City grad recruiters slam academic’s claim that law firm diversity schemes are just for show

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By Aishah Hussain on


Dr Louise Ashley says schemes offer only ‘illusion of change’, but new entry level hiring practices tell a different story

City law firms’ efforts to become more diverse and inclusive are “a form of ‘reputation laundering’, offering only the illusion of change”, a university academic has claimed, much to the annoyance of legal graduate recruiters. They say the academic’s assertions are outdated and fail to take into account what’s happening at grass roots level.

Dr Louise Ashley, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, who has spent more than ten years researching issues around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in ‘elite’ professions, writes in a recent article:

“I believe that City firms’ efforts to become more diverse and inclusive, and to deliver more equal representation at the top, have not worked because they were never meant to. Instead, they are a form of ‘reputation laundering’, offering only the illusion of change in order to protect their privileges and rewards.”

Dr Ashley came to this conclusion following more than 400 interviews with City workers over a ten-year period, around a third of them lawyers, for her book, Highly Discriminating: Why the City isn’t Fair and Diversity Doesn’t Work.

But many have issues with her take.

A number of graduate recruitment experts told Legal Cheek that they believed the comments were outdated, failing to take into account new graduate hiring policies that have come in over the last five years. Far more diverse trainee intakes are now the norm at elite London law firms, with students from minority backgrounds and non-Russell Group universities seen much more widely, but it will take time for those trainees to progress through their respective organisations into more senior roles. While that process may require a change to some elements of organisational culture within firms, to assume those more diverse trainees won’t progress to senior roles and shake up demographics further up the ladder is unduly pessimistic, say graduate recruitment insiders.

Further, they point to the rise of solicitor apprenticeships. Magic circle duo Linklaters and Allen & Overy now both offer a route to school-leavers to go direct into City law without incurring university debt. Between them the pair are offering around 12 school-leavers per year a way in through this route. Again, why assume these future lawyers won’t reach the top, recruiters ask.

Chair of the City of London Law Society Colin Passmore also hit back at Dr Ashley’s article, writing on LinkedIn that he had been left “surprised and more than a little disappointed” at the comments. The former City partner urged her to “reflect on her conclusions and perhaps celebrate the fact that some significant and genuine initiatives are well under way that are meant to — and will — effect lasting change”.

Dr Ashley, who briefly worked in business development for a City law firm, argues that the “class-based recruitment strategies” she has observed over the last decade sustain “the impression of status and prestige” and help “justify the high fees they charge, and the exceptional profits they generate”.

She adds that the “war for talent” among firms to attract graduates from the UK’s most elite universities is “largely phoney”, continuing: “in reality, the skills the firms need are available from a much wider cohort of graduates — but it has helped convince both City firms and clients of these employees’ exceptional worth”.

Dr Ashley cites a Black corporate lawyer she spoke to in the early 2010s as telling her: “Their dream scenario is to try and find a nice, uncontroversial way to try and ‘do diversity’ without having to change much of anything else.” But most people would agree that City law firm recruitment has changed significantly since then.

Meanwhile, another law firm partner she spoke to at an unspecified time is quoted as saying his firm preferred to appoint “polished” candidates from elite universities. “From a business perspective you can’t afford to have people in meetings who will not look good to the clients, [even if] some might be very, very bright,” he said.

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Over the years City law firms have ramped up their diversity efforts by implementing targets for the retention of senior female and minority ethnic employees, as well as initiating mentoring schemes and making time spent towards EDI activities count towards lawyers’ billing targets.

They have done well largely on the gender front, with many firms exceeding targets for female partners in recent years. But the latest statistics released by the solicitors’ regulator show that big law firms are lagging behind when it comes to diversity at the top, with just 8% of partners being Black, Asian or from another ethnic minority background.

Speaking to Legal Cheek on what more City law firms can do to bring about real change in the profession, Dr Ashley said: “fundamental systemic and structural change is difficult because practices that can be quite dysfunctional in relation to talent (and indeed wellbeing) are ‘locked-in’ as a result of interactions between highly competitive firms”.

“One obvious example is very long hours which makes the retention of talented people (often, though not always, women) more difficult but persists because no firm feels able to fundamentally change this culture and structure unless their immediate competitors do, since leaders believe this could undermine their competitive position and profitability,” she continued. “An added dimension to this amongst City law firms is that over the past few decades, profitability became a sign of status in and of itself. Status is in turn important to City law firms (and their clients) and since long hours help drive profitability, there is additional resistance to change.”

Dr Ashley told Legal Cheek that Passmore’s post was “predominantly about gender inequalities in the law — my book and the article on which his comments I think were based is about social class, largely in finance. It is important to underline that demographics, cultures and structures do vary within and between sectors and firms — and I discuss how and why in much more detail in my book.”

“However, when it comes to reputation laundering, it is very important to underline that while that is not the intention, it can be an effect,” she said. “As a general point, it is brilliant that firms are doing such good work to open access and that is absolutely to be celebrated. There is a question about whether these new entrants will be able to progress their careers at a speed similar to more privileged peers and whether they will enjoy the same retention rates. We will need more time to know on that one, but evidence suggests there could be some challenges there.”

She continued: “In my book on this subject, I argue that the City often welcomes diversity, on the condition that those who are ‘different’ become more or less the same as the people already there. There is then significant pressure on new entrants from diverse backgrounds to assimilate to dominant norms and, while experiences clearly vary, that can be exhausting and distracting. On that basis, there is a danger that diverse new entrants offer reputational capital to some firms, but at some personal cost. It is vital to point out this is not deliberate, and that my critique is never aimed at individuals, or the people doing the difficult and important work in pursuit of diversity within firms. It is always aimed at the institutions and practices that get in the way, as dysfunctional practices can get locked in despite any deliberate intention or conscious will. Understanding how and why that happens is critical to understanding how to drive change.”

Dr Ashely acknowledged “these are not always comfortable conversations” but “sometimes we need the less comfortable conversations to move the needle”.

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