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‘People forums’: Are they the key to meaningful D&I change?

A “people forum” is helping to shape diversity and inclusion and how people work at BigLaw firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF).

user iconShandel McAuliffe 18 July 2022 Big Law
Danielle Kelly
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Editors note: this story first appeared on Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, HR Leader. 

The HR Leader recently heard from Danielle Kelly, HSF’s global director of culture and inclusion, about the firm’s people forum. Ms Kelly shared how they brought the group together, the issues that people were interested in, and how they’re challenging the way diversity and inclusion (D&I) is embedded in organisations.

Ms Kelly explained: “Our people forum was an initiative set up by our global people and culture advisory board of which I’m a member. That’s a board that our CEO, Justin D’Agostino, put together soon after becoming CEO in 2020, in recognition that he wanted to have specific leadership groups focused on specific areas of the firm ... The people and culture advisory board is comprised of senior partners and our chief HR officer and myself. And we recognised that, although we bring our own particular perspective to that group, what we were missing is the perspective of the diversity that exists within our organisation, both in terms of cognitive diversity and also demographic diversity.”


She continued: “And so one of the first things we did was write a positioning paper for a ‘people forum’, which would be set up for each region. So, one for Australia, one for Asia, one in the UK and one for EMEA, and we, the regional managing partners, invited people to submit expressions of interest as to why they would like to join that forum.

“Essentially, we were wanting to appeal to people who were top talent and who were also passionate about culture. And so, their expressions of interest were up to 250 words, or you could submit it as a short video saying why you wanted to join, and then from there, the HR director together with the regional managing partner chose a group of around 10 people. And we tried to be as inclusive of the diversity across the firm as possible.”

Asked why people put their hand up to be part of the people forum, Ms Kelly cited some of the reasons, including a desire for “systemic change”. She said: “One was that some people feel that we, as a profession, we have been talking about diversity and inclusion and mental health for a number of years now, and that’s been a very welcome shift in the profession, but it’s now time to actually move from events and educational webinars and awareness raising to really digging into the systemic changes, particularly around support for mental health and wellbeing that we can make.

“And so that theme was around: I want to be part of that systemic shift because the problem I’m seeing is that yes, we’ve raised awareness of mental health and wellbeing, but what I’m not seeing sufficiently is the systemic changes we can make, for example, around resourcing and work allocation. And so, one of the initiatives that our people forum has been working on is [being] a sounding board for new approaches to work allocation.”

Ms Kelly went on to explain how people wanted to shift from the idea that D&I initiatives are done on top of normal work, to rather look at how it can be embedded in day-to-day tasks. She shared: “Another theme was around, and I think we’re seeing this actually reflected in research that’s come out from Thomson Reuters and LinkedIn, which is that: I’m really passionate about diversity and inclusion and working to make our firm more inclusive in pursuit of our vision to be the leading global law firm for diversity and inclusion. But I don’t want to do that late in the evening and basically in my own time, on the basis that my day job is already very busy. I actually want it to be part of the formal structure of the firm that can feed into these issues.”

Ms Kelly summed it up as people saying, “reward me for this work or change your structures so that this is actually part of my job rather than something I do as a passion project on the side”.

Providing insight into how HSF’s people forum works and how they’ve dealt with COVID-19, Ms Kelly stated: “They come together on a regular basis with a member of the regional exec, a partner, and discuss issues that are either put to them by the regional exec or which they want to raise with the regional exec.

“And of course, at the time we put this together, we didn’t know COVID [sic] was around the corner, but they really came into their own with COVID [sic] because they helped inform the approach that we took with our people in relation to, for example, hybrid working, guidelines around different ways of working. And so it’s very much a group that has informed our approach to people and culture issues across the region.”

The transcript of this podcast episode when quoted above was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Danielle Kelly, click here. 

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