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‘Diversity is not optional — it’s what we must be’

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Senior legal figures discuss issues around Black lawyer retention and career progression during Dechert-sponsored panel event to mark Black History Month

Senior legal figures and diversity advocates are calling on law firms to drive meaningful and lasting change in an industry that is predominantly white and draws from a small pool of elite graduates.

It was acknowledged during a panel discussion — hosted in-person on Tuesday evening at the Royal Automobile Club by legal consultancy Crasner Consulting and headline sponsored by Dechert to mark Black History Month — that firms must do more to encourage access to the profession as well as recruit, retain and ensure the progression of Black lawyers.

The panel, which featured law firm partners practising in the UK and US, agreed that historically, and at present, there exists unconscious bias within recruitment teams at big law firms, who tend to hire and promote “in their own image”. Nicholas Cheffings, former global chair at Hogan Lovells, PRIME chairman and head of legal for The Crown Estate, said: “A white chap that goes skiing is likely to get on with another person that does, and that, by definition, eliminates a whole raft of people.”

Issues around “privilege” were also addressed by the speakers at the event. “Law firms have a problem with privilege and perception,” said Hogan Lovells partner Akima Paul Lambert. “Law firms historically recruit from a pool of privilege — Oxbridge and Russell Group-educated students — making it difficult for those not in these circles to penetrate.” She added: “The son or daughter of a client is likely to have access to vacation scheme and work experience opportunities that the young kid in Peckham is unlikely to have come across.”

Lambert also noted how sitting in on interviews she has seen credible Black candidates struggle to present themselves in a way so that they’re able to “cinch that training contract”.

Cheffings said at the Black History Month panel event that law firms must collectively broaden their talent pool; “we need to see change across all firms — if one firm says no to the child of a top-paying client, another will say yes”, and that perpetuates the cycle.

He did note, however, that progress is being made at the recruitment stage with diversity initiatives such as Rare and Sutton Trust but problems arise further up the chain for Black lawyers, and these include feelings of not belonging to “ridiculous” assumptions about hairstyles to preferential work allocation by partners.

On what more law firms can do to drive positive change across the profession, Tobi Rufus, executive director at Goldman Sachs and former Allen & Overy senior associate, offered a client’s perspective. He said: “Diversity is not optional — it is what we must be”, and welcomed recent pressure put on law firms by clients to ensure they have diverse panel reviews.

Vincent Cohen, partner in Dechert’s Washington office, echoed Rufus’ views. “CEOs must empower GCs and make express demands to them as no one is going to go against what the boss wants,” he said.

Cohen also spoke of the so-called “Black tax”, where the minority of Black lawyers face the burden of continually being asked to engage on discussions about race and diversity, often in their own free time. But Cohen, who flew in especially for the London panel event, encouraged Black lawyers to use their platform, be visible and become role models for those seeking to enter the profession. “They’ll be what they see,” he said.

“UK law firms have a lot to learn from across the pond,” said Rufus. It was explained during the discussion that law firms are taking part in the Mansfield Rule, a certification process that started in the US and is expanding in the UK. It measures which law firms have considered 30% women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities for senior leadership positions.

Cheffings said: “It’s good at CE [chief executive] level and there’s enthusiasm at the junior level but there’s a whole swathe of middle management that has the most immediate control over young peoples’ careers.”

Other methods of improving firms’ ethnic diversity put forward by the panel included targets, reverse mentoring, allyship, sharing stories and understanding “the Black experience”.

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