Legal Business Blogs

Comment: The answer to law firms’ social ills is not another league table

Have we reached peak aspirational employer league table yet? From the perspective of the legal industry we certainly should have, given the trend in recent years for the profession to turn up with improbably high rankings in a proliferating range of ‘best employers for…’ tables.

Were an alien to descend to earth and judge the industry on the basis of these rankings they would conclude that the profession had cracked social mobility, gender diversity, gay-empowerment and quality of life… all the while generating a tonne of money.

As we highlighted recently, the over-representation by the legal profession in these rankings has now reached absurd levels, with one such ranking last month on social mobility – where the profession has a terrible record – having nearly one third of its top 50 supposedly outstanding employers being drawn from the legal profession. What does that tell you beyond the propensity of law firms to enter any league table going?

It certainly highlights that for years now a once hard-nosed industry has been well into the initiative-strewn platitude phase of responding to all manner of soft issues in which it feels it needs to be seen to be doing something. In some ways it was more admirable when City law firms were honest about not caring.

Some will counter that these initiatives are worthy and that effort is to be welcomed. As a first step, fine, but the obvious response is that these programmes are supposed to be a means to an end – to improve something or make positive changes – not to create the illusion of progress.

Law firms are certainly adept at coming up with pretty policies but – as the poor record on retaining female lawyers demonstrates – generally awful at securing change on the ground. If firms are not measuring the results of what they are doing, why are they doing it beyond marketing?

Are, for example, current attempts to make recruitment practices support diversity making any headway or just generating a cottage industry in specialist consultants and snake oil recruitment models? There are plenty of reasons for scepticism.

The other problem with slick initiatives that are not followed through with genuine change is that they breed cynicism. One of the quickest ways for an institution to create disenchantment is for staff to find there is a yawning chasm between their employer’s rhetoric and the reality of how it behaves and treats people. You can frame it in current corporate jargon of values and authenticity if you wish, or just consider it a matter of honesty, ethics and fairness.

But at a certain point, the legal profession should surely turn its attention away from tables, submissions and policies and put its collective mind towards achieving results and deciding its priorities.

That does not mean framing these issues narrowly in terms of the business case for doing better on diversity or whatever. In the short term the economic case for change in these realms is marginal for law firms – they can function fine with 70-80%-plus male partnerships. But just because they can does not mean they should. It is going to take a conscious choice and leadership to force through change.

The profession cannot resolve every societal problem but it can address some. Pick your battles and give the league table submissions a rest. They are not part of the solution but they are starting to look like part of the problem.

See our blog on the subject: The legal profession’s ‘domination’ of best employer rankings hits parody levels as City law firms recast as social mobility champions