Twitter Logo Youtube Circle Icon LinkedIn Icon

GC Magazine

INTERVIEW: FUNKE ABIMBOLA
GENERAL COUNSEL AND COMPANY SECRETARY, ROCHE

Funke Abimbola discusses promoting diversity as a mentor and sponsor for people ranging from school age to senior associate level, both inside and outside of law.

G C   D I V E R S I T Y   A N D   I N C L U S I O N   I N T E R V I E W


Funke Abimbola (FA): The focus of my diversity work has been within the legal profession, not Roche as a whole, because Roche does it right, especially for gender, ethnicity and social mobility. For example, with regards to gender, we have more female leaders than male leaders and more female leaders in the pipeline for succession. We also have a healthy representation of colleagues who are the first in their families to go to university and to get PhDs, and we are strong on ethnicity – we have over 50 nationalities represented amongst our 1,800 staff based at the site in the UK alone.

When I arrived at Roche, I thought that there was something very wrong in the legal profession. I had worked in four law firms where I was the only black lawyer. Diversity of social background in law firms tended to depend on practice area – for example, legal aid work is more diverse both in terms of race and social background, but in commercial practice, there is little diversity. For example, there was only one Asian partner at one of the four firms where I worked previously.

GC: Do you think things have changed at all in the firms since you left?

FA: It depends on the firm, and really it only takes effect where firms have actively set up programmes because it doesn’t just happen over time without specific initiatives. The firms that have changed are committed to addressing gender targets, social mobility, multicultural issues, LGBT, and will also have some kind of employee network to deal with inclusion aspects. It is one thing to get diverse colleagues in the door but quite another thing to make the mix work.

GC: Have you come across ‘box-ticking’, and how have you overcome this approach?

FA: Yes, and I am pushing for the business case for diversity, trying to use client power to force change. I am encouraging as many of my senior in-house contacts as I can to sign up to the Law Society Procurement Protocol, which is a commitment to having diversity as a core part of the procurement process for external law firms. We recently did an RFP for our external legal panel and the D&I element had significant weighting, resulting in firms that are technically strong not even making it onto the shortlist. I feel very strongly about this and all 40 of the law firms involved in the process were fed back that message.

Some firms will do this anyway because of their strong CSR policies, but a significant proportion won’t unless it hits them in the pocket. On one level, we should set aside the business case and focus on the fact that this is the right thing to do, bringing a broader mix of talent. Clients are more diverse anyway, and firms could be missing out on the top talent. There are candidates who have been turned down who are clearly talented, but they are not given entry to the more elite firms.

GC: What are the strategic benefits of diversity?

FA: Diversity of thought is the endgame. If you have more diverse thinkers, then you will be problem solving in a very different way, across all disciplines. We are a very innovative company at Roche and the challenge is to remain innovative, because this is a crucial part of drug discovery – we need innovation at every stage and innovation only happens if people look at a problem in a different way.

GC: Does this extend to the legal team?

FA: My team is very diverse, and we all qualified in different ways. I don’t look at which university a candidate went to or what class of degree a candidate got, because that is insignificant. I look for the potential and raw talent, their experience, what they can bring to the team. The recruitment process here is an open one. We have a diverse team: some are parents, and some are from different parts of the world. All qualified in different ways. You must look at the talent you will get in the door, but many law firms simply don’t do that; they look at the university, the results. I get 150+ applications per vacancy but I put time in to get the best talent irrespective of race, etc.

GC: Does this make recruitment a lengthier process?

FA: At the front end, you have to invest the time, but having done that, if you know what you are looking for, I can spot talent on a CV and find the right attributes in a covering letter. It is about drawing the right things out of a CV. I have to block out time to do this, but that is something we do here. My team is not unusual in doing this within Roche – it is a core part of culture and our values. Otherwise you are just doing word searches, looking for the ‘right’ universities.

GC: What specific role or impact can your team have on diversity initiatives?

FA: We are representative, high performing, and very visible. This goes a long way because people see our thinking as very fresh and we challenge each other to think differently. But, at Roche we are not the exception, because my team is representative of the whole company culture. We celebrate that, and people and their thinking and their successes – they are all core parts of what we stand for.

GC: Can diversity of the company have an impact on the perception of the company?

FA: Absolutely. In fact, it is a key recruitment tool. All companies who are serious about getting the right talent in will have done research on millennials, and the more diverse we are, the more likely we are to attract high quality millennials. We have a mixture of students going through my summer internship scheme every year, four or five law students getting work experience, and they all said (even the young men) that they want to work in a company like this because of the diversity. When I speak to school children (roughly 2,000 this year) I see that they are very different from other generations: more clued up, they can research, they know what is what, because there is more information out there. Diversity is a core part and any company that doesn’t engage will be left behind.

GC: Do you have tangible examples of where your networks, initiatives and speaking on the topic have had an impact?

FA: A number of firms that have signed up to the PRIME commitment have done so because of my example, without a doubt. There have been a number of top 20 firms who have set targets because of what I have said to them, whether I have spoken at their firm or they have heard me somewhere else and gone back to their firm and started something. I am regularly invited by the senior leadership of firms to convince their partners of the importance of all this. This is not just speaking to potential panel firms and we are very transparent about that – if you only do this because of possible panel benefits, then it’s not going to help you. Only do this if you really want to do it. The best firm for taking up these changes isn’t even on our panel. It is not about future work, but the bigger issue around progression and change within the sector.

GC: Have you experienced any challenges when starting initiatives?

FA: It is always useful if firms have the data. If they don’t, it can be a pointless exercise, because they won’t know what issue they are trying to solve. You need data for all levels of qualification, starting with trainees. This data is very important – it has to be the starting point across all strands, through gender, race, disability. The Law Society has a template you can use to gather the data, and then we can talk. So I can say, ‘You have an inclusion problem, not a diversity problem’. The big issue at entry level is the narrow pool of talent being considered.

So the starting point is data. Get a transparent attitude to that, broaden access at entry level, have gender and other diversity targets, work hard to retain your talent using set targets (not quotas), provide mentoring and sponsorship, set up employee networks covering several diversity strands such as multicultural, LGBT and gender balance.

Share:

Browse the GC archive

IPAD AND IPHONE EDITION

GC Magazine cover image iPad Autumn 2017 GC Magazine cover image iPhone Autumn 2017 Download GC Magazine Autumn 2017 on iPad