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Equality has the power to transform the business of law

The Law Society of England and Wales recent forum showcased the power that gender equality has the ability to transform the business of law and increase the diversity, experience, and quality of leadership.

LONDON—The Law Society of England and Wales held a two-day international symposium on the power of gender equality to transform the business of law last month to mark the 100-year anniversary of women being permitted to practice law in the UK.

As part of the symposium, Christina Blacklaws, then, President of the Law Society, presented valuable insights stemming from an 18-month long research project, which collected responses from more than 7,500 women and men globally and included qualitative data collected from 250 roundtable discussions across 18 different jurisdictions. Lucinda Case, Thomson Reuters Managing Director, spoke on a panel entitled, “100 Years of Role Models: In Conversation with Senior Women in Practice”.

Highlighting solutions to challenges

Unconscious bias is the top challenge for women in the legal profession. It is no secret that women face bias which hinders their advancement within the legal industry, but the Law Society’s research shows how different aspects of bias impacts women’s career progression. Fifty-two percent of survey participants indicated that the number one barrier they face is unconscious bias, described as “the prejudice we act upon but of which we are not aware”.

A subcomponent of the unconscious bias is affinity bias, also known as the ‘like-me’ bias, which is the tendency to get along with others who are like us. To combat this, more intentional effort is required to bridge differences when diversity is present.

Institute workplace-wide learning. To address bias in the workplace, the Law Society research recommended instituting organisational-wide unconscious bias training. Separate research also recommends that experiential training be undertaken to instruct employees on how to handle situations at the point they are experienced or observed. Specifically, legal employers need to engage all of their staff, not just managers, because everyone has bias. Ongoing learning is required, however, to make sure that such bias is not impacting business decisions, the Law Society noted.

Another topic arose during the Law Society symposium and other recent industry studies, about the need for workplaces to define what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Recently, the International Bar Association found that bullying and sexual harassment incidents are excessive across the global legal industry. Moreover, knowing how an employer defines such behaviour and providing mechanisms and training in how to handle such incidents was also cited as solutions in separate research conducted in the UK through Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL), in partnership with Acritas.

Case, during her panel, noted the important role of leadership in creating a respectful workplace, sharing how she and her management team call out offensive comments and behaviours in a deliberate fashion and noting how such behaviour runs counter to the company’s diversity & inclusion agenda and values.

Another speaker suggested responding to offending behaviour by assuming positive intent and politely addressing the speaker and asking, with curiosity, if the person was aware of the behaviour’s impact on others. Other recommendations for organisation responses included appointing ‘respect ambassadors’ to whom people experiencing or observing offensive behaviour can turn and obtain guidance on how to handle a situation.

Solving the gender advancement gap with public targets. Even though setting organisation-wide public targets was acknowledged as the best way to drive accountability in closing the gender advancement gap, the Law Society’s study found that few law firms are setting and publicly acknowledging their targets. Setting targets for progression and leadership’s accountability of those targets, whether they reach them or not, is critical to demonstrate that legal employers are taking the issue seriously, panellists pointed out.

Noting that Thomson Reuters has committed to 40 percent representation of women in senior roles by 2020, Case cited the TWLL-Acritas research findings that shows openly declaring targets and making diversity a strategic goal can lead to more gender-balanced leadership.

Mainstream flexible working. While many legal organisations have policies that support flexible working, the culture within the organisation often penalises those that use it, according to the Law Society survey. More specifically, even though the technology is available, many lawyers who work flexibly to accommodate their needs outside of work are stigmatised and judged harshly as being uncommitted to their work.

There is still a cultural stigma for those with childcare responsibilities—needing to leave at 5:00 pm, and it is often met with disapproval from their team—whether at a law firm in Hong Kong or within the judiciary in the UK. No matter how hard women are working (or billing in the case of law firms)—and even though they are logging in remotely until the early hours of the morning to complete their work—being physically seen in the office is still a key criterion for advancement.

Pledging to act to close the gender achievement gap. To help encourage implementation of these and other solutions, the Law Society published at the symposium a blueprint for gender balance, which distils the key findings from the toolkits it has created to offer solutions to the challenges identified during the roundtable series. In addition, the Law Society launched a pledge created in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice in the UK, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute for Legal Executives—to spotlight the commitment participating legal organisations are making to address the advancement gap for women in the profession.

Leaders’ role in nurturing women in the promotion pipeline. Finally, the role of leadership in advocating for high-potential talent was key to future retention success, Case noted, adding that she always keeps an eye out for strong female talent that she can nurture and develop. Indeed, she recently noted how she is now rebuilding her leadership pipeline after a number of high-potential women in her part of the business were recently promoted into senior roles. Likewise, leaders can advocate for opportunities for development. For example, Case said she is planning to create an informal program for high-achieving junior sales reps who show promise.

Maintaining gender balance in senior leadership roles isn’t something that will be fixed once. It’s an ongoing commitment by organisations and the legal industry. When the 200th year of women in law is celebrated, our world will be a more balanced, equal place for all in the legal profession.


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