How do we build a diverse and inclusive legal profession more effectively?
03 Nov 2023
Bilkis Daby, partner at Adams & Adams and chairperson of the law firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee
Research continues to show that diverse companies perform better, attract and retain talent, and are more resilient. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) allow for broader viewpoints and different perspectives to be brought to the table when integrating and developing new ideas. In the legal profession, promoting diverse experiences enriches the legal discourse and creates opportunities leading to better outcomes for clients, and society at large.
As organisations continue to recognise the benefits of DEI, there’s been an increase in the implementation of DEI strategies within legal firms. In recently released results of the Global Law Firm Diversity Survey, 96.2% of the law firms that responded engage in at least some DEI efforts, with 73.1% reporting well-established, formal DEI strategies.
While these figures suggest that important steps are being made in the legal field’s transformation journey, there are still challenges in ensuring representation in the profession. In South Africa, for example, only 20% of attorneys are women of colour while it is men who make up the majority of decision-makers at law firms. This can perpetuate a cycle of exclusion, where aspiring attorneys from marginalised backgrounds have limited access to role models, mentors and networks that are critical for professional growth and career advancement.
In addressing barriers to a more diverse and inclusive profession, I believe that we need to shift the focus and ensure that DEI strategies at law firms are more effective. DEI needs to be embedded throughout the organisation and must be integrated into hiring practices, training programmes and performance reviews. It needs the support of leadership while influencing decisions across an organisation, from the management committee to marketing. It also needs to be authentic, and not just a process of ticking boxes for compliance. It should be truly valued and embraced by everyone in the firm. It is important for leaders to be vocal advocates for DEI and to create an inclusive and sustainable culture.
It is my experience that this is where a firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee can help improve, develop and implement DEI strategies that actively drive positive change in the organisation. At Adams & Adams, the committee is entrusted with steering the firm towards achieving DEI goals, educating, and raising awareness, introducing additional inclusive policies and practices, supporting under-represented groups, promoting diversity in recruitment and retention, and measuring and monitoring our progress in terms of our objectives. We are still faced with challenges but we continue to grow and learn. We recognise that implementing effective DEI strategies can have far-reaching consequences for the people at our firm on a professional and personal level.
We have several initiatives to promote a diverse workplace with an inclusive culture. Our Buddy Programme matches professionals, including a senior professional ‘buddy’ with a junior professional ‘buddy’, to foster valuable relationships and share different experiences within the firm. We are participating in the government-led Youth Employment Services (YES) programme to nurture talent among marginalised youth and provide them with employment and access to mentorship. These are over and above our graduate recruitment efforts and in-house skills development to afford opportunities to those from diverse, and marginalised, backgrounds.
From my perspective, as a woman of colour, I know the value of having strong role models and mentors who are able to recognise talent in its diverse forms, assist in harnessing this potential and encourage you to be the best version of yourself. Now as the chairperson of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, I want to drive this ethos of upliftment internally, so that all professionals at Adams & Adams can be empowered by positive influences throughout their careers.
In doing so, we are aiming to build an inclusive environment where people feel a sense of belonging while making strides in representation in the industry. However, just as the world around us is constantly changing, DEI objectives and strategies cannot be stagnant and must continuously evolve. Transformation is, therefore, an ongoing learning process, which is why sustained support at every level of the firm is critical in promoting and maintaining DEI.
It is undeniable that DEI is good for business as it has been shown that companies with a more diverse workforce are more innovative and productive. More importantly, driving transformation within the legal profession is essential to be truly reflective of the broader society that we serve. For DEI strategies to work, I strongly believe that it needs to be a collaborative effort within the organisation, with each individual striving to do their bit in bringing about change. By sharing experiences, increasing exposure and leading by example, we can only go forward in establishing a transformative culture of diversity and inclusion not only within an organisation but in the wider legal sphere.
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