or religion in the majority of the countries might not be as pressing an issue as in other parts of the world. However, subject to the above, there was broad consensus that all of the five topics suggested for classification were considered to fall within Diversity & Inclusion.

Therefore, we have concluded that all five topics should continue to be considered and reviewed within law firms as part of the overall assessment of Diversity & Inclusion. There are of course other potential areas of diversity, such as socio-economic, physical disability and neurodiversity. These other areas of diversity were excluded from the survey, but may well be the subject of later research.[1]

Question 3

Pavla Přikrylová

How would you judge the general level of awareness of and dealing with diversity issues in your law firm?

The above results show that slightly over half of the law firms are aware of diversity issues; however, there is still a significant minority (33 per cent) where that awareness seems to be medium to low. This is borne out by further findings drawn from the survey, that is, the lack of a dedicated person for Diversity & Inclusion issues within a large number of firms, the low level of monitoring of Diversity & Inclusion and the lack of internal policies in a large number of law firms.

Therefore, we can certainly conclude that the awareness of Diversity & Inclusion topics should be worked on and improved as there is still significant work to be done.

Question 4

Ross Simpson
Burges Salmon, London

Richard Spink
Burges Salmon, London

To what degree is your firm aware of the following Diversity & Inclusion topics and has implemented specific actions to pursue them?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

(Note that the age diversity results still need to be evaluated – they were not summarised in the pdf ‘all data’ summary)

As one would expect in light of the responses to Question 2, respondents are most aware of gender diversity, and it ranked as the topic that receives most focus among firms represented by the respondents. This is positive, and an important follow up to the survey will be to understand the sort of action firms are taking to tackle issues such as gender balance at senior levels.

Race diversity and sexual orientation received broadly comparable average rankings. This points to a growing commitment to these topics and continued progress in relation to them, and encouragement of that, will be important.

Religious orientation scored lowest of the four diversity and inclusion topics. This could reflect a number of factors, including the sensitivities people sometimes feel about raising the subject of religion in secular settings such as the workplace; an increasingly secular workplace; a lack of diversity from a religious perspective in law firms; or an increase, in relative terms, of emphasis on other forms of diversity. However, a person’s religious beliefs or affiliations are an important part of an individual’s identity and something firms need to consider as part of building a truly inclusive environment that is respectful of the faith and beliefs of its people.

Question 5

Ross Simpson and Richard Spink

Do you monitor the level of Diversity & Inclusion on a periodical basis?

The results suggest that a significant minority of law firms do not monitor Diversity & Inclusion on a regular basis. This points to the need to raise awareness of the benefits of monitoring Diversity & Inclusion using clear and appropriate metrics regarding recruitment, retention, pay, progression and representation at different levels.

Tracking representation, and hiring and promotion outcomes, will enable firms to measure progress, identify gaps at particular levels and determine where adjustments may be needed.

As the old adage goes: what gets measured, gets done!

Question 6

Rune Ulriksen Steinsland
Thommessen, Oslo

Do you have a dedicated person/team in charge of these issues?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

In the wake of, inter alia, the Black Lives Matter protests, research by LinkedIn in 2020 found that the number of people with the title ‘head of diversity’ more than doubled worldwide between 2015 and 2020, while the ‘director of diversity’ title rose in use by 75 per cent and ‘chief diversity officer’ by 68 per cent.

Law firms seem to have followed the same trend, although it is somewhat surprising that more than half (54.27 per cent) do not have any such dedicated person. It is worth noting that approximately half of the respondents represent law firms of less than 50 fee earners.

The chief diversity officer (CDO) role does not necessarily need to be a 100 per cent position nor is an entire team needed – all depending on the size of the law firm and/or the challenges within Diversity & Inclusion locally. In theory, a CDO should help to identify and measure gaps in an organisation’s equal opportunities structures, and create a strategy to tackle discrimination and improve representation across ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability and class. This may mean expanding recruitment pools, setting targets linked to compensation, monitoring retention and promotion rates, and driving cultural change. Yet the title is meaningless if an organisation’s head of diversity has little sway, budget or clarity of purpose. At some organisations, appointing people to these roles can be a cosmetic reaction to address reputational issues.

Further discussion topics could be:

  • Should every firm have someone in this role? What are the reasons not to?
  • Is there a risk that such an appointment is just ‘ticking a box’ and/or giving a difficult problem to one person as CDO rather than addressing cultural problems collectively?
  • How do firms empower a CDO sufficiently to be able to succeed?

Question 7

Rune Ulriksen Steinsland

Do you have an internal policy to follow?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

Various research has shown that adopting diversity policies offers clear benefits for organisations and the workforce, such as greater product innovation, enhanced marketing opportunities, better corporate image, and improved communication processes and managerial styles, as well as reduced staff turnover and absenteeism. However, as with the CDO role, there is a risk that the policy is drafted but not carried out in practice and is simply forgotten about.

The number of respondents that do not have a policy is broadly equivalent to those who do not have a CDO or similar. So, it appears to show that nominating someone responsible at least is likely to result in the establishment of a policy for the law firm, a policy which, if implemented, could help address Diversity & Inclusion issues.

Further discussion topics could be:

  • Should every firm have diversity policies? What are the reasons not to?
  • How do you ensure that everyone takes ‘ownership’ of the policy?
  • How and when do you update, maintain and adapt such a policy?

Question 8

Nicola Broadhurst
Stevens & Bolton, London

Aniko Keller
Szecskay, Budapest

Do you implement Diversity & Inclusion principles in practice?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

Almost 80 per cent of the respondents stated that they did implement Diversity & Inclusion principles in practice. Accordingly, most law firms make a conscious effort to include Diversity & Inclusion considerations in business decisions, regardless of whether there is a formalised internal policy.

The figure shows that some degree of social responsibility has been assumed by a significant majority of the respondents to consider Diversity & Inclusion issues. The figure does not indicate, however, in which areas of the business and on which levels of management such considerations are taken into account.

The figure may well reflect the fact that, as noted above, commitment to Diversity & Inclusion – even without a formalised policy – has many benefits for all involved (law firm, clients and staff of the law firm). Among other things, it supports the development of available talent and supports innovation, which may boost the business and improve profitability. Last but not least, creating an inclusive diverse working environment is beneficial for the staff too – it increases their commitment and involvement.

However, the fact that, for some respondents, there is no implementation of principles in practice shows there is still the need for assistance, and it would be good to understand the barriers here. Is it through lack of knowledge on how to implement rather than lack of desire? This appears to be an area where the Diversity and Inclusion Working Party of the ERF could assist by sharing knowledge of best practice and what has worked.

Even if the responses to Questions 6 and 7 show that more than 50 per cent of the respondents do not have an internal policy in place or a dedicated person/team in charge, the awareness by a large majority of law firms of Diversity & Inclusion as an issue is a good basis to promote greater engagement with the creation of a strategy and internal policies.

Question 9

Nicola Broadhurst and Aniko Keller

What are the main reasons for your law firm to address Diversity & Inclusion topics?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

In addition, it is quite clear based on the responses provided that the main reason for a law firm to address Diversity & Inclusion topics is the firm’s own desire to become a better law firm and deliver better services to clients. It seems that both client and employee expectations also provide a strong motivation to address these issues. The figure may also reflect that a commitment to Diversity & Inclusion is seen as important to attract talent, as well to meet clients’ increased focus on these matters.

Questions 10 and 11

Nicola Broadhurst and Aniko Keller

Are there any special regulations on Diversity & Inclusion issues in your jurisdiction?

Immagine che contiene tavolo

Descrizione generata automaticamente

Are there any special regulations on Diversity & Inclusion issues referred to law firms in your jurisdiction?

Compliance with mandatory rules appears to be a less relevant factor. This may, of course, also be due to no special regulations being in place in respect of Diversity & Inclusion in most of the jurisdictions. Thus, the vast majority of the responses confirm that special regulations on Diversity & Inclusion issues referred to law firms do not exist, not even for professional organisations, although other regulations may have an indirect impact.

An increased need for transparency, whether through legislation or client pressure, would help drive change. With the increasing emphasis on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) for most businesses, it is likely that clients will be demanding more from their lawyers in this regard as they, in turn, have to report on their own supply chain and be held to account.

The responses show that there is still a potential lack of regulation in this area and arguably it is to be anticipated that if behaviours do not change, more legislation may be required.


What next?

We hope you have found the content of this document useful and interesting. Just as importantly, we will need your further support and cooperation as we intend to use the results of the survey to inform next steps in raising awareness of Diversity & Inclusion topics among ERF members and other law firms.

Our key area of focus is to try to assist in developing core guidelines for best practice in the design and implementation of Diversity & Inclusion policies that are relevant and workable for firms of different sizes across the various jurisdictions. To do that, we will need support from ERF and IBA members and their respective firms.

Our thanks go to...

We are sincerely grateful to our guides and mentors Chris Owen and David O’Connell, who have encouraged and continue to encourage us in this journey, and all members of the Diversity and Inclusion Working Party of the ERF, who have supported this project and have made it possible by contributing through their great work, as well as all ERF members who have participated in the survey by sharing their experiences on Diversity & Inclusion activities within their law firms.

Let’s continue to work together on this.

With our sincere thanks! Ad Maiora!

Margareta Sovova and Antonia Verna


[1] At the point of preparing the survey, the ERF’s focus was on areas of discrimination with little legislative protection. The ERF sees the value in potentially extending the focus to other areas of discrimination and may explore this in future work.