The Practical Law In-house Consultation Board recently convened to consider the theme of diversity and inclusion (D&I) as it relates to the key stages of the employment cycle: recruitment, retention, appraisal and exit. D&I has rightly risen to the top of the agenda for responsible companies and become a key topic of conversation on the conference circuit. It was refreshing to hear from board members about the real-world challenges that they and their businesses face, as well as some of the success stories they were able to share. Here are some key takeaways I took from the discussion.
Keeping “diversity” diverse
The group agreed that there is a constant need to revisit how diversity is defined to ensure its definition is not constrained by out of date thinking. A key example the board discussed was the area of neurodiversity, which has until recently gathered less attention than other forms of diversity.
Neurodiversity covers a wide spectrum of hidden neurological conditions, such as:
- Autism Spectrum.
- Social anxiety.
Neurodiverse individuals can be better at some things than many other people, including complex legal work, while in some areas of their work additional support or adjustments may be required.
The legal profession has historically excluded neurodiverse individuals at the hiring stage through its, for many, impenetrable norms such as the application form, interview and assessment day recruitment pathway. One board member suggested that efforts should perhaps be made to help individuals with the application process. Nervous and shy candidates, and those with other neurodiverse characteristics, are often marginalised by many of the more arcane formalities of recruitment and the early legal career journey.
Non-standard legal career paths
Connected with neurodiversity, the board considered the constraints of the traditional route into the legal profession and how this automatically excludes a large pool of potentially excellent talent. This includes neurodiverse talent, as well as those from non-traditional academic routes. The CILEX route is well established, but is still a minority pathway, especially for in-house legal teams. Board members were encouraged by the increased role of internships and apprenticeships as an alternative access route to in-house legal work.
One board member talked about the summer legal internship programme that their organisation has been running. The objective of the programme is to provide early career experiences for individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, whether socio-economic or due to disability, and with an academic record that would generally pose as a barrier to entry into the legal profession. The interns, who are typically second year law students, are provided with meaningful and valuable paralegal work. This enables them to gain experience and make the valuable connections that give them opportunities to access the profession, which they would have otherwise been denied.
The data problem
One of the big challenges board members said they and their organisations were facing was in identifying diverse characteristics among their existing workforce. Some reported success in gathering this information from employees on a voluntary basis, but there was concern that the data that might inform better decision-making around diversity will always remain incomplete. The lack of quality data that managers have at their disposal means it must be handled cautiously for it will inevitably be skewed in ways that are impossible to fully understand.
The outsourcing problem
Although an organisation can implement and adhere to a gold standard D&I policy, it can still fall down where decisions are made by those not subject to that policy. A key area of focus for one board member are the recruitment agencies who are engaged to hire talent. Their organisation has taken great care to ensure that any suppliers are asked appropriate questions around D&I at the RFP stage to ensure as diverse a pool of candidates as possible is put forward for roles.
The pandemic has had a wide range of impacts on people with different diversity characteristics. The burden of caring responsibilities has fallen disproportionately on women with the long-term career prospects of many harmed as a result of making these sacrifices. In terms of neurodiversity, one board member remarked on how the focused time alone brought about by working from home may have helped introverts shine at the expense of extroverts, but we will all have reacted uniquely. Some have suffered a crisis of confidence, while others have found ways to stay resilient. Supporting the diverse needs of all is key, particularly from a mental health perspective.
The board also discussed the needs of younger people and the obstacles that they have encountered to receiving in-person experiences, such as mentorship and networking, which are especially important at the start of a career. Technology only gets us so far and the group were conscious of the disadvantages of an overreliance on the virtual world.
One potential upside of the work from home revolution has been the removal of geographical barriers allowing, for example, a Devon-based individual who has caring responsibilities to obtain a nominally London-based role that would have been completely impossible before.
Our members reported on the success of various training programmes that aim to increase employee awareness of their biases that are all helping to move the D&I dial in their organisations. These initiatives need all our support and encouragement. The D&I question is neither a sprint nor a marathon, it is an evolving process that requires a persistent challenging of ourselves and our colleagues.