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Unmasking ED&I in legal business services

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​Equality, diversity and inclusion is top of the agenda for many law firms this year. With firms investing time, resources and effort on improving diversity. Great work is happening but what is the real impact?

​After all, it’s easy to create a diversity, equality and inclusion policy but the challenge comes from the action you take off the back of it.

Furthermore, when it comes to D&I initiatives, there seems to be a lot of focus on the Lawyers and Partners, yet less of a focus on the business services functions.

Diversity and inclusion in legal business services

At Ambition, we strongly believe that ED&I should be sewn into the fabric of the culture of a firm, and when it comes to talent attraction. But in order to see progress, we need to know the starting point.

​That’s why we conducted a survey of business services employees working in BD & Marketing and Finance & Accounting teams in top 100 law firms in the UK to find out their lived experiences of law firm hiring processes and working at these firms.

The aim was to give business services professionals a voice and share what is really happening within business services functions in a law firm.

Key findings

​Ambition initially ran a survey back in 2020, when the world was emerging from Covid bubbles and a lot of discussion around ED&I was being provoked off the back of the Black Lives Matter movement.

​We ran the survey again at the end of 2023.

At the time, we were hearing from law firm clients that ED&I was becoming more of a focus, so we thought it would be interesting to rerun the survey and compare the results to find out whether there has truly been a positive change. ​

A lot has changed in the past 3 years, but the biggest shift we’re seeing is the importance of diversity, equality and inclusion to candidates and employees.

​It’s something that’s expected, that’s looked at, that’s examined and questioned.

Let’s take a look at how our findings support that. ​

Increased discrimination

​We asked respondents whether they felt discrimination had ever played a part in why they were or were not selected for a position in a law firm. In 2020 only 22% said yes, but in 2023 that had risen to 34%.

Do you feel that discrimination has played a part in why you were or were not selected for a position in a law firm?

That’s a 54% increase in the number of people who have felt discriminated against.

There could be a whole host of reasons why this number has increased. With a push for diversity in the legal sector, inherent bias could be coming into play. Or it could be that people are more aware of what constitutes discrimination and are more likely to recognise it. ​

Another contributory factor to people feeling they may have been discriminated against is when employers don’t provide clear feedback following an interview process. ​

Providing specific feedback to candidates is so important – saying someone ‘isn’t the right fit’ isn’t constructive and leads to people making assumptions about why they may not have been selected.

​It’s so important that hiring managers provide timely, specific and constructive feedback to all candidates.​

Change in language expectations

​If you went back even 10 years and asked a question around the impact language and tone had on applications, people would have asked what you meant.

​Now, we are seeing the shift in importance around diversity, equity and inclusion and how this is reflected in the language used.

When applying for a job advert, has the language or tone affected whether you would apply?

​41% of respondents said that the language or tone in a job advert would affect whether they applied for that position.

With the examples given baked around flexible working, an informal tone, honesty, lack of buzzwords, gender neutral language.

​It also refers to gender bias within adverts with one participant saying this type of message would encourage them to apply; “Research shows that females typically apply for roles where they meet all the requirements. We would like to actively encourage females to apply even if this is not the case.”

Examples of language that would encourage you to apply

​So much of our language and communication is done without thought, we’re on autopilot.

We need to challenge those routines and question whether our language and tone is appropriate or if we are doing our firm a disservice.


Importance of diversity & inclusion policies

​The biggest increase we saw was around the importance of a firm’s diversity & inclusion policy. 40% of respondents said they proactively research a firm's diversity policy before applying.

​That’s up 135% from 2020.

Do you research a firm's D&I policy before applying?

Job seekers are proactively seeking out firms’ diversity policies before applying, they’re reading them, absorbing them, questioning them and making decisions based on them.

​That means, not only do you need a strong policy which underpins your activities and culture, you need to be happy to share that, not just through your website, but also providing it in job adverts and recruitment information.

​It’s no surprise that there are more people looking at diversity policies now compared to 2020. People increasingly recognise the importance and benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce and this isn’t just a trend that will eventually go away. All firms need to take it seriously.

​However, it’s not enough for firms to simply have a D&I policy.

Diversity & Inclusion has to be front and centre in terms of what you’re proactively doing as a firm.

Candidates don’t want firms to pay lip service to diversity & inclusion on the company website, they need to see authentic actions taking place and see this being embedded as part of the culture. ​

Tackling discrimination

​When it comes to dealing with discrimination in the workplace there hasn’t been a great deal of change in the levels compared to 2020.

But what was flagged was a slight increase in those reporting it and a dissatisfaction with how it was handled.

Did you report the discrimination?

​​17% said they’d reported discrimination to their employers, compared to 12% in 2020.

This discrimination included gender harassment, being belittled due to an accent, ageism, racial discrimination and verbal abuse. It doesn’t paint a picture of inclusion and empathy.

If you did report were you happy with how it was handled?

​What’s shocking is that of those that reported their discrimination, 86% were unhappy with how their employers dealt with it.

This is where firms need to ensure that their diversity, equity and inclusion policy isn’t just a word document that’s periodically updated. It needs to be embedded in the firm’s culture and practices.

Firms need to start taking action and look after their employees.

Of course, this survey is just a snapshot, and every firm will be different. But what’s clear is that the law firm business services staff are taking diversity, equality and inclusion very seriously.

Action is no longer an option, its expected. These results back that up.

​But it’s not just about having a policy. It’s about looking at every aspect of the firm from recruitment to training to management and finding ways to make every stage more inclusive.

​The survey results clearly highlight that there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of the process after someone reports the discrimination.

​People have a growing understanding of ED&I and the impact it can have which means they’re looking at firm’s policies and actions with more scrutiny.

The bar is higher, people expect more so law firms need to step up and deliver if they want to attract and retain the best business services talent.

​Steps are being taken in the right direction, but more still needs to be done.

​For a breakdown of the full survey results, watch our webinar here:

​For more information about the survey and to get a copy of the full results, please contact Matthew Gardner.

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