We had a great turnout at our law firm event last week, Helping partners to show that people matter, in collaboration with Fides Search. There were many interesting contributions and people had a lot to say!

Using insight from esteemed panellists, Monica Burch, Ian Gray and Roger Parker, we brought together partners, D&I and HR professionals from some of the UK’s largest law firms to discuss inclusion and wellbeing in law firms. 

The discussion kicked off with our Victoria Lewis and Richard Martin, sharing the findings of a survey produced by Fides in conjunction with the event. 

Victoria suggested that more genuine support from managers and partners is the greatest change needed to make law firm cultures more inclusive. “How do you demonstrate that you care? It is about a change in behaviour” , asserted Victoria. “Policy is all well and good, but the policy will not be applied unless you have people demonstrating the right behaviours”. 

Richard advocated another behaviour change: that firms, colleagues and individuals recognise it is both normal and acceptable to struggle at work. “There is no shame in finding it hard sometimes. The only shame is in not admitting it”. The importance of this was reflected in the survey findings, which revealed that less than 50% of respondents thought partners at their firm cared about their wellbeing, with senior associates identified as being the most high risk group. 

The discussion then opened up to the panel members, who reflected on their experiences of inclusion and wellbeing when in senior positions within their firms. 

Monica Burch, Chair of The Mentoring Foundation and former Senior Partner at Addleshaw Goddard recounted a time she realised the biased choices she had made within her own litigation team when taking the team out to Christmas dinner. “Looking around the table, I realised that every member of my 10-person team was a woman. My decision, my comfort was reflecting myself back in the way I work.”  She also recalled a comment made to her by a partner early in her career, that "lawyers don't feel, they think".  This kind of comment illustrates succinctly why law firms have typically been slow to get on board with the idea that the way people feel really matters!

Ian Gray, Executive Partner at Eversheds Sutherland reflected on the key lessons he learned when leading the firm's gender diversity initiative between 2010 and 2016. “We failed to engage the ‘frozen middle’ and convince them of the business impact of retaining maternity leavers” he said when considering the re-launch of the firm’s maternity policy. “One overarching point is to talk about the business benefits, because rightly or wrongly it gets people engaged.”

Finally Roger Parker, Senior Counsel and former EMEA Managing Partner at Reed Smith, highlighted the importance of role models and the need for any policy to be “led from the top, with a clearly defined objective and sufficient upward-downward communication”. He also noted how under-invested the legal services sector is, compared to other sectors, in the mentoring, coaching, development, training and education of its people, particularly around "soft" skills. 

Questions from the floor then opened up the discussion to address how partners could create the behaviour changes needed to create more inclusive workplaces, and the best ways firms could measure this. 

Linking inclusion and wellbeing to partner remuneration, as well as firms collecting (and delivering) sufficient feedback were considered the most effective ways of driving future behaviour change. “It’s about establishing values, leading from the front and then measuring them” said Ian Gray.  Linking a firm's values to the performance management process has several benefits: it shows how committed the senior management are to them, secures buy-in from the partnership, and also raises awareness about how to bring those values alive when managing people day-to-day.

Finally, there also needs to be greater courage by leaders and role models to call out poor behaviour, noted Monica Burch, “The leaders of those groups have to be able to have conversations with individuals about behaviour”. 

We will be sharing further insights and reflections on this topic in future posts.  In the meantime, we want to thank our panellists Monica Burch, Ian Gray and Roger Parker, co-contributors Fides Search and members of the audience for taking the time to make the event such a success. 

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this with us, please get in touch.  We're very passionate about this stuff and love talking about it!