Society diversity

‘This is not a public relations exercise’: Bar president responds to claims of industry tokenism

The President of the Law Society of England & Wales, I. Stephanie Boyce, has called on law firms to stop treating diversity challenges like tick boxes or public relations exercises, after many people be concerned about tokenism in the UK commercial legal industry.

The International investigation told the story of a variety of black or ethnic minority lawyers whose images and names had been readily used by firms in client presentations and promotional materials, but who had then been sidelined when the job was awarded.

In response to the findings, Boyce told International, “We know that client pressure is impacting and putting pressure on panel law firms to be more diverse and of greater inclusion. But this shouldn’t be approached simply as a box check or PR exercise.

“Internal teams don’t just want to see a few more diverse faces in the bidding stages, they want to know that those from diverse backgrounds have opportunities to work on interesting and challenging cases, which means companies must seek out and advance diverse talents and distribute work fairly.

Boyce pointed to the Bar Race for inclusion research, published in 2020, which found that numbers had improved for entry and ethnic diversity across the profession, but there was still room for improvement to create a culture of inclusion , “particularly in certain large commercial enterprises”.

She added, “Real change requires openness and transparency about the challenges a business faces and a willingness to learn and improve. The voices of ethnic minority staff must be heard in this process and their experiences must be understood.

“Many will want to engage and support efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, and where they do, their contributions must be recognized and valued. The profession should feel different to them and not just feel like a change.

A number of UK law firms have stepped up their internal efforts to improve diversity in recent years, including introducing targets for the ethnic composition of their lawyer and partner ranks, or creating new groups for senior management to share best practices on the issue.

But research from International in 2020 found that despite some progress at top companies, more than half of the top 25 companies with the highest proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic partners had less than 10% BAME partners.