Updated: Law firms pledge to recruit and retain BAME talent – but that means lawyers

Many of London’s leading law firms have signed up a Race Fairness Commitment (RFC) to help recruit, retain and develop BAME talent – albeit the commitment appears to extend to lawyers rather than talent across the firm as a whole. The RFC, unveiled today (6 July) has been signed by 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 and White & Case. 

Pathfinding measures included in the RFC include close analysis of quantitative data and monitoring throughout careers, from recruitment to senior promotion, in order to identify and attack 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.  

The RFC and its associated measures include concrete, very detailed steps to which all the signatories commit. These ensure that junior ethnic minority lawyers have access to senior management, and that race and racism are talked about in every induction and exit interview. Interview and offer rates, retention rates, pay and promotion rates will be actively monitored as they relate to ethnic minority lawyers; and, where appropriate, published. 

Other measures of employee sentiment will also be taken regularly, and the RFC includes an explicit commitment to continue to foster workplaces where BAME people can be themselves at work as much as White people – without feeling the need to be inauthentic in terms of their speech or culture, simply in order to “fit in”.  

Firms are taking this initiative in partnership with Rare, the diversity recruitment specialist that has been helping law firms and others recruit talented BAME candidates into tier-one graduate jobs for 15 years. Rare runs a contextual recruitment system that is helping to attract talented graduates and apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds into the sector.

Segun Osuntokun, managing partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, commented: “The uncomfortable reality is that despite great strides to improve diversity across the legal industry, we have failed to make enough progress on racial equity. As a senior black partner I am conscious of the small minority I represent. It felt important to me personally to take a stand and demand that firms make themselves more accountable for change. The legal industry has a responsibility to ensure the focus on tackling racial injustice we are seeing right now is not a moment in time. If not now, when? If not us, who? If not this, what?  

“It is time to make a difference. This commitment helps to send a strong message to black students and black junior lawyers that while, as firms, we may not have achieved enough change in the past, we are determined to ensure that the future will be different.” 

While this sort of measure is to be applauded, lack of diversity is glaringly apparent within legal technology teams, and commitment to improve diversity should extend to vital support functions firmwide. 

Edit: Commenting on this story on LinkedIn, Winston & Strawn’s chief information officer David Cunningham said: “Another great initiative. Yes, Caroline Hill these programs are typically only focused on lawyers because that’s what almost all the clients’ metrics are focused on and because the metrics can already be very manual to calculate so more than doubling the people to measure is daunting to overworked Inclusion, Diversity, and Equality leaders. But, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Winston recently announced that it would focus its diversity efforts on the entire firm, so that’s a start in changing the norm.”

And Omar Sweiss, CEO of JusticeBid, said: “Caroline Hill I’ve been advocating, here in the US, along with many others like Julie Savarino (who penned an open letter on this that I’m a signatory to) that we should be counting more than “lawyers.” If we want to impact our industry, whether at a law firm or a Corp law Dept level, all roles beyond “attorney” that exist should be counted. We work with our clients to ensure we seek out more than just attorney counts. We include paralegals, secretaries, captive IT, legal ops, BD, diverse vendors they use (supplier diversity), etc … Thank you for highlighting this important issue, Caroline 🙏🏼.”