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Top law firms commit to robust ethnic equality measures

Seventeen leading law firms, including seven of the top 10 by revenue, have pledged to better promote the careers of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) lawyers within their ranks and open themselves up for a frank discussion of racism.

By signing up to the Race Fairness Commitment (RFC) the firms have signalled their intention to help to recruit, retain and develop BAME talent and ensure that ethnic minority lawyers have more opportunities to lead fulfilling careers.

Signing up to the RFC involves a commitment to close analysis of quantitative data and monitoring throughout lawyers’ careers, which will identify the points at which BAME lawyers are unfairly falling behind their peers. Firms have also committed to decisive steps to ensure that race and racism are better recognised and talked about internally.

One of the RFC’s measures seeks to ensure that junior ethnic minority lawyers have access to senior management, and that race and racism are discussed at every induction and exit interview. Firms will monitor and publish interview and offer rates, retention rates, pay and promotion rates.

One of the RFC’s aims is to foster workplaces where BAME people can be themselves at work as much as white people – staying true to their culture and speech and not feeling they have to alter it simply to “fit in”.

The organisation behind the initiative is Rare, a diversity recruitment specialist, which stated that while most leading City law firms now recruited cohorts of graduate trainees that were as ethnically diverse as the population, and in many cases more so, “ethnic diversity at entry level has not led to sufficient ethnic diversity at management level”.

Research conducted by Rare earlier this year suggested that many black, Asian and ethnic minority lawyers did not find their firms’ cultures to be inclusive. That research showed that BAME lawyers spent on average 20% less time at firms than their white colleagues before leaving. Rare’s research echoed a recent YouGov poll, which found that half of black britons had experienced racism at work.

Roy Appiah, a senior associate at Clifford Chance, described some of the barriers he had come across in his career: “Clifford Chance is undoubtedly a great place to work and I am very fortunate and privileged to do so. However, as a black or ethnic minority lawyer, you are never too far away from reminders that the firm, and the industry, were not designed for people like you to rise to the top.

“These reminders come in many forms, like having your security pass checked twice to enter work, or being invited to training about what leadership looks like where none of the dozen speakers look like you.

“Being one of the very few ethnic minority lawyers in a department, and seeing very few ethnic minority partners within the firm, showed me that there is a much smaller margin of error for progressing in my career than my white peers. As a junior lawyer, and even now to some extent, I’m conscious not to draw attention to my obvious visual difference. I don’t want to provide ammunition to those holding stereotypes about people like me.”

He added: “As my career has progressed and I demonstrated to myself and to colleagues that I can do this, it is as though I have earned the right to be more of myself at work. And it is no coincidence that I am a better lawyer when I feel I can be myself.”

Appiah said the RFC was a significant step that posed the right question for firms: “Has the firm created an environment that will enable ethnic minority staff to progress?” Too often, he said, the question had been: “What is wrong with the ethnic minority staff?”

Ngozie Azu, Rare alumnus and head of international relations at Slaughter and May, said in her 11 years at the firm she’d been “fortunate to have a number of senior sponsors who have supported me along the way with advice and mentorship. There’s always been a focus on the stats, on outreach, on improving our recruitment processes. Which is great. But what’s changed in the last few months – and what this Commitment will institutionalise – is that the focus has shifted to the more personal stories, the human element.

”How does it actually feel to be black in a firm like this? There will always be areas of differences – for example my unusual name, my hair and how I spend my leisure time. The challenge for firms is to ensure that they are creating an environment in which everyone can bring their most authentic selves to work without fear our differences will mark us out or impact our ability to succeed.”

Raph Mokades, founder and managing director of Rare, reflected on the current opportunity for progress: “What seems possible in terms of racial justice has shifted this year, and the Race Fairness Commitment is about real change. It’s a brave step for the law firms to take, as well as a necessary one. It goes beyond merely not discriminating, and it goes beyond the usual diversity and inclusion activities you see at many organisations. For law firms, it’s about recognising a problem and hunting it down, and I’m delighted that so many have taken this major step.”

Signatories to the Race Fairness Commitment

  • Allen & Overy
  • Ashurst
  • Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
  • Clifford Chance
  • DWF
  • Dentons
  • Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
  • Herbert Smith Freehills
  • Hogan Lovells
  • Linklaters
  • Macfarlanes
  • Norton Rose Fulbright
  • Pinsent Masons
  • RPC
  • Slaughter and May
  • Travers Smith
  • White & Case

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