Diversity must be in your DNA

| 28/07/2014 | 0 Comments

Improving diversity across the professions is a subject that never seems to leave the headlines – at first gender diversity was top of everyone’s agendas, then it was ethnic diversity, and now social diversity is the hot topic. Of all the professions that have come under scrutiny for a lack of social diversity in their workforces, the law has perhaps the most notorious reputation for exclusivity.

According to the 2012 Milburn report ‘Fair Access to Professional Careers’, 75% of senior judges attended an independent school and 75% went to Oxbridge – figures that had barely altered in the previous decade – while 64% of barristers hail from Oxbridge or Russell Group universities. Giving the 2014 Rainbow Lecture on diversity at the House of Commons, Lord Neuberger recently highlighted social mobility as being “the most difficult inclusivity problem” for the legal profession.

Many HR and recruitment teams within the profession are conscious of the need to address the imbalance. Not a week goes by that we don’t see the launch of a new directive, scheme or initiative designed to attract graduates from a broader spectrum of backgrounds to a career in the law. Indeed, there are many laudable examples, such as Aspiring Solicitors, which is providing underrepresented individuals with access to the profession, and law firms Clifford Chance and Mayer Brown, which have both introduced ‘blind’ interviewing policies.

However, it’s a sad indictment that in the majority of cases, it’s still all about ticking boxes – a lot of the developments talked about in the recent past have been merely cosmetic, with no meaningful changes in evidence.  This point was underpinned by recent research*, which showed that only one in ten graduates would consider applying to a Magic Circle law firm – a clear sign that the majority of non-Oxbridge candidates believe they will have little chance of success.

In the majority of firms, the partnership table still looks very much like it did twenty year ago. Does this matter, one could argue? I believe it does. To start with, there’s the moral argument. The law has one of the most powerful and influential roles in society and therefore has a responsibility to be broadly representative of the people it serves.  But, aside from the ethical standpoint, there’s perhaps a more compelling reason why diversity is vital within the hallowed doors of the law – namely, it’s good for the business case.

While it’s only natural for people to want to employ individuals from the same social background with shared experiences, having a homogenous team can seriously affect a firm’s competitiveness. Dysfunctional group dynamics or ‘groupthink’ is a phenomenon that can arise when there’s little outside influence within a group, resulting in a lack of independent, critical decision-making and a shared illusion of invulnerability. Disastrous consequences of groupthink have been well documented throughout both politics and commerce, from the invasion of Pearl Harbour to the collapse of the banking industry. By only recruiting individuals from a traditional public school/Oxbridge background, law firms risk losing out on the creative, lateral thinking that those with a different take on life can bring to the table, missing out on the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage as a result.

Source: HR Review

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