The increasing popularity of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law programme and annual conference, the most recent one of which was held in April, is showing us that the legal sector is experiencing a real momentum in its efforts to improve diversity and equality. The aim of the event was to come together to share experiences, successes and lessons learned, but most of all to leave with tangible advice and practical steps that can be actioned right now to move the needle closer to our goal. Throughout the day, two main themes seem to reappear. One is the increased prevalence of ‘flexible working’ and the changes in organisational culture that are associated with it and the other is the empowered role of the ‘buy-side’ and their shifting requirements of their legal services providers.
Flexible working seems to be an easy solution to help level the playing field for work allocation. It is, however, contrary to the traditional ethos of law firms where lawyers have been expected to forgo almost all personal life for the sake of their clients and work around the clock in the office when needing to hit a deadline. Nowadays, however, it is becoming more difficult for firms to ignore the expectation of flexibility and agility of work time and space, which the often-maligned millennials are bringing with them, and especially now that almost everyone could be called a ‘digital nomad’. Even though it remains controversial, it is mostly a welcome development by women and men working in the law, as it allows everyone, notwithstanding varying demands on their time, to reach their career goals and still achieve superior client care.
Of course, the solution is never as simple as ‘offering flexible working’. There needs to be a clear vision for the firm out of which flexible working is just one element. The vision which projects to all in the firm what ‘the right firm management’ looks like and therefore clearly demonstrates that the leadership of the firm supports the necessary changes needed to achieve it. This vision will also determine the culture and values of the firm which could change it from presenteeism to one of results.
But it is not only flexible working and the culture it is associated with, which is important, so are the buy-side and their power to influence. The buy-side are increasingly vocal about diversity and equality. Earlier this year, two groups of General Counsel, one in the US and the other in Europe, have raised the bar by publishing letters of commitment to support diversity and inclusion. Clearly, they have realised that these values need to be reflected across their suppliers as well as their staff. They also want to work with more diverse teams because they have seen the value of this approach from their own experience. Moreover, Harvard Business Review published a study that shows diverse teams produce better bottom line results. Law firms need to be moving in the right direction, towards equality. The buy-side needs to be more transparent about their work and work allocation, and as we heard from Christina Blacklaws, then, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, “without transparency women are hugely disadvantaged”, during the panel “What role can the buy-side play in bringing about transformational change?”.
Now your question might be, how do firms achieve this flexibility, transparency and empower their staff at the same time? Most companies are using collaboration and automation tools, making their work more efficient and accessible. It is therefore not surprising that they would expect their firms to do the same. Luckily, legal technology is finally starting to catch up with these needs, and there is a plethora of tools allowing firms to retain clients, as well as great talent.