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Are Diversity & Inclusion graduate schemes in law firms just for show?

(I don’t want any of those CV’s!)

An article on Legal Cheek in March this year highlighted research by Dr Louise Ashley, a researcher in diversity and inclusion from Queen Mary University, London, which suggested that City law firms’ efforts to become more diverse and inclusive are “a form of ‘reputation laundering’, offering only the illusion of change”.

This sparked a debate in the legal recruitment team in the office, and my colleague Pau Calm & I set to task and started a very simple poll on LinkedIn to see what our wider community thought about this subject:

The results clearly show that the larger majority of people who voted, feel that the D&I schemes trying to attract more diverse talent are just for show.

Aside from posting the poll on LinkedIn, we emailed our talent pool of Paralegals, numbering some 3,500, to ask them if they would be happy to place their vote, and if I am honest, I had no idea how emotive this subject would be for some people.

I take pride in the fact that our talent pool is diverse, and I was surprised at some of the responses I had from candidates, and several of them have allowed me to share some of their comments here in this article on an anonymous basis.

I am not sure what response Pau and I were expecting from the poll, but I don’t think we expected it to be so divisive.

Here are some comments from some of the law graduates;

“I have worked at [global law firm] and can confirm there was no diversity & inclusion. I faced a lot of issues in my short 6-month contract. I would not go back and work for them.”

"I answered 'no' - law firms require an educational attainment that is often predicated on familial links to law in that most lawyers who have lawyers as parents is incredibly high from what I can see. To further this point, that level of education attainment requires extra curriculars, pro bono and many other activities that require the student have access to enough funding to not work on top of their studying. While there are cases of people beating the odds, the bar is effectively set much, much higher in practice. Putting it simply, if the grades and requirements they demand are measurements of a person’s worth, that worth is firmly placed in their ability to either study if you’re comfortable or manage multiple stress factors if you’re not. It is necessarily discriminatory and implicitly based on moralised standards of comfort I.e. you’re worthy if you’re comfortable to begin with.”

“I put 'yes' but I am not one to make sweeping generalisations and if there was a 'neither agree nor disagree', I would have chosen this. This is because this issue usually depends on the firm. Some firms are serious about diversity for social change, and this is usually shown throughout the firms structure, staff, and procedures etc. I have also found that many lawyers I have spoken to do genuinely care about diversity. Other firms however are aware of social changes towards more diversity in the legal world and do not want the negative press of sticking to the 'status quo'. I also think the introduction of ESG rankings further incentives diversity for reputational purposes.”

“There is no doubt that firms are not serious about diversity and inclusion. Law firms are still stuck with the mindset of mostly recruiting from Russell Group Universities. Grades are a huge factor even though they claim that they don’t look at them anymore. The paralegal market may have seen a slight increase in diversity but the truth is there is a huge gap between workforce from these diverse background moving into the training contract positions.”

“ I do agree that things are improving at city firms. I certainly see people of colour in Associate roles at ‘Magic Circle Law Firm’. However, the Bar is a very different story. In general, the Bar is very resistant to change. As somebody who qualified as a mature student and who did not attend a Russell Group University, the odds are not in my favour in terms of securing pupillage. I have even written to the BSB re challenges faced by mature students and they are not willing to intervene in the practices of Chambers. I hope you continue to do the work you are doing to improve things, and if I have the opportunity, I will certainly try to do the same at the Bar.“

Pau & I work with law firms and in-house legal teams every day and can see the lengths that some of these organisations are going to, to ensure that their workforce is diverse and representative of the local community it sits within. Over my 30-year legal recruitment career I have seen massive changes in demographics of the staff working within law, but I am a 50-year white British woman, and I am not a law graduate seeking work. Their experience seems to be very different.

Where my passion for ED&I comes from

I am very passionate about diversity & inclusion, and would like to share my story as to why this matters to me so much. The story begins in 1990 when I started my career in recruitment. I was speaking to a boutique law firm in Holborn about a vacancy they were looking to fill. I was just starting out in my recruitment career and has under pressure to bring this law firm on as a client - the country was in mid-recession, and times were a little tough.

Towards the end of the call, the office manager said “oh by the way, I don’t want any of those CVs”- the implication was very clear. She wanted CVs from white British people, and not from any other ethnic group.

I was new to this career, just 6 months into my job as a trainee recruitment consultant and had never in my life experienced out and out racism like this. I was ill-equipped to push back. I was shocked that someone could be so blunt and dismissive about other human beings.

I dismissed the request from the office manager and put forward candidates that I thought were more than suitable for the job, regardless of their ethnicity. At the time, that rebellion seemed to be my only way of pushing back – I just wasn’t educated enough around racism, let alone diversity and inclusion, to be able to have that uncomfortable conversation. I didn’t fill the job, and in some ways looking back I am glad that was the case.

Those words “I don’t want any of those CVs” have had a major impact on my career. Over time, I have educated myself around equity, diversity and inclusion, and I have become an advocate for those that perhaps don’t have the perfect CV (is there such a thing?). I am comfortable having uncomfortable conversations with clients around bias and discrimination and am pleased to say that I have never experienced a phone call like I did back in 1990 ever again.

So am I surprised by the results of the poll?

My answer is yes. And no.

When the poll first went out, the initial result was that responders thought the academic was wrong. I then sent the poll to my diverse talent pool of over 3,500 paralegals. That talent pool is rich in diversity, lived experiences and personal characteristics, and the results were startling. The results of the poll changed overnight.

A larger percentage of the emails I received on this topic talked about being given the opportunity to interview, but then, when the graduate saw the talent that had been offered training contracts, the demographic was obvious – and it didn’t look like them.

Law firms have done so much work to help create opportunities for law graduates and have schemes to reach out to a wider diverse talent pool, yet there is very clearly more work to be done. The clear message is that graduates are getting an opportunity to interview, with either a 2:2 degree, with a law degree from non-Russell Group University or from a lower socio-economic group – but the number of candidates from these backgrounds being offered training contracts is low. Yet this is the very talent pool where I spend my time having great conversations, and unearthing talent that is often overlooked.

I will continue to use my voice to create a more equitable playing field for everyone who wants a career in law.