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Lockdown and leadership: law firms embrace diversity

Far from stalling change at law firms, the COVID-19 pandemic is allowing reassessment of leadership styles and identities, opening the door to greater diversity and inclusion. Brook Graham’s Stuart Affleck talks to Adam McCulloch about the trends he’s witnessing

For Stuart Affleck, director of Pinsent Masons’ diversity and inclusion consultancy, Brook Graham, COVID-19 is teasing out new leadership traits and styles as the focus has been on “keeping the lights on”. And it’s put pressure on leaders to adapt, especially as the need to improve diversity and inclusion has become more pressing at the same time.

He says: “We’ve seen a shift in leadership attributes which may affect the D&I agenda. Being a good leader now means showing more humanity and perhaps displaying a vulnerable side. Different skills are now needed. It’s different to be a leader in this new world when you’re not in a physical office.”

Partly, this is a consequence of the loss of physical proximity; people are having to do more to exercise leadership and manage people effectively. “Not sharing physical space has a detrimental affect on the strength of those relationships. That credit in the bank of human capital; now we don’t have that opportunity to build that relationship. So how do we help people to connect with each other?

“Leaders have to ask themselves ‘How do we have those interactions that present opportunities to engage and include others?’”

Brook Graham’s owner, legal and consulting giant Pinsent Masons, is among global leaders when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It is the highest ranked professional services firm in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index and has been ranked among The Times Top 50 Workplaces for Women in recent years. David Isaac, a partner of the firm, was appointed as Chair of the UK Equality and Human Rights Committee in 2016.

Bright Sparks

Affleck points out that Brook Graham works with companies all over the world, including Pinsent Masons. He is an admirer of the firm’s initiatives, particularly its Spark Board an eight-strong “shadow board” tasked with providing the actual board with insights and perspectives from beyond the world of partners.

Its members are below the level of partner, legal director and director of business operations and are younger. Philippa Ward, a solicitor in Pinsent Masons’ corporate team in London, who first raised the idea with the firm’s management, said: “There is a recognition around our business that no single person or committee has the monopoly on good ideas, and that’s where the Spark Board has a role to play. We can better use, and benefit from, the diversity of all our people.”

Affleck says the Spark Board has, in its short life – it was only set up last year – succeeded in helping shape Pinsent Mason’s purpose and has been excellent for providing vision and idea. The Spark board and the main board are well connected, he says, and there is no sense of the project being a token gesture.

No quick fix

The view that diversity of ideas and backgrounds is a positive thing may be a relative newcomer to the legal sector, but, says Affleck, firms are changing rapidly having mostly acknowledged the point about avoiding “token gestures”.

Firms like Brook Graham have, since the rise of Black Lives Matter, seen enquiries for services such as unconscious bias training increase sharply. This led to some D&I training providers, such as Pearn Kandola and Skills 4, to warn client companies against quick fixes. Skills 4 CEO Jayne Little says: “They are genuine enquiries which is great, but many companies are at the start of their journey and believe that this training will be a ‘silver bullet’ to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.”

Affleck strongly agrees, suggesting a far more fundamental approach is required: “A clear vision and strategy is vital. Baselining an organisation… understand how people from minorities experience the organisation, you must understand how diverse it actually is. That will really help inform a strategy. You have to ask [of firms], ‘What do you aspire to be?’”.

Enabled by HR

He warns that a D&I strategy must not be seen just as the preserve of HR. “The commercial rewards must be an integral part of a D&I strategy. D&I is about your customer and your supply chain. Of course there’s also legislation around it. But it must be a leader-led – it is an HR-enabled strategy.”

A holistic approach is underlined by asking companies to look at all of their relationships.

“When I’m working with clients I encourage them to examine their supply chain and look at what they’re doing around this agenda. People are asking for demographic data.”

Organisations need to confront the issue of whether people from under-represented groups are allowed grow and thrive within the organisation. This level of change, of course, takes time, says Affleck, and first what needs to be understood are the three levels of change; personal change, the interpersonal level of change (me as a member of a team), and organisational (policies and practices, what’s the environment being created for people to work in).

Self selection

The company’s governance should set aspirational targets, he adds, and authentic buy-in from across the organisation must be achieved. Aspects of recruitment have to be completely rethought, not only the sources that employees traditionally come from. Even the language used on job adverts must be examined, he says, to prevent people from self-selecting out. He adds that women more often self-select out than men and adds that he believes it’s useful to see gender as a culture.

“We are brought up within stereotypes. We as children are drip-fed messages about behaviour and gender,” says Affleck. “As we project that forward there are different characteristics. Men are more attuned to hierarchies.”

He urges organisations not to look at gender pay gap reporting as just being about reward and pay; “it’s about achieving an inclusive culture”, he adds.

As for Pinsent Masons, Affleck stands on firm ground when it comes to talking about women and breaking the glass ceiling. Back in 2014 the firm launched Project Sky, a programme aimed at achieving an improved gender balance in the firm’s partnership and senior leadership team by removing any barriers to the progression of women.

Help senior women progress

Led by employment partner Linda Jones, Sky was the cue for several initiatives with the ultimate aim of ensuring that women comprised 30% of the firm’s partnership, with a first milestone of reaching 25% by 1 May 2018. This was achieved a year ahead of schedule.Affleck was delighted to learn that, for the first time, a woman is to lead one of London’s five “magic-circle” law firms with the news that Georgia Dawson had been elected senior partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

It will seem to many extraordinary it has taken this long for one of the magic-circle firms to appoint a woman. Affleck is hopeful that this isn’t a one-off, although fewer than 25% of partners among magic circle firms are female, with Freshfields having only 17%. He prefers to look at the positives and explains that “HR can help senior women progress through assisting in the creation of internal and importantly external networks.

A good leader

“In a remote and virtual working world, establishing and maintaining networks has been hard for many but experience has demonstrated numerous times that connecting with others creates opportunities that can assist in development and personal growth. Helping identify formal or informal, internal and external networks for women to actively engage in can and will play a vital role to success.

He adds that “Identifying diverse talent through succession planning is also key, and adopting an underrepresented ‘plus-one’ concept can help identify rising talent that might have previously been overlooked or underinvested in.”

But perhaps, Freshfields’ decision is a symbol of the trend identified by Affleck at the beginning of our discussion that, as he puts it, “Organisations are questioning what does it take to be a good leader.”

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