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Growing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession

From tackling gender imbalance to building a truly diverse workforce, law firms are making D&I a key priority

It was not uncommon that there was a monochrome view in law firms. Photograph: iStock

It was not uncommon that there was a monochrome view in law firms. Photograph: iStock

 

Diversity and inclusion have become key priorities for many organisations, as they realise the benefits that come from diversity throughout the workforce. In the legal sector, which arguably should be leading the charge in diversity and inclusion (D&I), there are several ways in which firms are trying to ensure that a diverse and inclusive culture can grow and sustain.

“The legal sector is not alone in the wider professional services sector in coming up to speed with developments in D&I,” says Paul Gillen, partner at Pinsent Masons. 

“Law firms are emerging from a background which has been quite traditional in its approach to talent attraction and development and in working practices. It was not uncommon that there was a monochrome view in law firms, especially in senior and leadership roles. There was a lack of diversity of gender, age, disability, sexual orientation but also cultural and class background. The challenge for law firms is to move beyond the legal compliance, tickbox approach of equality to a workplace that is truly inclusive.”

Within the legal professions in Ireland, women are well represented as solicitors. Since 2014, there has been a female majority in the profession, according to reports from the Law Society of Ireland. However, the majority of partners in legal firms in Ireland are male, a statistic that several firms are implementing strategies to address.

“We have a long history of diversity and equal opportunity,” says Audrey Byrne, partner at McCann FitzGerald. “We were the first leading Irish law firm to have a significant number of female equity partners [since the mid-1960s] and the first to offer our partners paid maternity leave. Our female representation at partner level is 30 per cent and in senior management is well in excess of this number. We are an all equity partnership and so our 30 per cent figure is high by industry standards. Our current solicitor pipeline is 59 per cent female.”

“Our structured mentoring programme and agile working initiatives seek to address the gender imbalance at senior levels and to support work-life integration,” says Byrne. “We offer mentoring to female associates three years’ qualified or more, to ensure that we have an adequate pipeline of female associates to progress to senior roles within the firm. Specifically, the programme gives female associates the opportunity to discuss work issues and career objectives with a more experienced senior colleague, so they can leverage this experience while progressing their careers.”

Ambition

Julian Yarr, managing partner at A&L Goodbody, sees a similar pattern. “Over two-thirds of our people are women, but this reduces to a third at partner level. The opportunity for us as a legal profession is to support women’s ambition to reach their career goals,” he says. 

“It is about supporting people’s ambition to reach their career goals and creating a path for them to do that. Challenging our own bias and assumptions and having really frank and honest conversations is key,” says Yarr. “Last year, all our partners had two days’ training focused on this. We have continued this training and more recently all our partners and managers had a refresher session. Keeping this conversation going and making sure to provide the right tools, at the right time, is so important”.

Julian Yarr, managing partner at A&L Goodbody: “Over the past two years we have significantly increased our focus on D&I.”
Julian Yarr, managing partner at A&L Goodbody: “Over the past two years we have significantly increased our focus on D&I.”

Another key aspect of cultivating a diverse and inclusive environment is the internal support networks that allow individuals to connect to colleagues both within the firm and across the industry.

“Network groups are really important,” says Yarr. “Many of the challenges we face are shared by businesses in every sector. So taking part in networks like the 30% Club, OutLaw or Social Entrepreneurs Ireland is a great way for us to share ideas and tackle big issues. It’s also really important in these groups that we look at the bigger picture and focus on how to make things better across the board and not see things through a competitive lens.

“Over the past two years we have significantly increased our focus on D&I,” adds Yarr. “We engaged with our people and listened hard to what they had to say about the type of inclusive and diverse culture they can help create. It’s been very much bottom up as well as top down in how we’ve gone about it. Our policy has focused on gender, LGBT+, culture, disability, and social mobility, and each have diverse groups that develop and lead our initiatives. People from all areas, at every level, get involved. It’s fantastic to see it in action and how much has been achieved because of that engagement.”

Representative

As well as connecting with others in the industry, having access to role models is vital to creating change across the sector, suggests Paul Gillen, partner at Pinsent Masons .

“Pinsent Masons is fundamentally a ‘people’ business and we have always worked hard to develop and sustain an inclusive culture for all our people and a diverse workforce that is fully representative of all of the communities in which we live and work,” he says. “We have role models and ambassadors at all levels including senior sponsors across gender, faith, race, age, social class, disability, mental health and more. Nothing says we are a D&I employer more than having actual D&I role models and champions.” 

However, real change across the sector requires co- operation, according to Gillen. “An important factor is to measure where you are and to have a goal of where you want to be,” he says. “To do this, you need to engage with other employers in your sector – don’t be afraid to open up to other employers in your sector. I have always found that there is help at hand and I have never had a bad reaction when discussing D&I, even with competitors. The sector should hold the value that anything less than a truly D&I approach will not be tolerated. A unified sector voice will be louder if we all work together.”