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Guest comment: Corporate values mean nothing without cost – City law’s moment has come to champion diversity

An institution’s values and commitment to inclusion are only real when tested. It is in challenging times that we decide whether we embrace those values and these are the defining moments that ultimately prove their worth. Amid a global pandemic, political upheavals, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent movement that has flowed from his death, the profession’s actions will show if our values are either luxury items to be paraded when convenient or the rock on which we build our business.

It is precisely now beset by challenges that we need to put inclusion at the heart of our decisions. Leading law firms have often waxed lyrical about commitments to diversity; now is the moment to step up if we truly believe inclusion is a core value and an economic imperative.

Clifford Chance recently announced a comprehensive set of inclusion targets, which aim to deliver meaningful change across gender, ethnic minorities and LGBT+ at the firm. They are not a numbers exercise where figures are picked on the whims of woke. It is about delivering a firm where the top floor looks like the front door and to help stem the drain of diverse talent quitting the law. To be a successful law firm, we need that inclusion. Diversity of thought and experience is a critical ingredient if we are serious about finding creative answers to the most complex and challenging questions our clients face.

These new targets have been announced in the middle of a global health and economic crisis because it is times like this when a firm’s values come to the fore. We take action now because it will strengthen our firm, but also because the potential impact of these crises on inclusion will be terrible if left unchecked. Covid-19 is no social leveller. We already know certain ethnicities face worse health outcomes. The impact on our education system will be disproportionately felt by the less affluent, which runs the risk of a career in law seeming beyond the reach of many. Women face the risk of a gendered economic recovery from the pandemic and are more likely to have to make choices between family and career. None of these challenges will correct themselves. They need active leadership and conscious interventions. If City law firms believe in their values, they have to be willing to champion them.

Inclusion is not a new value for the profession. The law is about justice, fairness and equity. Law firms should not be neutral players in the very system that protects these concepts. We need to lead and shape that system to uphold this identity. We need to see inclusion not as a faddish concept but a modern understanding of the foundation the law has been built on for centuries. The 16-year-olds writing law in their college applications are more likely thinking of fairness and justice than the thrills of debt restructuring and asset-backed securities. Inclusion is about returning to those values and being a bridge between the wider business community and justice system.

Building an inclusive environment also enables us to attract and retain the best talent. The job for life is long dead. With greater movement comes greater scrutiny and less institutionalisation. We are all becoming more discerning about which firm we will work for. People want to feel proud, or at the least not ashamed, of their employer. They prefer to work at an organisation that shares their values, and one of the most important measures by which people decide whether the firm is right for them is its commitment to diversity. Perhaps even more important for staff engagement is a firm’s ability to deliver on the ground what its marketing claims the institution stands for.

Unsurprisingly, smart, well-educated workers can easily tell the difference between values talked and values lived. If inclusion is put in the drawer during difficult times then businesses will deservedly lose credibility with staff and clients. When the tough times pass they will face steep barriers if they think they can play catch up and hope no-one notices.

Businesses that continue to lead on inclusion are the ones that will build great cohesion within their teams, enhance their reputation with staff and customers and strengthen credibility on all matters pertaining to their values. During this period of unprecedented challenge, we need to stand up, not sit back.

Tiernan Brady is global director of inclusion at Clifford Chance