Legal Business Blogs

CC breaks ground with 15% ethnic minority target for partners but can the profession follow through?

Is the next front on diversity in the profession targets for ethnic minority representation? The industry looks to be slowly moving that way with the news that Clifford Chance (CC) is committing to a host of new targets aimed at boosting diversity.

Though the package unveiled today (14 July) is focused on representation on many fronts, it will be CC’s new commitments on ethnic diversity that will attract the most attention. The firm is aiming to have 15% of its UK and US partner promotions and lateral hires from minority ethnic backgrounds by 2025, averaged over the previous five-year period. There is an additional target of 30% representation for senior associates and senior business professionals in the same region by 2025 as a whole, not just hires and promotions.

The move sees the London institution strike out as one of the first leading commercial practices to commit to hard targets for ethnic representation, coming after the profession has conducted some soul searching this summer in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

An earlier, pioneering move by Eversheds Sutherland in September 2019 saw the firm introduce a target for ethnic minority representation of its UK partnership to reach 10% by 2025, against a current figure of 5.3%.

With major London law firms struggling to achieve ethnic representation at senior levels, hitting such figures will prove a considerable stretch. CC currently has just 7.4% of its partnership in the UK drawn from ethnic minority backgrounds, though its UK associate ranks do considerably better at 27.6%.

CC’s global director of inclusion Tiernan Brady commented on the move: ‘There is nothing inevitable about inclusion. There is no hidden arc of progress that will make it happen automatically. If we want to build an inclusive firm and society, we have to work hard and campaign for it, set goals and when we achieve them, defend and champion them. The top of our firm needs to look like the rest of the firm and the societies we are based in. It is both a core value and an economic imperative, and it is the future for the legal sector.’

The initiative echoes CC’s pioneering move more than a decade back to set public targets for female partnership ranks and now sees the firm increase its previous 30% benchmark for female partnership representation to 40% by 2030.

This benchmark means CC’s UK and Asia offices – the regions with the strongest record on gender diversity – have the goal of increasing the proportion of female partners by 25% by 2025 and 60% by 2030. The firm’s US and Continental European offices, meanwhile, have the task of attempting to double their proportion of female partners in the next decade, a huge undertaking given the demographics of a major law firm.

The 40% target for female representation will also be extended through all levels of CC’s structure, covering lawyers and business services. The firm has also introduced a global target for LGBT representation at partner level of 3% by 2025.

CC’s move comes as a separate initiative backed by 17 major law firms, including the entire Magic Circle, was announced in recent weeks dubbed the Race Fairness Commitment. The ‘open-source’ venture calls on signatories to compile data to ‘identify the weak points in organisations’ cultures and hierarchies that unfairly hold back black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers’.

The initiative does not, however, require firms to publish breakdowns of their ethnic diversity representation. The project is the brainchild of Segun Osuntokun, London managing partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, and is supported by the specialist consultancy Rare.

While such steps are laudable, cynics will question whether the legal industry is turning again to initiatives that attract headlines rather than drive action. Notably, the legal social inclusion group PRIME attracted huge publicity and take-up but has since struggled to deliver tangible results. Some question the use of overarching BAME benchmarks as concealing the painful lack of progress in supporting black professionals up the ranks of City law.

Even when law firms have come up with hard targets, they have frequently been missed. Despite being widely viewed as one of the most progressive leading law firms, CC is still a huge distance off the 30% target it set back in 2009 for female partner representation. Its global tally currently stands at 19.8%.

The more charitably minded will view the latest commitment from CC as moving the debate forward after years in which the profession has preferred to smother discussion of race with D&I jargon and superficial marketing.

If CC can help the profession consider more radical measures to tackle entrenched inequality, it will have done the industry a real service. But eventually the profession must address why so many comparable initiatives fail to reach the communities they are supposed to help.

For more analysis of the City’s record on ethnic diversity see last year’s cover feature, Ticking boxes