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  • Lisa Hakanson

Diversity, a hard nut to crack

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

article by Lisa Håkanson

I have been contemplating an article on diversity for a long time. Over the past years many law firms have come to us with questions to help improve diversity in their firm. Clients are increasingly pushing their law firms to become more diverse. Law firms find themselves struggling to comply. As this week, Friday 8 March, is International Women’s Day this seems like the ideal timing to write and publish on this topic.

You might wonder why I have been pushing writing the article forward for some time. The problem is that the more you dive into the topic, the more complex it gets. In our upcoming book ‘Data & Dialogue, a relationship redefined’ (Jaap Bosman / Vincent Cordo Jr.) an entire chapter is devoted to diversity.

Traditionally law firms have been dominated by white men. Even today sizable law firms with more than 25% female equity partners will be very hard to find. When you take a look of the websites of the leading law firms in various jurisdictions across Europe and the US you can see very little has changed. I have been present at multiple lawyer conferences where the panel on stage debated how important diversity was to them, while all the panel and the whole audience were white. We personally know a talented lawyer who was at the time the only black associate at a reputable law firm. Despite a successful career path he decided to leave because he hated to be in every photo in brochures and on the website and being portrayed as the minority success story. He just wanted to be recognized for what he was: a damn good lawyer, period and not as a poster boy for the firm’s inclusiveness. Diversity is a hard nut to crack.

Actually the ‘bro’ culture is the problem

Law Firm clients are increasingly exerting their buying power to ‘force’ law firms to become more diverse. When today a law firm is pitching for client work or a spot on a panel, submitting statistic on the firms diversity has become a standard requirement. At the same time labor market forces are also pushing towards more diversity. In many European countries the numbers of women and minority law school graduates have exploded, sometimes even surpassing the number of traditional white males.

A significant percentage of law firms has 50/50 male/female associates. Yet as it comes to equity partner promotions, figures look totally different. We also know of a number of law firms that have actively stimulated recruiting talented minority graduates as associates. Most of these initiatives however failed. The issue is not that law firms do not want to have female or minority partners. The issue is also not the quality. The core of the problem is the strong ‘bro’ culture that is defining how lawyers behave and interact.

Being a lawyer is a very competitive and individualistic profession. Partners don’t operate as teams and have their own personal targets to meet. Lawyers operate for the most part in conflict situations. The combination attracts Alpha males. On top of that comes that traditionally the top universities have had strong fraternity cultures. We only need to watch the hearing of both Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh on 27 September 2018, to get a picture of what the culture was (is?) among top students at Yale. Other top universities are no different.

Bro culture is what made law firms successful. Bro culture is also what is leading to #MeToo and the failure of diversity and inclusiveness initiatives. It is very hard to become part of a club if you are not like all the other club members. This is equally true for the Hells Angels as it is for an elite law firm. The real issue is that culture at law firms will need to change. The prospect of that succeeding is however bleak. The other day when we hosted a round-table of managing partners one of the participants described his most important task as “being the guardian of the culture”. No doubt that he meant well and didn’t refer to diversity and inclusiveness, he just totally didn’t see the connection. The culture is at the heart of the problem.

Meet Purl On 4 February Pixar released a nine-minute short film that depicts what could be an investment bank (or a law firm) with its workplace misogyny and strong bro-culture. Today it has already amassed 7.6 million views. It’s the story of a walking, talking ball of yarn called Purl. She’s carnation pink, bubbly and eager to kick off her new desk job at the firm. But after her colleagues – all male – negatively react to her, she shapes herself (figuratively and literally) to be more like the hyper-masculine workers around her so she can fit in. It’s an example of tribalism, which can be damaging to both individual workers and the companies that employ them.

When people are in an environment where everyone looks, sounds, acts and thinks the same, it can create an echo chamber and cyclical system that only includes and rewards the same kinds of people over and over. That is why we at TGO Consulting are vocal advocates of diversity. We truly believe that only having people of a similar background, will easily lead to tunnel vision or intellectual inbreed. In order to deliver outstanding results teams need to be composed of people who have diverse backgrounds, cultures and visions. Study after study has shown that more diverse teams are more innovative, more successful and make better decisions than homogeneous teams do. Diversity makes economic sense and is a good business decision.

Action plan

It is the culture that has to change. No managing partner should strive to be ‘the guardian of the culture’. Managing partners should be the change agents dismantling the toxic bro-culture step by step. One of the steps includes actively increasing the number of ‘dissenting characters’. This could start by looking beyond mere images of ourselves when scouting for talent. Focus on skills and abilities rather than university and grades. Move from an individualistic culture towards a more collective culture. Make minorities and people with diverse backgrounds part of the firm’s leadership.

Changing the culture of a law firm very much depends on the tone form the top. When the leadership really want a change in culture, you will be amazed how much is possible. Even at Microsoft with its strong corporate culture Satya Nadella managed to change the culture and turn the company form an increasingly irrelevant giant into an inspiring profitable company.

To all you law firm leaders: be the agents of change, break down that bro-culture and lead your firms into a glorious future.

Lisa Håkanson is a partner and one of the founders of TGO Consulting. She is a lawyer with over a decade of experience in the legal sector both in-house and with a law firm.

Lisa has worked internationally throughout her career, including in South Africa, Sweden and other parts of Europe.


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