'Change the rules, change the culture, change the lived experience'
A selection of influential women based in the UK reflect on the legal profession's diversity challenges and how to overcome them
To mark International Women’s Day, we are publishing extracts from interviews with a selection of judges for the Women and Diversity in Law Awards, which take place in London on 21 March and are hosted by The Global Legal Post. Common themes emerged from the interviews which we highlight below. Click here to read the full interviews.
On the crucial importance of education
Annabel Dumbell, managing director, litigation and dispute management, EMEA North, Accenture Legal
If you measure the diversity of people who are school leavers and then the diversity of people who are college leavers and then the diversity of people who leave law school, you see that diversity decreases over time. So one of the inherent problems is we’re expecting people to be highly qualified and diverse. So as a profession, we need to go into schools and encourage more people to follow this path.
Rachel Chan, barrister, 42 Bedford Row
As a Bar Council Social Mobility Advocate 2021, I was contacted by a school to do a careers talk. It was a school that was newly built, in a deprived area. The children there had never thought that they could even think about a career in the law. That really moved me because I was inspiring others to aspire and to aim higher.
Lara Oyesanya, group general counsel, Zepz
To improve social mobility and boost the numbers of those from underrepresented backgrounds, it’s all about the early years. You need to start at primary school and secondary school level and talk to people and make them realise that they can do it.
Other International Women's Day coverage:
On role models, mentors and allies
There were a few teachers at school who were really supportive, and they pointed me in the right direction, because I had no idea and no connections. Then, at university, the people who set up the debating society recommended that I should join an Inn if I was serious about being a barrister, so I joined Lincoln’s Inn where I got lots of support and advice. I would encourage those who are doubting themselves to reach out; there is so much help available now that wasn’t available when I was starting out. It’s very easy to doubt yourself and very easy to just say, “well, I won’t bother then”, so you do need to be determined.
Dame Janet Gaymer, former Simmons and Simmons senior partner and board member, Business Banking Resolution Service
I was the first female senior partner of an international top 10 law firm… People would come up and say, you realise you’re a role model — but I didn’t see myself like that. I found that quite difficult because I knew that to an extent I was paving the way, and that’s quite a responsibility — you don’t want to put a foot wrong. The lesson for me from the experience was don’t be afraid to move out of your comfort zone. Women are not good at pushing themselves forward if it is out of their comfort zone. I wouldn’t have stood for election as senior partner had it not been for my predecessor coming into my office and physically writing my application for election on the computer and asking me to send it.
Alessandra Almeida Jones, global director - marketing and communications, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
I worked extra hard and for a long time I was trying to over-compensate for being different as if that was a disadvantage. For me, that is why inclusion is so important; diversity is one thing but being diverse and inclusive is what makes a real difference. To get better at inclusion law firms need to acknowledge that certain groups within their workforce may need more sponsorship and mentorship.
The Women and Diversity in Law Awards, which are hosted by GLP, take place on 21 March in London
On the need for structural change within the profession
There are more women coming into the profession now, but we are still stuck with many women leaving the profession early. It is actually very difficult to do something that is going to move the dial on diversity and inclusion and which will stick. We are seeing more women moving into leadership positions though and it is wonderful that there is now more than one female senior partner and more than one female managing partner. I’m sure it will keep on getting better, but progress is still slow.
Dana Denis-Smith, CEO of Obelisk Support and founder of the First 100 Years campaign
Structurally the profession needs a reset if it is really going to welcome people from very different backgrounds. The partnership route, for example, requires the rainmaking ability that comes with having a network. If you don’t have that, it can be a struggle to get to the top. So there still needs to be more done to help people progress, irrespective of background. It’s not working right now, but it isn’t impossible to look at the way you run a law firm to make it more inclusive, whether that’s by introducing more flexible working, focusing on monitoring outputs rather than inputs or rethinking billable hours targets.
Examples of practical steps people and businesses can take
As a marketer, you can help advance diversity in law firms by ensuring that the spokespeople you put forward are diverse – whether that is diversity of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The same applies to the make-up of client teams. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but also so our clients can recognise themselves in the lawyers who will represent them.
Nina Goswami, head of inclusion UK, Clifford Chance
Our internal mantra here is change the rules, change the culture, change the lived experience. And that parallels something that we came up with in 50:50, which is count, share, change. Counting to understand where you are right now. Or changing the rules by understanding where you are. Sharing with others, so that you can change the culture. And then you do the change, so you change that lived experience. For me, I'm not going for all out change or something revolutionary, I tend to look for how we can make small incremental changes. It’s those little iterations and those tiny changes that can have a massive butterfly effect. It’s evolution not revolution.
I’m very interested in how we can collaborate with other firms and see how we can work with others to create change across the sector. If we can make sure that the legal sector is more representative of society, then we’re going to see laws that are more inclusive and that’s obviously going to be better for society.”
We put a lot of focus on the inclusion element of I&D. In the last two years, we rolled out an inclusion challenge platform, which is based on neuroscience and is designed to help people build up inclusive habits. The platform asks questions like how does it feel to be excluded? Everyone’s been excluded, whether it was not being picked for the football team at school or not being in a meeting at work. So it asks you to think about that moment and then think about how you can help others to feel included. You engage in exercises like that for 60 days and at the end of it you are more thoughtful about what you can do to be more inclusive and less judgmental.
Law firms are running initiatives but they tend to get people of colour or other diverse people to run them, which is not quite the right perspective—that suggests it is the responsibility of people from diverse backgrounds to solve the problem. So law firm leaders who want true diversity and social mobility need to understand the differences and not put the responsibility on somebody else.