At Voice At The Table, we’ve been working on developing inclusive cultures for some time now: identifying the starting point, describing the look and feel of an inclusive workplace, and supporting our clients in designing and developing their own inclusive and diverse teams.
In this new series of posts, we will be scoring organisations on their attitude to diversity and inclusion. Assessing companies’ culture relative to our own Inclusion Criteria, we give them an Inclusion Mark, gauging where they are on the journey towards a strong inclusive culture that nurtures diverse thinking and garners its many benefits.
Our 7 Inclusion Marks describe the various stages of that journey:
- Don’t Get It! – organisation doesn’t see any benefit from Diversity & Inclusion
- Window Dressing – organisation understands the need to be seen as valuing D&I
- Let’s Fix It! – organisation sees lack of diversity as a problem.
- Seeing The Opportunity – organisation understands the strategic importance of D&I
- Building the Foundation – organisation is actively building a foundation for D&I
- Growing & Nurturing – organisation is starting to reap the benefits of D&I and continues to embed them into the business
- Immersed & Fully Benefiting - organisation has established a successful inclusive culture that benefits from the full value of its diverse workforce
Our first participant is international law firm Withers LLP. Withers caught our attention because of its impressively-gender-balanced global partnership. It prides itself – rightly so – on a partnership that is 42% female, a statistic that many law firms find, at present, unattainable. This is a commendable statistic and a great starting point to our investigation into the type of culture that makes this number possible.
A quick glance at Withers home page gives you a clear idea of where this success might come from. Front and centre on its website is a blog by a male associate talking about the recent Presidents Club debacle, voicing not only his view on the event but also providing guidance, seeking to mitigate clients’ potential exposure to similar outrage. A law firm that isn’t afraid to openly address topics that others prefer to avoid.
Withers’ London office has been managed by a female partner since 2002, and is also the first City law firm to appoint a woman as chair in 1999. And, while its management committee needs an uplift in terms of gender balance (evidencing only 2 women on a group of 13), within the EU, 5 of the 6 regional leaders are women while the global management board comprises 4 women and 4 men.
How does Withers measure up to our Inclusion Criteria?
- Working Culture
Suzanne Todd, a partner in the London’s family practice group, describes the culture of the firm as a ‘why not?’ culture, where it’s more common to ask ‘Why couldn’t a woman be the Prime Minister?’ or ‘Why couldn’t a woman be our chairperson?’ then to stick with convention. Although traditional law firm etiquette and approach continue to dominate, the firm is open to change if it considers the change to be in the best interest of its clients and its workforce.
Suzanne describes the vast majority (upwards of 75%) of female partners as mothers, with a return from maternity rate that is second to none. Virtually all 1st time mums return to their employment. There is of course attrition at various levels, yet there are no noticeable discrepancies in attrition between the genders.
Many of the female lawyers work 4 days a week, serving as relatable role models to others, and there is a myriad of other flexible working arrangements across the firm. In pockets, the firm continues to reflect our traditional views and expectations of private practice where men tend to work full time, yet this is starting to shift gradually, as well, with a few male lawyers routinely working condensed hours, i.e. 9 out of 10 days per fortnight. The firm recognises that parenting is not the only reason that warrants the need to work flexibly and is fully supportive of agile working across the entire firm, both for lawyers as well as support staff.
On the recruitment side of things, the legal field does not suffer from lack of female graduates, so at the intake level, Withers takes on more than 50% of female trainees – and with a 42% female partnership record, it seems that it also is able to retain many of them.
Recently, Withers have been working very hard to widen their candidate pool to make it more diverse. From using ‘Rare’, a contextual recruitment tool to expand the diversity of the group of universities from which it recruits, to sourcing a wider range of talent through the legal apprenticeship scheme, which enables qualification without the need to go through law school, Withers have been actively addressing this point for the last five years.
- Retention, Development and Promotion
In terms of retention, there are no noticeable patterns of attrition that indicate gender inequality.
The firm is very keen to ensure the path to partnership is consistent and clear and has put in place programmes for trainees and new hires that explain the firm’s criteria to partnership. Transparency of the process does tend to vary from department to department, but there doesn’t appear to be an innate preference for promoting men over women. The gender balance of partnership promotions may swing one way or another from year to year, depending on the business case, but women at the firm would agree that the partnership opportunities are as accessible for them as they are for their male colleagues.
- Diversity as a Market Force
Suzanne explains that Withers understands the need for a diverse workforce on two levels: (1) the firm’s clients are very diverse and the firm needs a workforce equally as diverse to understand and relate to its client portfolio; and (2) legal transactions are becoming more and more complex, and the firm understands that the best way to tackle complex problems is to approach them from a very diverse range of knowledge and experience. The need, therefore, not only for diversity but also for an environment that nurtures and values it, is seen as a strategic business requirement.
This is also echoed in the firm’s Global Chairman’s statement: Our client base is diverse. It is an imperative that we have a diverse workforce to ensure we are effective at meeting those clients’ needs. It means we can build better relationships with them and innovate to find solutions that work better for them.
- External Evidence of Commitment
The law firm is subject to the new Pay Gap regulations which will require it to report on the discrepancies (if any) of their pay between women and men. Moreover, the firm is also a signatory of the Law Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Charter and is a member of the International Women's Forum, First 100 and One Loud Voice.
This short overview of the firm’s culture against our criteria leads us to award Withers an Inclusion Mark of Building the Foundation towards a strong inclusive and diverse culture. This puts the firm in a prominent position in the legal industry, where female leadership and strong female representation among partners and senior staff is still the exception, rather than the rule. Congratulations, Withers! You’re well ahead of the pack!
If you would like us to assess your organisation’s diversity and inclusion, please email firstname.lastname@example.org