Understanding the challenges and opportunities

Initially, diversity focused mainly on an employer’s statutory and legal responsibilities with an emphasis on equal opportunities. The legal obligations have evolved over time with the Equality Act 2010 being the latest legislation to link diversity and equality and to strengthen an employee’s protection against discrimination in certain situations. The Solicitors Regulation Authority also subjects law firms to requirements on equality and diversity.

Firms have responded accordingly, meeting these changing regulations with an increasing recognition of the importance of attracting a diverse workforce. They have implemented recruitment drives that focus specifically on certain criteria – for example, increasing the number of women being recruited into senior positions.

But it’s not just legislation that is driving diversity programmes. More firms too understand the need to recruit a broader employee base in response to a combination of changing demographics and client demand. Increasingly, corporate clients are looking to ensure that their panel law firms match their own values and commitment to CSR, diversity and inclusion – to the point that such information is often a factor in deciding who to appoint.

The need to attract a diverse workforce and secure a fairer society and more sustainable future is also recognised in business through organisations such as ‘Business in the Community’. This a business led charity that works with the most senior business leaders from UK and global companies to implement and drive initiatives that help generate change.

For example, the ‘Opportunity Now’ campaign aims to increase women’s success at work by helping to identify and reduce their barriers to work, while ‘Race for Opportunity’ aims to identify why BAME (British black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) people are underrepresented in management or senior level jobs and how their representation can be improved.

Interestingly, in recent times, diversity has broadened further to encompass both equality and inclusion. This makes merely ‘token’ diversity unacceptable. For example, a firm may have five women out of ten people in senior management positions but this is not seen as diverse and inclusive if those five women are not valued members of the board whose advice and opinions are listened to and actioned upon.

Diversity now looks at the future sustainability of the business, analyses where the best talent should be recruited from, and then seeks ways to promote and retain that talent. An example of how this is done in law firms is through initiatives such as PRIME which is an alliance of law firms and legal departments across the UK, which have made a commitment to broaden access to the legal profession.

Indeed, in several law firms, the establishment of internal networks which have been set up under the umbrella of ‘diversity’ have improved the firms’ service offering and its access to market. In one instance, an Africa Practice Group was set up due to the business links that members of the AfroCarribbean group had with Africa and their cultural understanding of business in Africa.

So what is the difference between a CSR role and a diversity role? CSR initially started as a way of firms giving something back to others. It typically took the form of community investment or charity focused projects where firms felt an obligation to give something back to the community.

Simply put, CSR roles tend to be externally focused where emphasis is placed on managing relationships with other organisations i.e. charities, while diversity roles tend to be internally focused, i.e. looking at the recruitment, development and retention of a diverse workforce. These areas can meet in the middle, though, and particularly around client-focused initiatives. In some firms, therefore, the roles remain separate whilst in others there can be more of an overlap with sometimes one person looking after both CSR and diversity.

Firms are placing ever greater importance on the value of both CSR and diversity, which is reflected in more roles that specialise in these areas. Policies and initiatives will continue to develop as it is an area that is increasingly valued by clients, helps improve firms’ access to market, and increases the productivity and effectiveness of employees.  And of course all of these in the end combine to impact what must be the most important metric of all: the long-term profitability of the firm.

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