Corporate law firms are commonly perceived as conservative, exclusive clubs that only hire more of the same to maintain the monoculture.
However, thankfully times change and over the course of a generation the clubby institution of the large law firm is transforming to an extent that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
Today, firms such as Winston & Strawn LLP, a global corporate law firm with an international base in London, are sensitive and responsive to the pressure to change the traditional law firm culture and to respond to the expectations of a new generation within the workforce. They are diversifying their associate and partnership base, appointing executive level committees to promulgate strategies and hiring specialist teams to implement initiatives to improve access. In the process, law firms have realised that embracing diversity and inclusion ultimately becomes a tool of strategic practice development and improves their business case and sustainability.
In addition, the businesses to whom corporate law firms provide their services are driving the transformation of the legal industry as well. In the US for example, some large corporations that have made efforts to increase diversity internally are now requesting diversity statistics when selecting outside counsel in order to push through a minimum percentage of female or ethnic minority lawyers working on their matters. The echoing of similar trends in the UK is a matter of time.
At Winston specifically, the firm’s initiatives to recruit, retain, promote and advance women and other underrepresented groups range from the Women’s Leadership Initiative to various affinity groups based on culture, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Individual sponsorship pairings enable senior members of the firm to champion junior diverse lawyers’ careers to help increase their development and promotion opportunities. Prospective candidates from diverse ethnicities or from underprivileged backgrounds can take advantage of pipeline and mentoring programs, such as the summer vacation scheme or internship opportunities. Last but not least, the provision of pro bono legal services to minority groups completes the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
Winston & Strawn has also recently become one of the pioneering firms to achieve ‘Mansfield Certified Plus’ status in the US. Modelled after the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” the Mansfield Rule is an initiative to boost diversity in leadership ranks by measuring whether law firms have affirmatively considered women and lawyers of colour for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, and lateral positions. The diversity of the Firm’s Executive Committee is increasing, currently including 26% women and 15% LGBTQ members.
It is accepted of course that gender neutrality or seamless inclusion are far from having been achieved, or that the pace of change is satisfactory. Whilst it is true that asking a female associate to fetch some coffee for a more senior male lawyer would probably result in outrage these days, it no longer raises an eyebrow in a (still) predominantly male dominated board room if a female lawyer attends. The practical obstacles to true equality of opportunity remain in the legal sector in the same way as they remain in most other workplaces.
In order for law firms to ensure that women and members of ethnic and racial or other minority groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the profession rise through the ranks to leadership, they must continue to remove restrictive structures, policies and biases found in the sector and foster a culture that is reflective of all of their staff, their clients and the society in which they operate.
About the Authors
Zoë Ashcroft is an English qualified lawyer who concentrates her practice on cross-border transactions and heads the corporate and finance practice in London. She has a particular focus on clients who are either operating in the UK, or who are investing into the UK from the U.S., Continental Europe, and Asia.
Her experience includes cross-border mergers and acquisitions, strategic alliances and joint ventures, private equity investments, high-yield debt offerings and private placements (of both debt and equity), and corporate lending (representing both lenders and borrowers).
Zoë also advises companies with respect to securities offerings, including London Stock Exchange listings, Alternative Investment Market listings, and dual listings on these markets in conjunction with the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ; including the first dual listing of shares in a Nigerian company on the London main market and Lagos Stock Exchange.
Her clients include companies in a variety of industry sectors, including: oil and gas, clean technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, consumer/retail products and services, general industrial, and financial services/investment funds.
Daniela Cohen is an English qualified solicitor and a corporate associate in Winston & Strawn’s London office whose practice focuses on corporate lending and finance transactions. She represents domestic and international financial institutions and publicly and privately held businesses in a wide variety of cross-border business transactions, including senior and junior financings, mergers & acquisitions, private equity investments and joint ventures, with an emphasis on oil & gas, financial services & banking, general industrial and retail sectors.