Weekly take: No more flashy pledges, firms must get real on diversity
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Weekly take: No more flashy pledges, firms must get real on diversity

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Law firms’ diversity pledges shouldn't be about looking good on paper but about doing the right thing, and that includes giving women a real say at the top table

It’s that time of the year again when you’ll find every other law firm making flashy announcements about their efforts to reduce gender disparity.

They paint a convincing picture that addressing longstanding diversity issues is a top priority. But is that really the case?

The theme for International Women’s Day 2024, today, March 8, is ‘Inspire Inclusion’. It serves as a reminder that diversity initiatives shouldn’t merely be a checkbox exercise, but something devised to inspire actual change.

In the legal business, however, I fear that the façade of inclusion is increasingly becoming more important than inclusion itself.

For instance, last year, a well-known intellectual property firm moved one of its senior, diverse female staff members to the other side of the world to make her a part of its management team.

Sources close to the firm told me the move was made only because the firm’s external investors thought an all-white and male-dominated management board wasn’t a great look for the firm.

I’m all for changes that put diverse women in leadership positions. But do big, flashy moves only aimed at making a firm look good on paper truly make a difference?

I have my reservations.

All that glitters

When a woman is elevated to a senior or leadership position at work only to meet on-paper diversity requirements, it hurts their sense of belonging and empowerment.

Such moves can often make those female leaders feel they don’t deserve the promotion.

Someone who is unsure about her standing compared to her peers may not feel motivated enough to inspire and mentor the next generation of female leaders.

It all comes down to the fact that diversity initiatives in law firms continue to be driven by reasons beyond just doing the right thing.

There’s more proof of this.

Research published last year revealed that US law firms’ efforts to increase gender diversity aren’t motivated by a desire for fairness but by the need to take clients away from rival firms instead.

The study showed that law firms ramped up their diversity efforts to match their closest rivals’ initiatives and to align themselves with their clients' diversity values.

However, the firms reduced their diversity efforts when gender diversity was less likely to have a positive influence on client relationships.

Shocking as it may be, the research validates what we have known all along – law firms are only as diverse as they feel they need to be in order to remain competitive and profitable.

The fact that law firm diversity ratio continues to be very low in leadership positions further proves that trend.

Research into law firms in England and Wales by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2023 disclosed that while 62% of solicitors at the surveyed law firms were women, only 32% were full-equity partners.

The data means that men continue to have considerably more say in leadership decisions despite most law firms’ flashy diversity pledges.

More seats on the table

It’s well accepted that gender-diverse teams tend to drive better results as the plurality of views allows those teams to explore different ways to address challenges. It’s one of the reasons why in-house counsel have been increasingly advocating for diversity in the external legal teams they work with.

So why are law firms not doing more to ensure their leadership teams, not just their legal teams, are gender-diverse if there are demonstrable benefits?

To be honest, I’m not sure.

When law firms leave women out of leadership or only make cursory face-saving hires, they lose out on the chance of building a practice that’s not just equal but equitable for their female staff.

It's well-established that women face different challenges than men at workplaces, which doesn't only hurt their chances of climbing up the ladder but also leads to many female leaders calling it quits soon after being elevated to a leadership position.

At the risk of sounding outdated, women still have to do most of the grunt work at home on top of their work responsibilities, and those who can’t put in as many hours at work as their male counterparts often must sacrifice their chances of ever becoming a partner or a senior leader.

Those who are fortunate enough to get elevated to a senior position aren’t free from stress either.

Most of us have probably read about the tragic demise of Pinsent Masons partner Vanessa Ford after she was hit by a train in London.

An inquest into her death revealed that she felt immense guilt over missing family time with her children as she was spending 18-hour days at work.

This again highlights that law firm leadership teams comprising majorly men are in no place to shape policies that affect their female staff.

Allowing women leaders to climb the ladder for the right reasons and creating an environment where their input is valued as much as the firms’ male leaders could encourage them to reflect on their journeys and devise policies that could help future women leaders navigate challenges better.

We’ve come a long way in terms of ensuring gender diversity at law firms, but the battle won't be won until women have equal representation at the top table as men.

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