Herbert Smith Freehills sets ethnicity goal for London NQ lawyers

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Proportion of minority rookies retained to ‘at least equal’ proportion of minority rookies in each intake, says firm

Herbert Smith Freehills’ London office

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) has committed to improving diversity across its London rookie ranks as part of a new 10-point anti-racism action plan unveiled this week.

The firm pledged the proportion of minority ethnic trainees retained as newly qualified (NQ) lawyers will be at least the same as the proportion of minority ethnic trainees in each intake.

Legal Cheek‘s Firms Most List shows HSF dishes out around 60 training contacts each year. In June, however, it took the decision to delay the start dates of its incoming autumn trainees by six months in response to the pandemic, and in exchange for £8,000.

It is also aiming for 10% of its London partners to be minority ethic by 2025. At present, 6% of UK partners are BME.

The firm says the plan, dubbed ‘10 Actions for Change’, aims to strengthen its “ongoing commitment to inclusion, diversity and equality of opportunity”.

The 10 actions include: address barriers to the recruitment of black, first nations, asian and minority ethnic people; improve retention of black, first nations, asian and minority ethnic colleagues, and improve representation in more senior roles; deliver anti-racism workshops; and hold regional executives accountable for progress on ethnic diversity.

“Like others in the legal industry, we are not where we want to be, or where we should be, in our ethnic representation or our progress in dismantling systemic racism,” said HSF CEO Justin D’Agostino. “The tragic killing of George Floyd in May spurred us to redouble our existing work.”

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He continued:

“The firm’s leadership team and I are committed to supporting our black, first nations, asian and minority ethnic colleagues and building our understanding to create a safe, supportive and respectful environment across the firm. The 10 Actions provide a framework for all regions of the firm to shape to suit their local communities and issues.”

HSF isn’t the first big City player to renew its diversity pledge in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Allen & Overy aims to have 35% ethnic minority trainees, including 10% black trainees, each year, and is targeting a 15% ethnic minority partnership and 25% of the same for its lawyers and support staff by 2025. Clifford Chance also announced its own ethnicity targets earlier this summer, with the magic circle player aiming for 15% of new partners and 30% of senior associates to be from ethnic minority backgrounds by 2025.

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Sucks to be a white senior associate then. Merit is yesterday’s metric.


Wise Man

I have a dream.

That one day, people will qualify as lawyers based on the standard of their brains, not the colour of their skin.



I’m all for equal opportunity but not equal outcome.

Outcome should be based on merit.

Selecting people based on the colour of their skin is racist.


Hello, is it me your looking for

Well if we didn’t have systematic and institutionalised racism, maybe that would have been the case. So now it’s a chance to level the playing field.



Except we don’t have “systematic and institutionalised racism.”

I know you believe that as a cult like doctrine of faith. But there is no evidence for it. And all the evidence against it you ignore.

Take yesterday’s ridiculous article about the new race based mentoring scheme for the Bar. All the objective data shows that BAME individuals face no discrimination at the Bar: 14% of practitioners are BAME in line with the population.

But facts and evidence don’t appear to matter to people like you.



This is an utter disgrace.

When will any law firm stop ignoring the main form of discrimination in the world today, disablism? How long do we need to wait for quotas for the physically and mentally less advantaged?

Shame on the legal profession.



Positive discrimination i.e. selecting someone on race is unlawful. They have to be careful that initiatives are “positive action” only, i.e. encouraging participation from those in underrepresented groups. The latter is a very good thing, the former will get them sued.



But where you have two candidates who have equal qualifications and experiences, it is legal to select the individual who is underrepresented within the organisation.

Example: if HSF has two students (one a white male and another a BAME male) who are both from KCL and have a similar CV, it will be legal for them to hire the BAME male on the basis that he is from an underrepresented group.



Yep, merit goes out the window and people are hired or promoted because of skin colour.



You didn’t read this properly.

It is not that merit goes out of the window because they are of the SAME qualifications and their CV is the same. The application process is a numbers game, and many candidates will be very similar to each other although there will be one or two who are exceptional. Where you have two of the same candidates, the law firm can select the candidate who is underrepresented.



The other thing is that in practice there aren’t really any issues. One, HSF takes almost all of their trainees on. The trainees which don’t stay would either be moving elsewhere for better / alternative firms, or might really suck. So you’re unlikely to ever get an “equally qualified” situation, but if two candidates were good enough, HSF would like try to place them.

Few, if any, law firms use the equally qualified exception because it will get them sued. If trainee x is sacked off in favour of trainee y on that basis, trainee x is perfectly entitled to take them to a tribunal at no personal cost, and unless the claim is particularly and unusually vexacious or frivolous, HSF will have to pay its own legal costs. And they have to be very confident that the facts will hold up to intense scrutiny and discretion of a judge in the tribunal. At best, they might lose 30k defending it, at worst they could be out 100k+ if they were found to have unlawfully discriminated. Plus, tribunals are public so reputational loss. So if a firm used the exception and there was a threat of litigation over it, firms would put together a settlement agreement for the sacked off trainee to saving time, money and reputation.



Wrong approach to dealing with racism. Percentage targets are unfair and not merit-based.

Unfortunately, dealing with racism fairly means taking a hard look at those associates and partners (I’ve met plenty) who still disproportionately mark BAME people down for not “fitting in” or being the right “type”, regardless of how good they are at the job. And success on that front can’t really be measured in these terms, as it is entirely possible a particular intake’s worst trainees were all BAME.

It’s really up to the people working in the firms. If they’re happy to see BAME trainees get worked really hard and then thrown under a bus for dubious reasons, then it suggests the culture is appalling. Forcing them to abide by arbitrary percentage targets won’t change the culture; it may even worsen it due to perceived unfairness.


Links Associate

The assumption that these law firms are already meritocratic is the first mistake. If they were, the retention rates of ethnic minority NQs wouldn’t be so disproportionately low. This type of action seeks to redress an imbalance based on discrimination and bias. Generally accepted when firms say they want an X% of women on the board/as partners etc., I see no difference here.


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