Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Fieldfisher’s Chissick on why real change on diversity needs leadership in law

‘Did you see the game at the weekend?’ is the type of question I am often asked at events. I know my answer, ‘no, I don’t really follow sport’ – will kill the conversation dead, and I don’t have the skills or required knowledge to blag my way through the small talk of the weekend’s fixture list.

Of course, plenty of gay men love sport but questions such as this, typically asked of men but not women, are one example of the unconscious bias in much professional banter. Thankfully the abundance of LGBT networking events now means we can avoid the assumption that the men in the room keep one eye on Sky Sports and hammer out business deals at the 19th hole.

In themselves the array of LGBT-specific events, both within the legal sector and for professionals outside it, show how far things have come since the 1980s, when I came out. The rise of HIV/AIDS, a lack of gay role models, and a working environment that meant many were unable to progress in their careers if they were out, made for a very difficult decade.

Things got better through the 1990s and 2000s and now being gay is arguably positive for career development. Ask a recruiter to pick between two equal candidates, one white and privately-educated and the other fitting into any given diversity group, and there will no doubt be genuine consideration given to picking the latter – simply because it would take them one step closer to a firm’s self-imposed diversity targets.

These targets are churned out through the legal press on a seemingly weekly basis, with firms committing to reach, say, 30% of female partners by a certain date. The firm grabs a headline then and they could easily grab another by announcing they’ve reached their goal having simply promoted however many female associates to salaried or junior partner status as their deadline nears.

What is more likely is that firms will continue to see female partnership levels stay at around 20% – a figure that companies across industries struggle to get past – unless they make real moves to proactively manage talent and to champion female role models across the business.

Whether through genuinely flexible working policies, support for those returning to work or female-specific development programmes, initiatives will only be successful if they are more than box-ticking. Senior support is critical, and not just from those within the diversity groups: heterosexuals championing the LGBT group, and senior men going further than trumpeting the cause of the Women’s Development Programme by helping women to climb the career ladder, will help these groups progress to becoming an integral part of the make-up of the firm.

Championing diversity is not just good internally. The business case for celebrating difference is clear, and it is growing. Our clients are increasingly challenging us on our diversity policies throughout the tendering process. But it is more than just meeting client desire for diverse supply chains: diversity breeds success. One of our pitch teams won an instruction recently because the client had grown tired of being presented to by men in suits, and our all-female team brought a different approach that landed us the client. Difference of sex, difference of background – just two factors that lead to differences in approach and thought. Many firms claim to be innovative in their marketing material – is that possible without a diverse team?

It’s not just employees and clients who want diverse firms. We’re already seeing younger generations demand much more than salaries and pensions from their employers. Graduates now expect flexible working policies and opportunities to get involved in social responsibility programmes. Managing and supporting talent from day one is vital to ensuring women stay and grow with a firm in an age where competitors are telling them, through numerous channels, why they should work for them instead.

There’s no quick fix, but firms that set targets will only beat them if they make meaningful, long-term changes from the top down. At the time of writing, we’re finalising plans for our third annual Diversity and Inclusion Week – numerous internal events to celebrate the diversity that does exist within the firm; highlighting that senior figures are on board and creating discussion around the various topics under the diversity umbrella.

For LGBTs the road has been a long and bumpy one but it seems the group is, now, by and large accepted. On the contrary, the cause of women has been stuck in traffic for some time. Announcing targets might put the firm on the front page, but unless the firm’s management is committed to nurturing a diverse group from day one, and embracing difference from the top down, achieving them won’t get any easier.

Michael Chissick (pictured) is managing partner of Fieldfisher.