I was recently on the panel of an event called ‘Less talk, more action: what are we doing to improve ethnic diversity in the legal profession?’. It was uplifting to hear from others in the Scottish legal profession who are as passionate as me in wanting our workplaces to be diverse at all levels to reflect our society. Genuine commitment and progression to equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) is undoubtedly being made. However, the general perception amongst people from minority ethnic (ME) backgrounds appears to be that although organisations say ED&I is important to them, they are not that good at actually showing it. For organisations that have made good efforts to date and are keen to improve their ethnic diversity further, what practical actions might actually bring about a real difference?
Review the candidate experience
At a Law Society of Scotland (LSS) roundtable a few years ago, one attendee said: ‘Organisations talk about the importance of diversity but when you walk into a recruitment fair, the people behind the desks are generally white’. The impact of seeing someone who looks like you should not be underestimated. I once posted on LinkedIn that I would be attending law fairs in Scottish universities (pre-COVID!) on my firm’s behalf. My inbox quickly filled up with messages from contacts and friends from ME backgrounds saying things like ‘my son/daughter/niece/neighbour is coming – would it be ok for them to chat to you as they’ll feel more...?’ I confess it wasn’t something I had really given much thought to, but when I walked into those law fairs it was really quite noticeable – I was one of just two people, visibly from a ME background, representing a law firm.
It is so important to review what the candidate experience looks like. Many people from under-represented backgrounds already feel intimidated by the legal profession. Those feelings are then amplified by visuals at events or social media content that hasn’t been thought through. There may be no intention to discriminate but a failure to carefully evaluate how such things are approached undoubtedly result in fewer applicants from diverse communities.
Thinking back to my own university experience 20+ years ago, as someone who had no connections within the industry (or indeed, within any professional services), I don’t recall much support on how to actually get into the legal profession. Thankfully, things have moved on since then. Universities and colleges now offer information and support on summer placements, when to apply for traineeships and opportunities to get involved in relevant extra-curricular activities.
However, much more work is required at the grassroots. School children and students need access to mentors and role models from backgrounds similar to themselves. However, it’s hard to find such role models as, unfortunately, there still aren’t very many!
Our educational establishments, the LSS and future employers could work more closely on this. For example, the LSS already run two mentoring schemes. This is a great opportunity for organisations to ask internally whether anyone from their workforce wants to be a mentor for a student. If the answer is yes, it shouldn’t take too much work to match the right mentors to the right mentees being identified by the LSS and universities. It’s a simple but effective and practical way for organisations to make a difference in the ED&I space.
We could also collaborate on events in our workplaces and literally open our doors to students. Talk to them on a 1:1 basis, connect them with others in the profession, provide constructive feedback where unsuccessful in an interview – all actions I know that make a difference.
Should the legal profession have ethnicity workforce targets to ensure better representation across our businesses? Whilst a positive initial step, I think targets must be handled sensitively.
If, for example, targets are set that X% of trainees must be from certain backgrounds, it gets them in the door. For those who have genuinely committed to ED&I, it’s brilliant – they have future solicitors to work with. However, I believe targets can only really work when put in place alongside other commitments and initiatives. It’s not about just getting numbers in – it’s about retaining and developing people.
Significant progress has been made to improve the representation and experience of our ME colleagues. Overt discrimination is (mainly!) on the way out due to the significant moral and legal consequences attached to it. However, unconscious bias still manifests itself in many ways such as those outlined above and is more difficult to eradicate.
There is considerable focus on ensuring our leaders are fully invested in ED&I matters; but sometimes that will just not happen. I recently heard someone say “go where the energy is” – I agree. Find those people and work with them on practical ways to remove the barriers that are sometimes unknowingly created – the rest will fall into place.
This article was originally published in The Journal.