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5 Ways General Counsels and Senior Partners can collaborate to improve diversity

Earlier this year, more than 170 general counsels at major companies across America penned a letter presenting an ultimatum to law firms to hire, retain and promote diverse associates or risk losing their in-house clients' business.

Recognising this is a shared problem, the team behind the Reignite Academy recently took a different approach. In a spirit of collaboration, they convened a roundtable of general counsels and law firm senior partners to explore how they could work together to improve diversity, with a particular focus on women.

The roundtable produced five recommendations:

1. Make sure there are women on the senior client relationship team on both sides of the fence

It’s here where relationships are developed that ultimately bring in business to law firms and resolve clients’ legal issues. It’s at the senior level where discussions happen about deadlines and the upcoming pipeline of work. Ensuring women are represented at this level is crucial to everything that follows.

Senior partners can make a difference by insisting that their firms identify potential women to join its client relationship teams and general counsels, in turn, can ensure that choices are made based on the profile of those teams. Whilst this sounds relatively straightforward, there is evidence to suggest there is unconscious bias in the way in which general counsels rate their law firm partners.

In a three year exercise conducted Acritas, the legal market research organisation, general counsels were asked to nominate “Star lawyers” from the group of senior partners with whom they had worked. Male general counsels were twice as likely to nominate a man as “Star Lawyer”, despite the same research finding that the same general counsels rated male and female lead partners as performing the same on every single performance attribute.

Given that four out of five senior in house counsels are male, raising awareness of this unconscious bias could do much to help open doors for more female partners onto the senior client relationship team. And as origination of work is an important part of an equity partner’s role, this in turn would undoubtedly advance the careers of female lawyers.

2. Present and welcome a properly diverse team on the ground

“I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these people” Samantha Thompson, Head of Legal M&A, Anglo American explained. “I need to believe that it’s going to be an enjoyable experience. Basically, I need to get on with them.”

General counsels are less interested in a firm’s diversity statistics than they are in how that plays out in reality. Organisations such as Microsoft are going beyond simply asking for statistics. Their in-house litigation team now requests that bidding firms account for diversity by having a partner from a minority or “diverse” group as either first or second chair on matters over a certain size.

The impact is twofold. The immediate effect is to provide female partners with the opportunities to play a senior role on the client team. The secondary effect, though, is more profound. As firms plan for the future, they need to ensure that they have sufficient women and other diversity candidates in the pipeline to meet the future demands of clients.

Whilst Thompson was very pragmatic in talking about how important it is to get on with the team day to day, there is also another, potentially more powerful motivation for having a properly diverse team on the ground: performance.

Acritas research in 2016 found that highly diverse external legal support teams outperform those that are much less diverse and furthermore, that clients are more likely to recommend diverse teams to others. A useful reminder that the drive for diversity is not simply about equality: it’s an economic imperative.

Traditionally, it was often common practice for a partner to put together a team made up of people they’d worked with before, people they were confident could do the job.. A practice which creates less diversity rather than more. Putting in more formalised processes around work allocation can prevent this.

Equally, educating people on the positive impact of more diversity could have a powerful impact on choices about the constitution of client teams.

3. Embrace agile working together.

“We have to be responsive to clients” is the common explanation when asked why agile working and flexibility can be a difficult in a law firm environment. Particularly, though not exclusively in areas driven by deals.

How true is this and how often are clients either used as an excuse? Or perhaps assumptions simply go unchecked.

Jocelyn McDermid, International Counsel at Pfizer spoke for the group when she set out a view that, increasingly, clients are not particularly interested in when and where work gets done - they too are embracing agile working. They simply want to be sure it is completed on schedule and to the standard expected.

Whilst everyone has their own area of expertise, inevitably large transactions or projects call for a large team. Kathleen Russ, incoming Senior Partner, Travers Smith explained how in her department (Tax) the M&A Group have taken away a significant amount of stress from team members by making a promise that no-one would have to miss a really important personal or family commitment, however critical the deal. The team would cover.

There are also opportunities to question the nature and make up of the team. Rather than deploy a team of three, for example, who then have to work fifteen hour days, why not deploy a larger team who can then work fewer hours. This cuts to the culture of long hours, billing targets and teamwork (or lack of it) that are at the heart of many current habits and norms in the legal sector.

Aware of the dangers of some of those practices, some law firms and banks recently worked together to produce a Mindfulness Charter to tackle long and unpredictable hours and to improve lawyers’ wellbeing.

“We’re using the charter as a regular agenda item with all external counsels”, explained Matt Fitzwater, Managing Director and Global Head of Litigation at Barclays. “There are some basic principles that we can all stick to - not scheduling internal meetings outside of 9 to 6, not expecting responses late at night, partners showing that it’s fine to take proper paternity leave and work from home.”

This is about behavioural and cultural change on both sides of the fence.

4. Provide opportunities for “career break” lawyers to return, either in house or to private practice

Lawyers and their clients have experienced unacceptable attrition of women at senior levels for some years now. Women leave the profession for various reasons, including the difficulty in balancing the demands of a city law career with personal ambitions and commitments.

Nor is this problem peculiar to law. Research by She’s Back in 2014 found that 84% of women who had taken a break did want to return after a career hiatus. It is for this reason that organisations such as Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, Shell, Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group and many others have begun to establish formal return to work programmes.

The Reignite Academy provides an opportunity for city lawyers to return to practise after a career hiatus in the UK. A similar organisation, the OnRamp Fellowship does the same in the US. By recognising and championing the untapped potential in this pool of talent, senior partners and general counsels have the opportunity not only to replenish their pipeline of senior women but also to demonstrate real commitment to achieving their diversity targets.

5. Reframe what a “partner” looks like, including how they are measured

The group discussed how the long standing model of a “partner track” which goes at one speed and ends in one place might not be best placed to serve a firm’s or client’s diversity objectives.

Kathleen Russ explained how the firm had recently focussed hard on encouraging all lawyers - men and women - to consider pacing their career to suit their own personal lives, rather than seeing the traditional path of seven years PQE as the only one available.

The firm now has great examples of high performing women who have deliberately slowed down their progression and taken on a different role for a while, before assuming partnership slightly later in their career. This is NOT about putting people on a “mummy track” - a less demanding role with little future prospects. It is all about being flexible and agile when thinking about people’s long term career development.

Similarly, there was acknowledgement that there may be a need to examine how partners are measured. Where there are fewer female partners in a firm, they tend to take on a disproportionate amount of non-client activity.

“We’re only 28% female at partner level at Hogan Lovells in the UK (which is good within the market), but it means that every time you want to have a woman and a man leading a relationship or programme it falls to one of the 28%. We’re all doing double duty” explained Susan Bright, Managing Partner at Hogan Lovells. “Which is fine, if that contribution is adequately recognised and rewarded”.

Some firms, are taking active steps to redefine the ways in which lawyers can progress to partner and can then operate at that level.

White & Case, for example, have a senior M&A partner who works a 75% load over the year, rather than week by week. This enables her to work on large projects, full on, and then step back to spend time with her family in between engagements. Critically, her origination and billing targets are pro-rata’d to reflect her working arrangements. She is not labelled as “part time” and assumed to be less ambitious than her peers, she simply has a different working pattern.

Others are looking carefully at the six year partner pipeline and making sure that high potential lawyers know they are have partner potential well ahead of time. Having conversations with women who are about to go on maternity leave about their partner potential and discussing the different options with them on their return is critical.

Acknowledging the importance of business development and origination, there is a need to question old assumptions about what client relationship development looks like. It doesn’t have to mean rugby and cricket. Amy Mahon, the private equity star, talked recently about taking her son and her client and their son to the theatre. A welcome change: who doesn’t want to spend more time with their families.

As the American letter evidenced, diversity is of increasing importance to general counsels as they select firms onto their panels and then reward them with work. Indeed, Dan Fitz, former general counsel at BT and now with the Francis Crick Institute spoke about the way in which these criteria are increasingly important to companies as they select suppliers in many different fields.

What became clear at the roundtable is that whilst writing a letter might draw headlines and attract attention, there is nothing like a little co-operation and collaboration when it comes to actually making something happen.


About the Author

Lisa Unwin is co-founder of the Reignite Academy and author of She's Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work. - an essential guide for anyone who has ambitions beyond motherhood. The book is full of practical advice for anyone ready to return after a break or who wants to get their career back on track.

She's Back promotes women by campaigning on their behalf and by connecting them with each other and with organisations and people who can support them. They offer training and coaching to help women navigate the messy middle phase of their career and for organisations who want to retain, recruit and promote more women. Lisa regularly speaks at events and on podcasts and writes for various publications and blogs.

A former partner with Arthur Andersen Business Consulting and Director of Brand and Communication at Deloitte, Lisa had a 20 year career in professional services prior to setting up She's Back.

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