Comic books, conscious bias, and why legal dinosaurs should be made extinct
I have a confession – I’m a bit of a comic book geek. Forbidden Planet opened its doors in Glasgow when I was at University and my first purchase was the truly industry-altering “The Dark Knight Returns”, about an old Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to once more don the Batman suit to save Gotham. This was more than 25 years ago. Do you know what was truly ground-breaking about it? Robin was female. She was called Carrie Kelley. She was young, brave and dynamic. And she saved Batman’s life. She’s one of my favourite comic book characters.
But then in 2018 we had “comicsgate”, where women and minorities in the industry were subjected to horrific online abuse for, how very dare they, writing stories that resonated for them. You may not be surprised to discover that most of the perpetrators of comicsgate were white men clamouring for the good old times. Twenty five years after Carrie Kelley saved that most virile of male specimens, we don’t seem to have moved on much.
And so to the legal profession, where something like 70% of graduates are women and yet 70% of partners are men. It all started (you knew there was a link coming, right?) in my graduation class those many years, and comic book purchases, ago. I recall being told we were the first class where women graduates outnumbered men.
So, when we have had a generation of change in the demographics of those entering the profession why has there been so little change at the top? That is the question at the forefront of the top minds at the Law Societies of both England & Wales and Scotland. The Scottish Law Society recently published its “Profile of the Profession 2018” report and a response. That identified the need to make greater progress in gender equality at the top in the profession. The Society intends to move from voluntary compliance with equality standards (across all protected classes) to compulsion. The Law Society south of the border is pursuing its “Women in Leadership in Law” project – a massive undertaking to identify and address the causes of inequality at the top in the profession.
As part of the project in England, I was invited to attend a recent roundtable event to discuss the barriers to women achieving top roles in the law. Unconscious bias was identified in a survey of the profession as the biggest obstacle. I think that’s being too kind to some of the dinosaurs that still roam the profession – and that conscious bias is as much an issue. I said so, and the knowing laughter around the room indicated I was not alone in that belief.
It may come as no surprise that both Societies currently have women presidents
And for the comicsgaters out there, none of this arises from a “Social Justice Warrior” agenda to oppress those poor white men currently making up the vast majority of partners in law firms. It’s because, in Scotland, more than half of all lawyers expressed the view that they had considered leaving the profession in 2018 and retaining talented lawyers is increasingly difficult. We see that on a regular basis, with talented lawyers looking for more from life. The mythical work/life balance is now key for both men and women entering the profession. We need to change. All of us.
Three years ago, as a member of the Governance and Strategy Board at Burness Paull, I led a team looking at equality and inclusion in our firm – with an initial focus on improving the proportion of women partners. I’m pleased to say we’ve moved the dial from 18% to 26% and have a target of 30% by 2020.
That’s just the start. We’ve created the role of Diversity Champion, with two partners in each of our offices signing up to actively promote equality and inclusion and to act as confidential sounding boards. Following staff surveys to identify what support networks our people wanted, we have established our BeProud network for LGBT staff members (and allies) and BeValued for working parents and carers. These give individuals facing the same issues a place to find support and assistance, but also help others who attend to better understand how people can be impacted by problems they’d never usually spend any time thinking about.
We’re also bringing forward anonymous assessments for graduate recruitment to take names, sex, age, school, address etc out of consideration at the first sift – avoiding various potential biases. And all of the then board members had unconscious bias training. Partner role modelling sessions allow our more junior lawyers to hear the many and varied routes to partnership and the different models of success our partners exhibit – from traditional 24/7 commitment to the cause to flexible and part-time partners (not just women). We have our first woman Managing Partner and she has joined The 30% Club to demonstrate our commitment to improving the number of our women partners.
However, despite all of this we’ve really only just started. We can do more, of course, much more. But the first cut is the deepest, as the song goes, and we are well past that.
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