With National Work Life Week (1-5 October) following close on the heels of National Inclusion Week (24-30 September), we thought we would take a look at some of the issues facing law firms, and the broader business community, in terms of wellbeing, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

There is no doubt that law firms have made huge strides in terms of promoting the wellbeing of their employees. Many firms now boast bespoke wellbeing programmes including initiatives aimed at improving physical, social and financial wellbeing among employees. Sports, yoga classes, subsidised gym memberships, private medical insurance – all loom large in such schemes. Similarly, firms seem to be understanding and acting on how stressful the legal profession can be and have prioritised mental health in more recent times. Steps include introducing mental health mentors and/or running dedicated sessions/days or even weeks to raise awareness and understanding around mental-health issues.

It is also truly fantastic that 16 law firms made LGBT rights charity Stonewall’s top-100 LGBT-inclusive employers list for 2018 – and even better that three made the top 10 (with Pinsent Masons taking second place). This shows just how much work the legal profession has done to ensure an inclusive working environment where people can feel confident to be who they are, without fear of discrimination. It’s a far cry from those days when law firms were perceived as a closed shop to those who didn’t think they fitted the ‘mould’.

Work in progress

 

Does this mean that all is well in law? It is undoubtedly great to see law firms actively pursuing initiatives to support inclusivity and employee wellbeing. But there remain rumbles of concern too. Just recently, Legal Week published details of a new study on social mobility in law – backed by eight leading law firms. The study – put together in collaboration with the UK social mobility foundation The Sutton Trust and independent policy association The Bridge Group – found that many junior lawyers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are still being held back from progressing due to the ‘micro-aggressions’ they face on a daily basis.

Traits considered important for career progression by the surveyed lawyers include being ‘confident’, ‘charismatic’, ‘driven’, ‘ambitious’, having ‘gravitas’, and being good ‘self-promoters’. But the report notes that these actually have little correlation with work performance. Put this into practice too. If progression is strongly affected by visibility and extroversion, and conversations centre around topics such as skiing and exotic holidays – it is clear why those from a poorer socioeconomic background, who withdraw from such conversations, could be quickly disadvantaged.

It seems to have an impact on the figures too. The study shows, for instance, that while 14% of state-school trainees are likely to receive the highest performance ratings, compared to 8% of independently educated trainees – they are less likely on average to progress in their early careers. Sobering reading for those law firms that are keen to promote their inclusivity credentials.

Looking forwards

 

In National Work Life Week, companies are encouraged to think about their employees’ wellbeing and happiness. To mark the week, research was conducted with 2,000 British workers to find out what they most want from work. Salary topped the list of the top-10 factors for choosing a new job, but also in there were working hours, personal interest /enjoyment, working environment, and opportunities for progression. Those law firms that can meet these wide-ranging employee needs will be those best equipped to attract and retain the best and most diverse talent well into the future.

The profession is changing rapidly and the fact so many firms now have dedicated diversity and inclusivity professionals, a host of programmes to support wellbeing in the workplace, as well as more open attitudes to flexible working, speaks to a new determination to fully meet myriad employee needs. It is an on-going journey, and one that requires constant and honest review of progress, but the legal profession has made huge steps in the right direction. 

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