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Why lawyers must lead the way on diversity

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It’s time the conversation moved beyond chargeable hours, profit margins and marketing, writes solicitor Baljinder Singh Atwal

The word ‘diversity’ or the phrase ‘diversity and inclusion’ (D&I) is often used by law firms and organisations in a number of different ways. It is quite rightly in the spotlight due to a number of issues which continue to exist in the profession and wider society. Understanding what D&I is and the actual benefits are key to bringing positive change to all.

Solicitors are governed by principles as set out by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). These seven principles have a direct link to the conversations around D&I. Principle two covers acting in a way that upholds public trust and confidence in the solicitors’ profession — hence any activity that damages or negatively impacts the public trust would be in breach of this. Principles three — with independence, four — with honesty and five — with integrity all echo the same as the previous principles. Specifically for this topic is principle six — acting in a way that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion. Without even touching upon other reasons why D&I is important, it is clear to see that it is part of the fundamental fabric of the legal profession. There may be discussion around why organisations and individuals involved in issues surrounding D&I are not penalised in the same way as breaches of financial or conduct issues — however that is for another debate.

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As a profession, I believe lawyers must lead the way on D&I. Our leading principles and the fundamental function of a lawyer all promote a more fair, open and inclusive society. Without a truly equal and open profession, we cannot expect the society we live in to be any different; the way our own legal profession looks should be no different to that of society. For any legal team, the conversation should be beyond chargeable hours, profit margins and marketing — it is about the moral compass we each hold and have a responsibility to direct.

Clients can often dictate how a business or sector shifts in patterns. Clients in the modern day are understanding the changes in culture and business. Whilst it should always not come down to clients dictating how legal teams are shaped, if this brings positive change, perhaps client influence is not a bad thing. A highly publicised example of this can be seen by the comments of Coca-Cola’s senior vice president and global general counsel on D&I. Coca-Cola threatened to reduce fees from law firms that fail to meet minimum diversity requirements. Although this may seem like an extreme measure to some, it is certainly a strong way to drive the D&I agenda further.

Any organisation that spends time and money on employees will no doubt want the best out of them. An environment which allows everyone to flourish will naturally retain the best talent and positive people. Hence, there is a real economic benefit in having a truly inclusive and supportive workforce. Having safe spaces where people can be themselves will not only encourage greater collaboration but will increase awareness and challenge views around D&I. It is not a complex formula — happy employees will produce better output and better reputations for organisations.

When D&I is implemented correctly, everyone is a winner.

Baljinder Singh Atwal is a solicitor, co-chair of the Birmingham Solicitors’ Group, and Law Society council member representing the interests of junior lawyers.

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