Letter from London

In Letter from London, we get perspectives from barristers and solicitors about legal life in the UK.

Brexit no reason to lose focus on diversity

Aug 08, 2016, By Sascha Grimm

Greetings from Europe! Hang on…actually, scrap that… Ok, greetings from the United Kingdom! Oh, actually, maybe not for much longer. From Great Britain? No? Ok. Greetings from London! Are we safe with that?

The UK is certainly living the fabled Chinese curse of “interesting times” at the moment. The last few weeks have been more of a rollercoaster than anyone anticipated. First, there were the explosive results of the EU referendum—Brexit, swiftly followed by the resignations of multiple politicians, including the Prime Minister himself. The subsequent economic downturn and currency freefall were predictable, the significant increase in reported racial abuse on the streets less so. We now find ourselves in very uncertain waters: a divided country (almost right down the line) without a compass.

There is no doubt that Brexit will impact every aspect of British society and economy, including of course the legal market. Not only will firms feel the impact of the changing economy as business entities, but many areas of law have been built around European jurisprudence. Those lawyers whose clients instruct them to advise on their European operations, now find themselves desperately scrabbling to register as Irish lawyers, or—if at firms with no other European presence—partner with European offices that might be subsumed into their firms.

You could almost forgive law firms for being a little distracted at the moment. However, it is absolutely crucial that diversity and inclusion, including gender diversity, does not slip down the agenda as firms focus on adapting to this changing landscape. There is a real risk that in the tumult of Brexit, which will undoubtedly continue over the coming months and years, the lexit—women leaving the law—may seem less important. In fact, retaining women should be a vital part of strategy going forward.

“There is a real risk that in the tumult of Brexit, which will undoubtedly continue over the coming months and years, the lexit—women leaving the law—may seem less important. In fact, retaining women should be a vital part of strategy going forward.”

Firms now, more than ever, need to keep their top talent to help them navigate the stormy waters, and also to ensure succession planning once things are calmer. The point has been made and proven countless times that more diverse teams lead to a healthier bottom line. Firms that retreat into their natural groove of conservatism and protectionism when times get tough do so at their peril.

However, the facts remain: in England and Wales, women remain grossly unrepresented at the top levels of the legal profession—and this is not changing quickly enough. Women first entered the legal profession in greater numbers than men in 1992, almost a quarter of a century ago. Now, around 60 percent of individuals entering the law are women—who remain in the majority up to age of 40 (although there is a significant drop off after the age of 36). Despite this, in some of the top firms in London, only 12 and 20 percent of partners are female. Unless women are actually worse lawyers than men (which seems unlikely), if firms are only promoting a disproportionate number of the majority, they have a skewed process and are losing talent.

So how do we keep the pressure and focus on D&I at a time when the world feels like it is being turned upside down? This really comes down to firm culture and leadership from the top. D&I must be, and remain, a core value of the business, as important as legal expertise and providing good client service. The firms that have been unequivocal in their commitment to D&I, specifically gender diversity, and enforced it at all levels (even to initially sceptical or resistant partnerships) are now seeing the benefits and are well-equipped to maintain their focus.

For those behind the curve, unfortunately there is no silver bullet. I am on the committee of Women In Law London (WILL), a network of almost 2,000 associate-level women lawyers in London (both in-house and private practice). We hold frequent events for members; one of the most important being our WILLconnect programme. These are quarterly meetings where members discuss in an open forum, under Chatham House rules, topics such as mentoring, parental leave, BD and marketing and exchange ideas and experiences from their firms or companies. The results are often surprising and demonstrate that a lot of firms are doing great work to promote and engage their women—but many are failing.

The most successful firms are those that accept that women leaving in high numbers is not a “predestined” problem, and it is something they can influence. Firms that engage with their female associates at an earlier stage to encourage, inspire and promote them to partnership (on an individual level, as well as through wider initiatives), rather than allowing them to think it is something unreachable or untenable, are seeing results.

That work must carry on. We must not allow uncertainty to push firms back into their comfort zone of promoting in their own image and seeing D&I as optional. Dynamic responses to an ever-changing landscape will stand firms in the best stead—on all fronts, including diversity. The advances of women in the profession must not be a casualty of Brexit; instead, we should use this time of great change to keep driving progress.

Sascha Grimm is an associate in the commercial litigation department of Cooley and a member of the WILEF Young Lawyers Committee.