Law firms need to grasp the nettle on social mobility

Simon Marshall discusses Slaughter & May’s move to become the first major law firm to set social mobility targets and what that says about the rest of the industry

Large law firms have been slow to set social mobility targets Shutterstock

In an era where diversity and inclusion have taken centre stage in the corporate world, it surprises me that Slaughter and May has been so roundly lauded for announcing that it is looking to recruit a quarter of its workforce from lower socio-economic backgrounds within the next decade.  

To be clear, I have no issue with their stated goal. But I wonder if the fact that it has received such positive headlines tells you more about how far other firms still need to go to develop a more inclusive and equitable work environment.  

Thankfully, it is no longer sufficient for law firms to pay lip service to diversity because you cannot represent those not defined by you. Embracing diversity in all its forms – not just socio-economic – fosters innovation, enhances problem-solving capabilities and bolsters a firm’s competitive edge. It is an economic decision as much as anything: it makes good business sense.

There are apparent advantages to diversity. By providing opportunities for talented individuals from diverse backgrounds, law firms stand to reap the rewards. After all, the talent pool just got wider. Firms should be able to harness a wealth of untapped talent, fresh perspectives and unique experiences.

By Slaughters publicly disclosing its aim, I hope it will encourage other law firms to re-evaluate their hiring and promotion practices. It could serve as a call to action for other firms to follow suit.  

As many readers will know, reporting diversity data to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is mandatory for all regulated law firms, regardless of their size. The deadline for the latest survey this year was on 23 July.

The social mobility issue is real: in the last SRA diversity survey, two-thirds of partners who declared their parents’ professions said they were also ‘professionals’.

This latest set of findings presents a unique opportunity for smaller firms to challenge the industry giants and proudly showcase their achievements in fostering social mobility. By leveraging this requirement, these firms can draw attention to their commitment to diversity, creating a virtuous circle for their recruitment efforts and catching the eye of prospective clients.

It all sounds a far cry from the legal profession that we have historically known: an elusive club accessible primarily to those with privileged upbringings and well-connected networks.  

We have spent some time diving deeper into the data that firms have collated as part of the SRA’s exercise. Why? Because the devil is in the detail. 

Overall, maybe you have a diverse range of colleagues. But if all your partners are women and your post room is only white men, your firm is ghettoised and you won’t derive the benefits of having an integrated, diverse workforce representing your clients. Or rather, your clients will likely reflect the make-up of your people, and you won’t be accessing the broader opportunities.

If you slice the SRA data correctly, it can tell you many interesting things that will allow you to make a plan to match (or even surpass) Slaughters’. Perhaps you would like to group the data by education, parents’ profession and ethnicity, and then look at how those different populations are represented within your firm. Are they all the same age? Do they tend to be with you in their twenties and then leave? Do white men still dominate the partnership?

This year, the SRA nudged the game forward and split partnerships into salaried and equity – a way that firms often hide the proper formation of their teams. We will look at those results when they emerge as we sense that women and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented at the upper echelons of partnership. This transparency will interest lawyers and their clients, demanding more significant equity in every sense.

Have the data at your fingertips? Time to learn how to use a pivot table and explain the data to your colleagues, as well as your plan for tackling shortcomings. People have been relatively forgiving for lack of representation for the past 20 years. Still, arguments based on historical promotion data have been used for my quarter century in this sector. It is time to see all those diversity promises turn into results.

The need for a plan is also paramount: part of the SRA’s requirement is that the figures are published, although it frankly could be a lot more transparent in its publishing requirements (currently, firms can get away with burying their figures in a client newsletter, once).

So, bravo Slaughters for grasping the nettle. Time for all firms to do so and own their lack of progress in this area. 

Simon Marshall is founder and CEO of law firm marketing, communications and business development agency TBD Marketing.

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