The legal profession is inclined to see itself as casting light on complex affairs in need of scrutiny. Lawyers are themselves only spokespersons for different interpretations of the law – legal advocates for the rules of society as have been provided by case law and statute. Overseeing often complex and multi – faceted issues, the law must stand remote, impartial and all – but undisputed.
Such a vantage point is not always the best position from which to look inwards on oneself. Lawyers can often look, think and act alike – there will often be more Johns or Davids among a firm’s partners than there are women or those from ethnic minorities. Of course not all differences are visible – the names of schools, universities, hobbies or holidays can create a sharp but often thinly disguised social divide which can exclude would – be lawyers from different social backgrounds. The concept of “access to justice” is generally understood to refer to those in need of justice, but the notion also reminds us of the need to pay attention to those who get to practice it also.
Seeking meaningful change
The profession has, however, begun to devote increasing energy to these issues. One organisation that aims to break barriers and promote opportunities for in-house lawyers is the Aspire Network set up by Sophie Gould from LexisNexis. Chris Benn, a lawyer with Kemp Little in London, also sits on an advisory board for Aspire and explains its core aim in simple terms:
“The group was set up as a forum for junior in-house lawyers to build a network with their peers and share best practice knowledge and experience.” Chris Benn, having previously worked as a lawyer in‑house with BT and UBS, observes clear distinctions between the different experiences lawyers can expect:
“Many networks exist and are known to private practice trainee solicitors, but an in-house trainee’s exposure to these is somewhat limited.”
As well as enhanced opportunities for bringing lawyers together, the Aspire Network has also been involved with the Best Practice Guide for In-house Training Contracts. The document serves as an informative blueprint for training junior in-house solicitors.
Chris Benn says the guidelines he created with a team that included paralegals, trainee solicitors, LexisNexis and in-house lawyers from across the corporate world “provide advice on each aspect of the in‑house training contract journey”. The scope and potential use of the guide is considerable, he explains:
“It’s to be used by in-house lawyers throughout the organisation who are undertaking, or supporting others undertaking, an in-house training contract. This could range from paralegal to general counsel.”
In common with many of the other initiatives, the framework was put together to help dismantle barriers that are every bit as much perceived as they are real. By bringing together information in a single and accessible place, what seemed like an ordeal can quickly become comparatively routine. Chris added:
“We developed the guide to encourage organisations to take on in-house trainees. We felt we could do this by demonstrating the ease and simplicity of the process when the responsibilities of all those involved are clear.”
Another organisation which offers support to people wishing to pursue a career in law is the similarly titled, Aspiring Solicitors group. Aspiring Solicitors was founded in 2014 by Chris White, who left his role as a solicitor at a leading global firm to begin the initiative. He describes it as:
“an organisation committed to increasing diversity in the legal profession by providing free access, opportunity and assistance to underrepresented students.”
The noble goal is already starting to make a substantive difference in the approach taken to diversity by its partner organisations. Aspiring Solicitors has now successfully assisted over 800 individuals obtaining vacation schemes and training contracts across the UK.
Chris White is clear in framing his intent in the context of an ambition to help the law catch up with changing times:
“We aim to benefit the legal profession through objectives of educating and informing the next generation about the importance of diversity and secondly – promoting and encouraging diversity from within the profession.’
The approach to this task takes different forms:
“These objectives are channelled through numerous programmes and events such as the annual Commercial Awareness Competition, as well as hundreds of events that we hold in collaboration with law firms or as part of tailored one‑to‑one advice offered by experienced employability professionals.”
Chris White notes that many of the same issues are found across the professional divide in in-house law, where 20% of the network’s professional ambassadors are working. The responses there, however, are not entirely identical, and offer private firms some positive leads on how to address diversity:
“We are seeing an increase in in‑house legal teams taking advantage of opportunities to make business cases for diversity – driven initiatives and best practice policies.”
Chris White suggests that this trend is likely to continue, and is perhaps not unsurprising, given the closer proximity to management that is often found in‑house. In its work with large companies, Aspiring Solicitors has seen businesses doing more to address staples of the legal profession that disadvantage women, particularly mothers, and those from non-affluent backgrounds:
“In terms of the relationship between private practice and in-house teams, in-house legal teams can also have a vital role in deviating from traditional – and less diverse – working practices when working with law firms. Examples of this can be seen in the increased recognition of the importance of allowing for flexible working and reduction in the implementation of billable targets.”
While these initiatives work hard to make junior lawyers aware of their opportunities, there is an equally pressing need to reach young individuals who are capable of a career in law but might feel cut off. Where those with parents or relatives in legal or other white – collar jobs might get an induction to this world through family friends or work experience, many gifted would – be lawyers do not enjoy the luxury.
The Legal Social Mobility Partnership is, in this respect, a further encouraging example. The partnership, of which LexisNexis is a founding member, involves a range of firms and in-house teams helping youngsters from less advantaged backgrounds gain an experience of a legal environment and aims to demystify the otherwise intimidating world of law.
Barry Matthews, an in-house lawyer with ITV has taken the partnership from modest beginnings to a point where it now works with sports clubs – ranging from Manchester City Football Club to Harlequins Rugby Club – that offer youngsters a relatable gateway to the subject of professional employment, while also providing aspects of the psychological coaching and teambuilding exercises that are vital to elite sporting achievement. As the partnership says of its cohort:
“They now have blue chip companies and law firms on their CVs, so their applications are certainly going to stand out from the crowd.”
As much as those references will help alumnus differentiate themselves, the ultimate aim in diversity remains reaching the crowd itself, and so the partnership is set up to be thoroughly scalable, offering a model that it is hoped will be taken on by companies and law firms around the country.
A method, not a goal
The debate over diversity is done a disservice where it is reduced to questions of privilege and the lack of it. Achieving diversity is best regarded not as an absolute goal but as a healthy, questioning process through which people can assess their options without pressures or fears – be they barriers or expectations. Successful attempts to address such issues in diversity have in common the priority of flattening hierarchies rather than simply expanding access to them. Aspiring Solicitors, as good as their word, have a junior advisory board that guides the organisation alongside its more traditional, senior equivalent.
In the 21st century, it would be naive to assume that professions do not discriminate on the basis of class, ethnicity or gender. To assume that we are not all guilty of subtle biases, however benign and without malice represents a dangerous complacency. Material circumstances and default working arrangements will quite frequently impact disproportionately on some more than others and with that on diversity.
Despite these obstacles to inclusion, it is harmful to view diversity apathetically as a risk of entrapment that firms must carefully navigate. Negative preconceptions of diversity as a burdensome process to endure can often make individuals become defensive – precisely the opposite of the honest and open dialogue by which inclusive cultures are fostered.
Achieving diversity is perhaps more helpfully regarded as a positive process that builds the awareness, reach and resilience of either a private firm or a company with in-house lawyers. One female lawyer, working in legal tech, said that she had come to regard her male – dominated working environment as a positive challenge to be disrupted, but much as adversity can be an engine for determination, discrimination will often leave doors closed.
The benefits of a more diverse workplace should not be limited to those from obviously marginal backgrounds – discussions of diversity increasingly call for an approach that enhances participation for all. Keeping a watchful eye on barriers within the legal industry is useful in itself. Much the same as firms encourage pro – bono work to help their lawyers refine their expertise and human skills, so does keeping an open mind on diversity help firms get the most out of the talent and lawyers available to them.
Toby Hornett, legal director at Canon – Europe outlines the best practice approach entailed in his work with mentees on the LexisNexis Mentoring Scheme:
“I find that the benefit for the mentees is that they are given an opportunity to talk about themselves and their careers with a dispassionate non-judgemental listener in a safe, confidential space.”
Toby Hornett reasons that legal culture as a whole could stand to benefit from more of the same:
“More widely, I think that lawyers don’t pay enough attention to their own career – planning and well‑being generally, so this initiative goes in that direction.”
None of this is to say that the road to a better, more inclusive and responsive workplace is without compromises. Toby Hornett emphasises that both the mentor and mentee, as well as the firms involved, have to prioritise the time given over to the sessions he leads, so as to avoid them “fizzling out”. Otherwise he is pragmatic and detached about his involvement:
“For me the motivation is simply to help other people. I use a coaching style, which means that I avoid giving any direct advice.”
This hands-off approach re-emphasises a key element to creating an industry which is sensitive and accessible to lawyers both in and entering it. For law firms and companies taking their first steps on issues of diversity and mobility, Toby Hornett’s appraisal of his own role as mentor is sage advice, “I do the easy part, which is asking the difficult questions.”