Recently, I had the privilege of attending a discussion about the relationship between diversity and innovation within the legal profession. The forum was convened by Rosemary Martin, general counsel at Vodafone and Daragh Fagan, general counsel at Thomson Reuters.

An unlikely threesome

In the audience were lawyers from both law firms and the bar, as well as in-house counsel, academics, recruitment consultants and HR professionals. There may even have been a few of us who straddled more than one group. As a lawyer who has worked in the government legal service, law and professional services firms as well as being an executive coach and author, I was perhaps one of the more ‘diverse’ participants. And possibly an innovative one too. So it was with an optimistic and open mind that I joined the audience, who at first raised the odd eyebrow to the idea of these three strange bedfellows being linked together in this way.

Panellist Dr Louise Ashley, research fellow at Cass Business School, explained that diversity and innovation should indeed go hand-in-hand, particularly in terms of gender diversity within professional services. Variety of thought and talent can lead to more creative solutions for clients, while to become more diverse, law firms – traditionally dominated by white males – must innovate. Dr Ashley expressed that diversity within the legal profession depends heavily on transformational change, which is not yet perceived as urgent.

Creating culture change

The panellists and audience started a lively discussion on how change can occur given the structural and institutional nature of law firms in the UK. They talked about the role that clients must play, if any substantive change is to occur in the make-up of law firm partnerships.

Discussions about diversity inevitably focus on the structure of boards and leadership teams. Targets or ‘soft quotas’ might be set to enable or promote more women to reach the ‘top’. However, as Stephanie Haldner of Women in Law explained, more is needed than just development programmes. Real change requires culture change, along with long-term collaboration and communication between law firms and clients.

Culture is a huge issue. Factors at play include: long hours demanded of lawyers in large commercial law firms, the 24-7 client service promises, a market place dominated by firms that pride themselves on their pedigree and service ethos, an environment where success is still largely determined by hours billed rather than outcomes or value delivered, the so-called ‘pyramid structure’ of law firms and recruitment practices that tacitly exclude the ‘different’. All of these conspire to create a working environment that is at best competitive and challenging, at worst a draconian, antiquated and arcane closed shop.

Moving beyond time and money

While many firms have made great strides to accommodate women (and men too), offering flexible working patterns and family-oriented benefits packages that provide childcare support, for example, there is still a long and tortuous way to go before junior and mid-level women lawyers see a future in private practice.

Accordingly, the issue is not: how can we get women to the top? Rather, it is about how we can create working environments that provide satisfying long-term employment prospects for all valued talent. How can law firms nurture bright and motivated staff, allowing them to develop as whole and interesting people valued for their life and non-work experiences and interests, as well as their intellect and legal expertise? How can law firms recognise contributions that transcend the time billed or the fee secured?

While many are optimistic that change is taking place, there really is no imperative to address these issues as long as profits and business flow and firms are structured as they are. Clients must make diversity their issue, and competitor organisations of legal service providers must meaningfully challenge the hegemony of archetypal law firms. Until success is defined in terms other than billable hours, there will be no sustainable change in the gender make-up of law firms – at the top, or in the middle.

How far can we go?

In some ways, diversity is like global warming. We accept it is an important issue that does, or should, concern us. We do small things – attend a training session (turn off the lights when we leave the room), try to be more aware of our biases (recycle our wine bottles) and even support the bright woman who wants to work part-time (leave the car and use public transport occasionally). But at the end of the day, we console ourselves, what can one person (or one firm, one client, or one profession of fairly homogenous and like-minded people), really hope to achieve?

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Written by Zoe Copley, executive coach and author

Tax Lawyer turned Executive Coach and author, Zoe helps clients to transform their mindsets; unlocking growth, change and energy.

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