Breaking the class ceiling: what one lawyer’s story tells us about D&I
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Breaking the class ceiling: what one lawyer’s story tells us about D&I


Rachel Wilkinson-Duffy of Baker McKenzie describes her unusual career trajectory and explains why diversity targets do work

"Have you considered studying to be a trademark attorney?" Sitting comfortably now in my dual professional roles as vice president of the UK-based Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys and IP counsel at a top-tier international law firm, it seems funny to remember quite clearly that when the question was posed, it had never occurred to me.

At the time, I had been working as a legal secretary at a small trademark firm for several years and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Despite being surrounded by lawyers at work, the thought that I might operate as one myself simply was not there. It was not that I did not have confidence in myself or thought the role of an attorney would not be fulfilling. Looking back, I can see that I had simply typecast myself without even realising it, until someone challenged that internal perception. Had someone else not seen something in me that at the time I was blind to, I might never have started down the path to qualification as a lawyer.

Over the years, there have been so many steps, big and small, that have helped me continue to progress in an industry that traditionally does not have many people with a background like mine. However, if I had to point to one thing that made the difference in breaking the "class ceiling", as sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison aptly called it, it would be that moment of clarity when I realised that the door to that world was actually open to me and stepping through was achievable. This realisation has made me feel personally indebted to the diversity cause and I am passionate about trying to create that moment for others who, in turn I hope, will pass it on further.

A nomadic lifestyle

To give some context to my life journey, I am one of the oldest of a family of seven. My mum comes from a working-class background and was the first in her family to get a degree. She started a career in the arts, but the influence of life in the hippy heyday of the 1970s resulted in her pursuing what can best be described as a bohemian-meets-nomadic lifestyle. As a result, my six siblings and I had a rather tumultuous childhood moving from country to country across Asia and Europe, with at times sporadic home schooling and even more sporadic income.

While none of this seemed at all unusual growing up, you can imagine the reality shock of arriving alone in the UK at 19 and lacking officially recognised qualifications. University was not an option so, since I was a rather proficient typist, I decided to pursue a career as an administrative assistant. For employers used to seeing the customary proof of education, my CV must have effectively read like a blank piece of paper, so landing any job was very challenging.

After a year of jumping between short temporary positions, someone finally decided to take a chance on me and I was offered a permanent job as an audio typist at Phonographic Performance Limited.

After a year of jumping between short temporary positions, someone finally decided to take a chance on me and I was offered a permanent job as an audio typist at Phonographic Performance Limited. I still have many good memories of those days, sitting in a pool of secretaries all typing demand letters to businesses not paying their music licences, and being excited whenever overtime was approved so I could get to buy a ticket to one of the gigs I was always desperate to attend.

Then I had a lucky break and was recruited by a trademark attorney firm as a legal secretary. I suspect an element of the choice on their side was my lower salary expectations, but it was an opportunity that led to the door to the legal profession creaking open for me, and I will forever be grateful for that.

D&I progress

Since joining the profession, I have had the privilege of being involved in a number of diversity and inclusion initiatives, including the launch of IP Inclusive, a UK collective initiative of the IP professions, back in 2015. While my experience has been that the vast majority of individuals in the legal world support diversity and truly want to be inclusive, the extent to which dedicated initiatives in this area have grown and flourished in recent years has been particularly heartening.

There is still some way to go, and I would be lying if I said that I have never encountered class discrimination in my years in the legal profession. Nevertheless, I believe we have moved forward significantly in embracing the reality that, as lawyers, we are more effective when we behave inclusively and become better able to understand and appreciate the interests and needs of the incredibly diverse group of individuals who make up our society. The challenge we all face is no longer primarily convincing people to want to do the right thing, but rather making sure we are actively questioning both the way we do things and how we perceive others, whether consciously or subconsciously, to drive tangible change.

Why targets work

This leads to the arguably thorny issue of diversity targets. Being a firm believer in meritocracy, for years I have railed passionately against the need for such targets, advocating the mantra 'everyone with skill and imagination may aspire to reach the highest level' and that positive discrimination was an insult to those who were able to achieve this on their own.

However, not least because of a dawning realisation that very few actually do achieve it without assistance, I have had a change of heart and now view the purpose of diversity targets differently. Meaningful diversity targets should never result in someone of lesser ability being chosen over someone with greater ability merely to tick a box. What they should, and in my experience do, achieve is compelling people, both individually and as institutions, to challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zone, look holistically at how they operate and determine what systemic changes are needed to ensure that people from every aspect of society are being given the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Change takes time, but actually creating a representative organisation through hiring and inclusion is an immense challenge that cannot be underestimated, and having tangible stretch targets helps to prevent businesses opting for the lazy route of accepting the status quo even in the short term. If companies are thoughtful and intentional about diversity and inclusion from the outset, their workforce diversity efforts are likely to ensure targets are positively met by the active development of diverse talent.

As studies show that diversity makes us more innovative and creative, improves decision making and results in more effective client engagement, challenging ourselves with targets to enable equal opportunity is not just the moral thing to do, but the smart way of building a business.

Digging deeper, reaching wider

We do need to avoid the easy mistake of focusing on the diverse populations that are already better represented or the groups that will be easiest to reach. While early wins in the fight for greater diversity can help achieve momentum, it is important not to ignore the harder work of identifying and engaging with the least represented groups.

As access to the legal profession traditionally involves an education that is more common among the middle classes, engagement with those from socially deprived backgrounds who may not yet have had that experience can seem like an insurmountable challenge at the entry stages. Offering alternative pathways into the profession and greater flexibility in support mechanisms is likely to be key in attracting those who may have exceptional potential but require an extra helping hand to get them on the first rung of the ladder.

We do need to avoid the easy mistake of focusing on the diverse populations that are already better represented or the groups that will be easiest to reach.

Given the importance of diversity in the legal profession, it is vital that we do not merely maintain but instead accelerate the pace of progress and that the progression actually results in a more diverse workforce, not merely a greater desire for one. In the trademark attorney profession specifically, I have a personal concern that, while inclusion of lawyers from diverse backgrounds already practising has improved, there has not been a tangible increase in entry to the profession, and changes to the qualification route in recent years could be seen as inadvertently introducing additional barriers.

Initiatives such as Careers in Ideas, launched in 2018, are intended to help inspire the next generation into a career in IP, but ultimately it will be down to employers to ensure that those who are inspired are given the opportunity they need to enter the profession. Corporate legal departments also play an important role in encouraging diversity by transparent appointment of firms that participate in inclusion initiatives, but this should become increasingly irrelevant as firms are driven by their own engagement with diversity and experience the benefits. Encouraging greater exposure to in-house legal teams for those with diverse backgrounds, particularly those entering the profession from alternative routes such as apprenticeship schemes, can significantly help in advancing career development and enabling diverse talent to develop important client relationships.

As more companies and law firms commit to partnering in this space, is important that we collectively continue to break down the barriers to progress and ensure we continue to obtain a deeper understanding of the state of diversity in the profession. Without that path, I would not have the personally and professionally rewarding career I have the privilege of enjoying today.

Rachel Wilkinson-Duffy is of counsel at Baker McKenzie in London.

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