Minority Report

April 23, 2015

Diversity is flourishing in many firms – but is it always an easy ride?

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Law firms are the kind of fuddy-duddy organisations that fear anything new. Take a business opportunity and your average law firm will wait to see what its competitor does with it first. Except, that is, in one instance.

For the legal profession has embraced LGBT rights with a verve that makes it look like a champion of change. Okay, it was a little slow to get going. It wasn’t until 2008 that a law firm (Pinsent Masons) made it onto Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index. (The Index was launched in 2005 and rates the best employers for promoting LGBT rights in the workplace.)

But there are now no fewer than 10 law firms listed in the ‘Stonewall Top 100 Employers’ 2015 list, including three in the top 10. And Simmons & Simmons has scored so highly over so many years (consistently ranking in the top 10 of the Index) that it has now ‘graduated’ from the list, to become one of eight ‘Star Performer’ organisations supporting Stonewall in the development of best practice in the UK and beyond.

But what does this actually mean in practice within such firms? And are there any challenges that arise with such efforts?

The push for diversity

Many law firms now boast LGBT groups and/or networks. These go much further than just raising awareness of gay rights. Activities include ensuring all the firm’s policies are gay friendly (for example, having an equal parental leave policy for gay employees having children), mentoring and training staff in LGBT issues, giving business development training for lawyers with LGBT and LGBT-friendly clients, holding and sponsoring gay events, and helping to host graduate recruitment events, specifically targeting LGBT students and graduates.

These provide innumerable opportunities for the firms concerned – not least in broadening the talent pool and improving performance among staff who feel they can fully be themselves. The benefits for LGBT lawyers are obvious.

But just as firms have seized the day in promoting LGBT issues, so have many realised they must support minority rights more broadly. Simmons & Simmons is fairly typical, for example, in having Muslim, Christian and Jewish networks, as well as a women’s group. Other groups might focus on ethnicity or disability issues, or break down further – for example, specifically supporting mother’s returning to work as a subset of a firm’s women’s initiatives.

And no-one is going to deny the positives of all of these efforts. This is the kind of work that will push the legal profession firmly into the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t pose obstacles.

Exclusivity versus inclusivity

The obvious one of course is the impact such visible investment might have on the workplace communities that are left out – notably the white, able-bodied, straight male variety. Some of these men might not openly speak out against such groups, but still feel aggrieved that time and resources appear to be going into everyone other than them. And that may also have an impact on their morale and performance.

For many, the answer has been to involve the wider workplace community in all these initiatives – most groups across firms, for example, are open to all staff members regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender. Within LGBT groups, Stonewall has also worked closely with companies, including law firms, to promote ‘straight allies’ initiatives, so engaging all employees with the bigger picture.

Clear policies and firm-wide training no doubt also help all employees understand exactly why firms are engaged in such activities, and may provide an opportunity for employees to raise concerns. A male lawyer, for instance, might call for their own support group, by way of reaction. A firm that listens and asks for a reasonable supporting business case might well find it nips problems in the bud.

Trouble within

But a more underlying source of concern to some employers lies not with the majority resenting the attention given to the minority. Rather it resides in a potential conflict between the groups themselves. For what happens when the Christian or Muslim group takes issue with the LGBT network? How do firms reconcile instances of alleged discrimination where freedom of faith comes up against freedom of sexuality?

This is particularly tricky given that since 2003, legislation has been in place to protect both LGBT people and people of faith from discrimination in the workplace. Where beliefs may be diametrically opposed, how do firms – or indeed the law courts – ensure equality for all?

Stonewall states that in reality such instances of conflict are few and far between, adding that the vast majority of religious people have no problem with the LGBT community. But it has obviously considered it a serious enough issue to produce guidance: Religion and Sexual Orientation: How to manage relations in the workplace. And it is clear from reading it that a number of employers are confused as to exactly how the law works in this respect, and what actions need to be taken to ensure workplace cohesion.

Law firms, especially those with strong employment practices, should be ahead of the game in creating strong policies that can quickly address incipient conflict. But it’s still an apt example of how the more groups you create, the more you risk encouraging something more tribal than harmonious.

Law firms are leading the way with initiatives aimed at supporting minority groups in the workplace. They should be rightly proud of storming Stonewall’s Equality Index and striving to make law a land of equal opportunity for all.

And as to the risks? Well, no doubt they will always be there. But the hope must be that a day will come when all of this work makes for a legal profession that is so naturally diverse as to not require any of these groups at all. CP

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