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Stamping out stereotypes

Despite the many senior GCs and in-house counsel that we have interviewed for this report (and elsewhere in GC magazine) as active sponsors of diverse workplaces, some of our consultants noted that legal departments were not typically being identified by diversity professionals as pioneers within their corporations on this issue. In fact, some said that legal departments are often blamed for creating roadblocks, for example around data sharing.

It is bad news for any legal team to be viewed as ‘the department of no’ when it comes to forming business partnerships and furthering the commercial aims of the company. So why might this mindset not apply when it comes to honing diversity best practices, particularly when legal training provides the perfect bedrock for working towards fairness and equality in society?

At Dell, as with many of the companies we spoke to for this report, it does. Lawyers are leading figures in several of its diversity-related employee resource groups, perhaps influenced by diversity champion Benedikte Leroy. But it seems there is still work to be done by many in-house departments to avoid becoming themselves the victims of stereotyping.

‘Typically we see that the involvement of the in-house legal team [in diversity initiatives] is set up around externally-mandated quotas, compliance, employee grievances, and/or legal action. So that conversation is coming from a negative position. But why are we not viewing this preemptively, from a positive platform? So often the internal framing of the legal team on D&I-type issues is reactive and protective,’ says Lisa Kepinski. ‘There is a need to work on the bias or the stereotype that we may have of in-house legal colleagues, to enable them to be a stronger strategic business partner and open the mindset of how we engage with them to realise a wider range of possibilities.’

There are signs that things are changing, however. Farrah Qureshi, CEO of D&I consultancy Global Diversity Practice, cites one of her new client relationships that has been driven by the legal counsel of the organisation in question. This, she believes, is emblematic of the strategic evolution of the in-house lawyer. ‘They have the ear of the top team and the CEO,’ she says, ‘but they’re also moving towards a position where they are acting as the solution – identifying what it takes to make a difference and reduce the risk on the business.’

In-house lawyers have also traditionally faced stereotyping within the broader legal profession; a view that is described by Nilfisk’s head of IP legal, Lena Ernlund Malmberg: ‘I did not leave a law firm because I am a woman and I have had babies and I wanted to work less, but that is very often the way choosing an in-house career is looked upon… In addition, there is often a view that in-house lawyers are those who were not cut out to be partners.’ But, she says, ‘When you approach the in-house life the same two reasons are usually given: firstly, people move because they want to try a commercial way of applying legal knowledge and be close to a business − digging their hands into the dirt and seeing what’s out there across a company besides the core legal challenges… Secondly, to work differently – usually not less – but differently.’

The Power of the Client

Undoubtedly respect for the in-house lawyer has grown exponentially in recent years as the scope of the role has broadened into a collaborative partnership with the business. The general counsel job is rarely nine-to-five, and comes with the responsibility and big-picture perspective commensurate with other C-suite roles, with the added flexibility of working in the corporate sector.

Many of the GCs we interviewed even noted that their own teams bucked the trend of the broader legal (and business) community, featuring female leadership as the norm, for example. According to Malmberg, many private practice firms are anchored to outdated working practices by the traditional billable hour and time recording. This, she told us, promotes a culture of long, desk-bound hours that deter those of both sexes who are looking for flexibility. Conversely, it creates fertile conditions for their in-house department peers to act as incubators of gender and other forms of diversity.

As a client, therefore, the in-house function is in a unique position of influence among the wider legal community, and many of our interviewees reported leveraging this to obtain diversity information from their external suppliers. In this way, in-house teams can be seen as part of a business-wide trend in D&I. Says Farrah Qureshi, ‘Traditionally diversity and inclusion was seen as an HR initiative. Then it went on to the strategic agenda, and now it’s going beyond the internal focus towards an external footprint.’

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The power of the client

‘Research demonstrates that diversity improves business performance. We have the huge privilege of working for a very broad range of clients, across many sectors, in many countries, on a huge variety of projects. Why wouldn’t we want to have the strongest team? How can we provide the best service and promote our own business performance without assembling a truly diverse and inclusive working environment? I believe with a passion that what is right for society is right for our business.’

Jon Hayes, partner and elected member of the International Board.

Corporate clients are increasingly looking to ensure that their panel firms share their values and their commitment to diversity and inclusion, and expect this to translate into tangible actions and demonstrable progress.

Ultimately, although there are some challenges that are relatively unique to law firms, we are often grappling with universal issues: attracting and retaining under-represented groups, ensuring senior leadership is more representative of those at junior levels, providing flexibility – both in terms of working arrangements and career paths – and, finally, living the values of the organisation. One of the most effective ways to drive change is through collective action and collaboration; in other words, working jointly with clients to address the challenges.

As a sample, Aviva mandates that diversity is among the criteria in panel reviews, requesting overall statistics and information about the make-up of teams, and Sandoz also asks law firms to consider diversity on staffing matters when engaged by the company. Shell doesn’t set targets, but expects external firms to demonstrate good D&I practices. It also shares best practice with its panel firms, on occasion. ‘We are happy to mentor people in our law firms on diversity and inclusion best practice. In the Netherlands, for example, one of our external firms was trying to improve on its LGBT diversity and they reached out to Shell Legal after attending the 2014 Workplace Pride International Conference at our headquarters in The Hague. A colleague from HR and I then met with them to share our learnings and our best practice,’ says Ching.

We learned that assessing law firm providers on diversity can be standardised without being focused solely on stats. Nia Joynson-Romanzina sits on the advisory council of EDGE [Economic Dividends for Gender Equality] certification, which looks at culture, policies and pay equity, triaging these factors, together with the numbers, into different levels of certification. ‘If you start running a supplier diversity programme,’ she says, ‘you have potential to have huge impact on the broader economy.’

Looking forward

Joynson-Romanzina believes that European organisations are beginning to turn their focus to inclusion more than diversity, which she dubs ‘D&I 2.0’. She counsels business leaders to focus on emotions in the workplace, and harness the power of belonging to access intangible motivators for excellence, such as loyalty and trust.

It might seem counterintuitive that technology could be employed to influence intangible elements of workplace culture, but perhaps individual initiatives detailed to us when compiling this report are indicative of a future trend. Out Now’s innovative online platform How.LGBT, companywide social media such as that utilised by Atos and Dell to create a dialogue between communities of employees and Dell’s online mentor-mentee matching platform are all technology-influenced innovations for fostering an inclusive environment. Consultants at Global Diversity Practice have been working with virtual reality platforms to enable people to take on an avatar for a day in order to experience life from the perspective of ‘other’ groups, and thereby encourage empathy. Tools such as Skype have revolutionised the working environment and opened up a world of career possibilities for those excluded from the workplace in the past. Such applications demonstrate that technology has the scope to change not only working practices but modes of thought, and perhaps future technological endeavours in this field could facilitate a more holistic redesign of mindsets around D&I, reframing it as an issue for everyone, rather than an inherently exclusive topic for particular groups. With such advances, who knows what the future may hold in uniting team members of all varieties, across all corners of the globe?

We hope this report has provided examples of inspiring workplace models and initiatives, and has highlighted many avenues of future involvement for general counsel and their legal teams.

What is clear is that lawyers, with their heightened powers of traversing different perspectives, are uniquely positioned to play a part in avoiding the risks of monoculture and planting seeds of partnership with internal and external colleagues in the process.


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