Calling for justice: a protest in London following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, US
Calling for justice: a protest in London following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, US © Reuters

The death of George Floyd, an African-American man killed by a white police officer in the US in May, was a galvanising event for law firms and their efforts to improve diversity and inclusion.

Many law firms had made strides in their diversity efforts. But interviews with senior lawyers and human resources executives reveal that the anger and dismay sparked by the circumstances of Floyd’s death has been a catalyst for deeper change. It accelerated a shift that had long been discussed but failed to materialise.

The challenge, according to longtime advocates of greater diversity at law firms, is to use the events of the past few months to drive meaningful and lasting change in an industry that is predominantly white and draws from a small pool of elite graduates.

Segun Osuntokun, managing partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s London office, says the situation has improved since he started out in the profession almost 30 years ago. “When I trained as an associate at Wilde Sapte, there weren’t any black partners,” he says.

Now, there is a greater pipeline of recruits who come from black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) backgrounds. “We’re seeing a stronger pipeline of lawyers of colour at the junior end,” he says. “The great challenge is to sustain the numbers coming through at the junior end to see them through to be promoted as senior associates and partners.”

A survey conducted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the regulatory body in England and Wales, found the proportion of lawyers of Bame backgrounds had risen from 14 per cent in 2014 to 21 per cent in 2019. People of Asian background made up two-thirds of this total, with black lawyers accounting for just 3 per cent, the same proportion as in 2017.

The imbalance was worse at partner level. Only 8 per cent of partners at large firms, those with 50 or more partners, were Bame.

The data reveal a sharp split at law firms, with some success in recruitment but a lag on retention and promotion.

Ashurst has worked with recruiters to broaden its pool of potential new hires, with more than 40 per cent of its most recent graduate intake in London from Bame backgrounds (see below).

Linklaters engages Bame-owned recruitment firms to identify candidates beyond traditional avenues.

Hogan Lovells has increased its ethnic minority graduate intake from 10 per cent in 2010 to 30 per cent from 2015. Miguel Zaldivar, new global chief executive, has made diversity and inclusion one of his five priorities.

What are firms doing to improve the trajectory of newcomers up to senior associate or partner?

Constanze Ulmer-Eilfort, a member of the global executive committee at Baker McKenzie who leads the firm’s global diversity and inclusion efforts, says discussing racism openly was an important first step. When the firm published a video after Floyd’s killing in which eight black colleagues talked explicitly about everyday experiences, the stories had an impact on white colleagues. “There were so many responses from white colleagues who say they never knew. That’s why the momentum right now is key and seizing on it is so important,” she says.

Some firms are also rethinking how work is allocated. Traditionally, partners have tended to choose the associates who work on their projects — but senior lawyers have typically favoured those of a similar background.

Mr Osuntokun says BCLP is experimenting with employing a third party to operate as an adjudicator that will determine how work is allocated, rather than relying on partners to make such decisions.

But for all this tweaking, some believe a more radical rethink is required of law firms’ business model.

Moni Mannings, a former partner at Olswang and now a FTSE 100 board director, says the outlook has improved markedly since she began her law career and was the only woman of colour at her first firm. But senior levels remain “astonishingly white male”.

One reason, she says, is the partnership model, which is geared to risk aversion. “Law firms are essentially a club,” she says, with partners acting both as managers and the main earners and little external shareholder pressure for change. “Self-interest is very closely aligned to managerial interests.” In this context, difference itself is perceived as a risk.

How did she succeed in this world? “In retrospect, I realise that part of what I did — about which I’m not enormously proud — was minimise and deflect difference,” she says. “This isn’t a long-term way forward because you don’t bring your best self forward.”

Law firms have come a long way since those days but they have further work to do — if they too are to put their best selves forward.

Ten law firms highlighted for taking action

In the middle of global Black Lives Matter protests, some of Europe’s forward-thinking law firms revealed how they are tackling racism and increasing ethnic diversity.

Ten firms stand out for actively addressing these challenges — tellingly, all are in the UK.

© Getty Images


Training on unconscious bias and on how to intervene safely in cases of sexual, racist or homophobic abuse — bystander intervention — is compulsory at the firm, particularly for graduate recruiters and supervisors.

Last year the firm introduced “gamified” assessments of graduates, to test logic and emotional intelligence, as well as contextualised screening of exam grades.

The firm collaborates with external specialists to broaden the recruitment pool: 44 per cent of the firm’s most recent intake of graduate trainees in London came from Bame (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds.

Baker McKenzie
The firm has set up a global task force on racial and ethnic diversity as well as an active listening and learning campaign to encourage colleagues to share personal stories.

In 2019 the firm set a gender target for the split between men, women and unspecified gender in leadership roles. Now it has introduced targets in the UK, US and Canada for racial and ethnic diversity in leadership positions by 2025.

In several offices the firm has adopted credits of up to 125 billable hours for associates to spend on activities to promote diversity and inclusion.

The firm has a target to diversify the partnership, aiming for 20 per cent of partners to represent minority ethnic groups, the LGBT community and disabled people by 2025. The firm was a founding member of Aspiring Solicitors, which works to improve access to the legal profession for under-represented demographics. It uses contextualised recruitment and talent mapping of Bame staff to help them progress in their careers.

The firm has formalised appointment and succession planning processes to include diversity considerations, including in the nominations committee for board appointments.

The firm established a race and ethnicity network in 2019 and set targets including 10 per cent Bame representation in senior leadership by 2022 and initiating Bame pay gap reporting by the end of 2020.

It is implementing inclusive hiring training as well as practices such as blind recruitment and unconscious bias training.

Working with social mobility charity The Brokerage since 2010, DWF has committed to two paid internships per year, which have supported 17 young people to date.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

A cohort of the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme
Freshfields established a scholarship for young black men entering the law

As well as using contextual recruitment and unconscious bias training, the firm runs scholarship programmes.

In 2013 the firm established the Stephen Lawrence scholarship, to support young black men entering the legal profession: 69 individuals have received the scholarship to date, and 14 of those have accepted training contracts at Freshfields. The firm’s Black Affinity Network started in 2015.

Herbert Smith Freehills

The firm’s new people and culture board monitors progress on surveys, recruitment and supplier data, as well as client expectations. It has also introduced training on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. The diversity and inclusion team are working with the procurement department to increase the diversity of suppliers of services to the firm; it is also exploring how it can persuade suppliers to improve their own practices.

The firm is looking for graduate recruits from a wider pool of universities and is supporting Warwick university’s Multicultural Scholars programme, and African-Caribbean societies at institutions including the University of Nottingham.

Hogan Lovells

Diversity and inclusion is one of the chief executive’s five strategic priorities and the diversity team now report directly to global chief executive Miguel Zaldivar. The firm has pledged 65,000 pro bono hours through to 2023 to address systemic problems faced by people of colour and was instructed by the UN special rapporteur for contemporary forms of racism to work on a project examining police accountability and safeguards on human rights.

The firm has improved its ethnic minority graduate intake from 10 per cent in 2010 to 30 per cent from 2015 onwards.

The firm has developed leadership training on unconscious bias, inclusivity and privilege. It engages black-owned recruitment firms and supports young Bame people through organisations such as the Eastside Young Leaders Academy and summer internships.

The firm has allocated local senior champions for its action plans to improve diversity, and these are regularly reviewed by the board. The firm publishes its ethnicity pay gap for partners and employees, which last year was a mean of 32.9 per cent and median of 1.4 per cent.

In 2018 Macfarlanes set a target for 30 per cent women at partnership level and 10 per cent Bame people. Some 9 per cent of fee-earning staff promoted to partner in the past two years are from Bame backgrounds.

In February the firm launched a Bame reverse mentoring programme facilitated by journalist and former barrister Afua Hirsch.

The firm publishes its ethnicity pay gap for partners and employees at the firm, which in 2019 had a mean average of 68.79 per cent and a median of 43.15 per cent.

Pinsent Masons
The firm’s Cultural Confidence education programme encourages discussion of race. Pinsent Masons has published its ethnicity pay gap in England and Scotland for the past two years, with the mean for partners and employees at 41.9 per cent in 2019, and the median at 20 per cent.

It introduced contextual recruitment in 2016, using big data to assess candidates’ achievements and identify those with the greatest potential.

In 2017 the firm acquired Brook Graham, a consultancy that advises businesses on strategies to improve diversity and inclusion, and in 2019 this service expanded to the Asia-Pacific region.

Firms listed in alphabetical order. Researched and compiled by RSG Consulting

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