Late last year The Diversity Council Australia (DCA) hosted an event Diversity in the Legal Profession at the stunning Gilbert+Tobin offices. I believe it’s fair to say the spotlight recently in diversity circles has been on gender and while it’s clearly an area that still needs attention and a lot of effort, the release by the Australian Human Rights Commission of the “Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership” has seen groups such as the Managing Partners Diversity Forum (managing Partners and senior leaders from many major Australian law firms) agree to focus more closely on both gender and cultural diversity in 2019 and beyond.

The benefits

Whilst it would be nice to believe that the moral imperative is the drive for leaders to champion cultural diversity, it’s often the business benefits (retention, financial gains, stronger and more loyal client relationships) that gains their attention first, until the “softer” positives can be witnessed firsthand.  

Leaders should be asking does the cultural makeup of our staff reflect our clients and our greater community? People naturally wish to do business and have relationships with those who they identify with, but also understand them at a deeper level.  So, the appeal of doing business with a group of people who can show understanding and respect for their culture, through personal experience, or a shared experience, even if from a different culture, will most certainly strengthen professional relationships.

Change is often not embraced as a benefit, but seen as a threat. As we saw at the beginning of the “Me Too” movement, the excuses of he or she is “old school” or “they’re harmless” or  “they’ll retire soon” are no longer being tolerated by senior leaders and Partners within firms. Actions are being taken when required to educate or even discipline individuals for breaking the firms code of conduct. 

Consequently, there will be greater respect for internal initiatives run by the firm and for the management team that draws the line in the sand and makes it clear they aren’t simply talking the talk,  or ticking a box, but leading through actions and policies they are willing to stand behind. 

The benefit that can’t be forgotten in embracing diversity initiatives is the essential aspect of inclusion.  An inclusive, positive and professional environment is what everyone is looking for in a workplace and so any gain in this area will typically lead to not just higher retention but motivation and drive for a workforce moving in the same direction. 

The actions

Both Andrew Pike (Regional managing Partner Australia Herbert Smith Freehills) and Richard Gough (Partner Baker and McKenzie) spoke of the Partners Diversity Forum that was formed in 2015 with the Gender Diversity initiative. This group included; Baker McKenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills, Minter Ellison, DLA Piper, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Clayton Utz, Ashurst and Allens Linklaters.

Firstly, the Group identified that a baseline of data needed to be established. This accurate data allows them to accurately see the makeup of their teams and assess and make decisions on the most beneficial actions and initiatives for their teams, and importantly lets them measure progress and success. The survey asks staff simply, where they were born, where their parents and grandparents where born and what culture they identify with.

Once you have your base line and the makeup of the business there isn’t a silver bullet. In fact, changes comes from "nudges”; seemingly small actions that gradually change our environments to be more inclusive to all. For example:

  1) Education of leaders - for real change to happen, every leader needs to buy into the value of diversity and the importance of every member of their team to feel valued and heard. For this to be seen as genuine, the proof is in the actions of the leader, not just saying the right things at the right times but who embodies the respect for others and if they witness prejudice remarks or isolating behaviors, no matter how “trivial” or “lighthearted” it may seem, it is expected they call out the behaviours.

2) As managers we are taught that every individual is different and needs to be communicated with in unique ways. Being aware of this when there are also cultural differences will allow you to really hear your employee and learn not just of their surface skills for the role they do, but possibly learn of other strengths that may benefit the team/firm.

3) Step outside your own unconcious bias and select people to promote, lead a project or run the weekly meeting based on the diversity of thought and experience they can bring to the task, not “fit”  which is often code for the type of person we have selected repeatedly before.  A simple conscious choice can show to the greater group, that there is value and appreciation for everyone's hard work and the integrity of the leader's choice will be respected by those who are engaged in the project.

4) Mentors/Buddies - a great idea when rolled out mindfully; selecting a champion of change or change cohorts (people who are engaged, respected members of your team) to work with new employees or others who request a mentor, can prove a positive growth experience for both parties with understanding of the possible cultural differences and experiences, or simply understanding a different way of thinking.

During this event my “Aha moment” came from Andrew Pike’s presentation; who spoke of how looking for more diversity in the graduate intake in London, Freehills flew in Partners/leaders from their other global offices so that the “traditional fit” for the UK office was challenged, by other trusted employees, with diverse perspectives.

Whilst the greater problem of Diversity of Senior Management in the Legal Profession remains a subject for another blog, the fact that such a large portion of Australian Law Firm’s biggest clients are from overseas, one has to believe that the Australian firms that embrace cultural diversity may see themselves coming out ahead, not just on the morality front but in the financial race as well.