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Law firm diversity depends on managing partners being ‘out and proud’

'Where law firm leaders do decide to come out about their HIV status, I am sure it will help their colleagues', says Catherine Dixon

19 November 2015

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Law firm leaders who are not 'out' about their personal background, including their sexual orientation, risk being perceived as inauthentic.

That's the view of Catherine Dixon, CEO of The Law Society of England & Wales. For her, being 'out' as a gay leader is an important way to encourage colleagues and clients to do the same.

"I think that if you want to inspire trust, openness and respect as a leader, then it is important that you lead by example, you set the tone for the organisation and you are true to yourself," she said to Managing Partner.

"Leadership is a privilege, it has responsibilities with it and, if you are in that position, then part of that responsibility is to be honest with the people you are working with."

Law firm leaders should also considering being 'out' about their HIV status to help remove the social stigma about it, as the recent scandal surrounding Charlie Sheen has highlighted.

"Two decades after Tom Hanks played lawyer Andrew Beckett in the film Philadelphia, HIV remains a stigma - not just in law firms, but in society as a whole. Where law firm leaders do decide to come out about their HIV status, I am sure it will help their colleagues," commented Dixon.

"It would be great to get to a point where being HIV positive is not an issue and that we treat anyone with this illness with the same compassion and sympathy as we would for anyone suffering from any illness."

She is adamant, however, that she would not advocate forcing anyone to go public about their HIV status, sexual orientation or other aspects of their personal background simply because they are in a leadership position.

"I think you would run the risk of it not coming over as authentic. I think you have to get to a point when you are comfortable in your own skin," she said.

"Certainly, it wouldn't seem, for me, authentic if I was either hiding or if I was telling a different story about who I was."

Equally, a leader's sexual orientation or socioeconomic background, for example, should not be considered their defining characteristic.

"For me, I don't want being 'out' as gay to define me, but it is a part of who I am," said Dixon.

"I am hoping it is saying to all the people that work with me in this organisation and to other people in the legal profession who might be struggling with the decision as what to do for themselves, that actually it is okay to be 'out'."

While many law firms profess to be diverse and inclusive, in reality, team culture can override espoused firm values. This can lead to, for example, people from non-normative backgrounds hiding their true identities from their colleagues.

Dixon acknowledged that we still have a long way to go before lawyers can progress in their careers based purely on their skills and achievements, as opposed to whether they conform to the white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied and Oxbridge-educated norm.

For her, a legal profession in which all people are judged based on merit, irrespective of their background, is still a "utopia" to be strived towards.

Training on unconscious or implicit bias can help to create a more level playing field for all members of the legal profession.

Some firms, such as Herbert Smith Freehills, have provided training on unconscious bias at pivotal decision-making points (such as talent reviews, remuneration and work allocation decisions) to address this issue.

"I knew that we had broken some new territory when I started hearing stories of partners pointing out examples of potential unconscious bias at internal talent review meetings," Mark Rigotti, the firm's global co-CEO, said in his upcoming Managing Partner case study 'Journey to diversity: How HSF will meet its global diversity targets'.

Also important is ensuring everyone in the firm takes responsibility for creating a more inclusive working environment.

"It is important for people to challenge appropriately and to make sure that everybody is doing their bit towards working in a respectful and collaborative way with a diverse range of people," said Dixon.

"I think it is incumbent on us all to try to encourage that and to do what we can."

Dixon's experiences with 'coming out' at work

For Dixon, her journey to 'coming out' has been balanced with her need to be regarded, first and foremost, as an individual, rather than as a demographic.

She has been 'out' about her sexual orientation among colleagues and contacts in her current and previous roles, but has been careful to avoid it being treated as a defining characteristic.

"One of the things that I have always tried to guard against is being judged based on my sexuality, rather than me as an individual and the work that I do," she said.

"If I was asked about what I was doing at the weekend, then I would say what I was doing, which would involve my partner."

She has, however, experienced some challenges with being 'out', particularly early in her career.

"I did get almost labelled as 'she's the gay one' before they actually talked about the merits of my work," she recalled.

"I think it is safe to say that is less so than it used to be, but inevitably there'll still be some of that. It would be nice to be in a position where that's not the case and everybody is judged as an individual, and not whether they are BME or LGBT or have a disability or anything. That's what I would encourage. But, I guess, in getting to that point, you have to be open, don't you?"

It was not until recently that Dixon went public with the fact that she has a wife. She recounts what happened during an interview with a national newspaper.

"They asked me if I was married and I said, 'yes, I was', and then they asked, 'what does your husband do?'"

"I said, 'she is the chief executive of the Motor Neurone Disease Association', at which point there was general mortification."

For Dixon, it was important to do this to break down assumptions, although she added that she would "never, ever hide if asked the question".

Increasing diversity in the legal profession

The legal profession is, in many ways, making good progress with creating a working environment in which people feel comfortable with being 'out'.

The focus of many diversity efforts has been on fixing the 'male problem' in law firm partnerships, as women often make up less than 20 per cent of the partners at international law firms.

Some firms, such as Withers, have made good progress in increasing gender and LGBT diversity in their partnership.

However, there is still a lot of work to do to increase representation of all parts of society in law firms.

One way in which The Law Society is supporting law firms to achieve this is through its Diversity and Inclusion Charter, which has more than 450 signatories.

The Law Society is also supporting corporate counsel to build diversity and inclusion requirements into their procurement processes through its Procurement Protocol, which currently has nearly 40 signatories.

With gender diversity levels in top-50 UK law firm partnerships still failing to reach parity, it would seem that pressure from corporate counsel is key to increasing diversity.

Some in-house counsel, such as Funke Abimbola, managing counsel for Roche Products in the UK and Ireland, have found that diversity has led to "more innovative solutions and innovative thinking".

Dixon concurs. "Diversity in the workforce brings different ways of looking at things and different way of thinking about things. If everybody is thinking the same, it doesn't always lead to the best decision making," she said.

Indeed, research by McKinsey has demonstrated a direct link between greater diversity and improved financial performance in a range of organisations.

Abimbola, a diversity champion, strongly believes that law firms which fail to prioritise diversity and inclusion will struggle to win repeat work from corporate clients.

She now demands "a demonstrable commitment to diversity" from the law firms she selects to advise Roche.

Abimbola is not alone; many corporate counsel are increasingly expecting their suppliers to produce evidence of the efforts they are making to encourage diversity and inclusion.

"I think we will see that increasingly as time goes on," commented Dixon.

One way in which law firms can prove they are taking diversity and inclusion seriously is to publicly declare their diversity levels and the steps which they are taking to improve them.

In England and Wales, all law firms which are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority are required to collect, report and publish data about their diversity levels.

For Dixon, diversity reporting can help to increase access to the legal profession for people from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds or for people who have been put off by homophobic behaviour, for example.

"In some ways, that's one of the reasons I am prepared to be 'out'. I want to give the message that it is okay to be 'out', that the profession is diverse, and to encourage people to come into it who perhaps wouldn't have - maybe they apply some stereotypes which are not necessarily the case anymore," she said.








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