The Importance of Diversity

Usually, any discussion on diversity issues in the Law Society’s Gazette draws howls of derision about box ticking, political correctness, and overbearing regulation.

Diversity

In his interview on Radio 4 this morning, Lord Neuberger recognised the need for greater diversity in the Supreme Court. He stated that this would lead to a more representative judiciary, with greater public confidence in its decisions. But he was unpersuaded that an increase in judicial diversity would lead to an increase in diversity of case outcomes since successful candidates were all likely ‘to have been through the legal mill.’ Emphasis on diversity would not override the fundamental requirement of merit, as it’s essential to get the best people possible to be judges.

To encourage diversity, the Court is considering applicants who want to work part-time and will apply the ‘equal merits’ test – ie that if two people are equally well qualified, the Court will prefer the candidate who adds to the Court’s diversity.

It was fascinating listening, and I enjoyed his authoritative and insightful approach.

The Legal Services Board takes a close interest in diversity issues and encourages regulators to take a pro-active approach. Meeting the regulatory objectives in LSA 2007 requires not just a diverse profession, but a diverse workforce. Whilst everyone agrees that overall diversity is increasing, ‘trickle-up’ progress is disappointing, with the proportion of individuals entering the profession from non-traditional backgrounds not being represented in senior appointments. Not lacking in controversy, the LSB suggests that this is explained by a concentration on gender and ethnicity issues rather than on other protected characteristics; it isn’t simply a mechanistic fault, but requires a total overhaul of work allocation and reward, how success and commitment are measured and valued, individual business relationships, and client expectations. They agree that management-led culture change is having some effect and that demands from corporate clients add to this.

So the news that Hewlett-Packard is proposing to cut law firm fees by 10% unless the firms meet minimum diversity requirements is hardly surprising. Nor was the fact that it drew the same derision that I refer to above. Whilst the application might be slightly clumsy, I believe that the logic is sound – ie that the business must reflect its customers and stakeholders. HP’s standards reflect ethnicity, gender, LGBT and disability criteria. It’s likely that other corporates will follow, too.

For the SRA, lack of diversity is a priority risk for 2017. It matters because people from some social and cultural backgrounds might seek legal advice if their Solicitor shared those characteristics. Their statistics are disappointing: black solicitors are underrepresented, the number of law students and solicitors with disabilities does not reflect the wider population, and BAME solicitors, women, people with disabilities and those over 55 are less likely to be partners in large firms than in small firms.

Hewlett-Packard speaks of firms having the ‘courage and vision’ to meet their requirements. I believe that increasing diversity in law firms will bring a wider range of skills to the firm, will command greater public respect, and attract a wider client base. What’s not to like? The derision in the Gazette is so disappointing.

And I’m reminded of Lord Neuberger’s comment that greater diversity does not mean that standards fall, it simply means that firms attract the best candidates from as wide a pool as possible and increase access to justice. If it’s good for the Supreme Court, it’s good for everyone.

Ed Austin

Solicitor

February 2017