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Diversity in the time of Covid

Diversity in the time of Covid

IBA “Virtually Together” conference - a report by Helen Martin

The events we’ve all lived through over the past year are sure to be a catalyst for wider social change – but in the D&I field will the overall legacy of 2020 be positive or negative?

The recent International Bar Association “Virtually Together” conference brought together over 12,500 delegates from 160 different countries for a series of remote webinars, panel sessions and networking. I attended panels looking at trends in gender equality and wider issues of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, against the background of lockdowns, working from home and economic uncertainty. The panels for these sessions were global in nature and included D&I leads from private practice firms as well as GCs and other client representatives. It was fascinating to see the similarity in the D&I challenges being faced by the legal profession around the world, and overall very positive that such issues are increasingly being acknowledged and addressed.

Women and remote working

Looking first at womens’ careers and progression, remote working over the last few months was considered to have had both positive and negative aspects. One the one hand it has proven that we can work from home, often very effectively and in far more challenging circumstances than usual (home schooling being a case in point). Presenteeism has given way to efficiency and the ability to get the job done. However, working remotely also has the potential to set women back – particularly if they are (or are assumed to be) taking on the lion’s share of home and childcare duties. While workplaces can’t directly change this, using gender-neutral language in relation to parenting and flexibility is key.

The availability of flexible and remote working going forward was seen by panellists as a key factor to encourage female lawyers to view a law firm as a long term career proposition – but this shouldn’t be characterised as purely a women’s issue. There are many reasons why people may not wish to return to the office full time - for instance, a recent Law Society survey of disabled lawyers found that working from home during the COVID outbreak had enabled the majority of them to manage their disability more effectively.

It was noted generally that unconscious bias may be exacerbated when we are only seeing people virtually, and that as we return to the workplace, we must avoid creating a ‘second-tier’ workforce of those who continue to work remotely, even if only part-time.

Benefits of D&I for the workforce

There is clearly a moral case and a social justice case for D&I, but the panel also emphasised the real business case for more diverse and inclusive workplaces, in terms of productivity, creativity, employee retention – and ultimately profitability.

It was felt that workplaces which have continued to focus on their D&I commitment during 2020 have seen the benefits, notably in terms of employee engagement and wellbeing. D&I networks within organisations have played a vital role – especially in easing the isolation of working remotely, and supporting employees who may have been struggling with the crisis. Lockdown has had a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities, including the LGBTQ+ community in particular with regards to mental health, and support from workplaces during this period has been crucial.

Recruitment and retention

The panel emphasised that traditional networks and pipelines don’t necessarily work when it comes to recruiting diverse talent – the lawyers are out there, but just not getting the phone calls. Law firms should be more demanding of their recruiters, but also recognise that reaching and attracting diverse talent takes effort. Listening and reaching out, for example to minority networks, and investing in the pipeline by establishing links to schools, universities and law schools, are all important. Above all, law firms should ensure that it is clear and visible to the outside world that they are interested in employing diverse talent. Employee ambassadors can be a key element in this.

Recruitment is of course only one aspect of the equation – the second being retaining those diverse hires and offering them a clear and supportive career path. The importance of mentoring, upward mentoring and providing sponsors and role models for female and minority lawyers was stressed – particularly as lack of leadership role models and general assumptions about career ambitions (or lack of) mean they may be less likely to be “knocking on doors asking for partnership”.

The client perspective

With regards to the client perspective, industry representatives on the panel stressed that GCs are enquiring about, if not demanding, diversity on legal teams. As well as being a factor in choosing which law firm to work with, cultural ‘fit’ can also be an aspect in how well client teams can work together with their legal advisors. Opportunities for deepening relationships with clients, as well simply winning the work, were seen to be a key area to explore for the future – for example looking at ways to work together with clients on shared D&I initiatives.

Finally, it was stressed that, while we are putting many initiatives on hold this year, the push towards greater diversity and inclusion is not something which can be put on hold. We should treat whatever 2020 has brought us, including valuable lessons regarding remote and flexible working, as an opportunity to build towards a more sustainable – and inclusive – future.


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