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‘Stay vocal’ on D&I issues with external providers

Law departments should be keeping up the pressure on firms to promote diversity and inclusion as the fallout from the pandemic continues, argues Catherine Roberts.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 02 February 2021 Corporate Counsel
Catherine Roberts
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On a Lawyers Weekly live-streamed webcast held in late July of 2020 on the topic of pathways to gender equality post-pandemic, Thomson Reuters Asia and Emerging Markets global strategic client director (legal professionals) Catherine Roberts discussed the business case for better promotion of diversity and inclusion, calling both “good for everyone” and “the right thing to do”.

“I work with a lot of global and large law firms, and what they’re saying is that general counsel are demanding diversity from the teams they’re working with,” she said at the time.

“The business case is that clients are expecting diversity, both in terms of gender but also in terms of culture. Great, robust business results [emerge from having] diversity in thought and diversity in voice.”


It is also critical from an employee retention perspective, Ms Roberts continued, “as you want your employees to feel that they’re bringing their entire selves to work. [In the wake of the age of coronavirus], it is even more crucial for employees to feel that safety and support”.

Checking back with Lawyers Weekly, Ms Roberts said that, in the early days of the pandemic, “many were speculating that law firms would deprioritise gender equality to focus on other agendas like client retention”.

We now know, however, that “promoting diversity and inclusion goes hand-in-hand with business continuity”, she proclaimed.

Further to conversations with Acritas, she noted, “clients were more likely [in 2020] to favour a law firm for diversity and inclusion reasons, compared with previous years”.

“Corporate clients are still demanding leadership on diversity and inclusion from their law firm advisers, irrespective of this pandemic backdrop,” she said.

Ms Roberts urged general counsel and chief legal officers across the board to “stay vocal” on the extent to which external providers are prioritising diversity and inclusion, and noted they should “enact positive behaviours accordingly”.

“Challenge yourself on every new hire to stamp out your unconscious biases. Offer everyone in your legal department an equal voice and set expectations early on with your law firm advisers. Your values need to be aligned,” she advised.

At present, the Australian corporate market is certainly putting pressure on firms to do better on these matters, Ms Roberts mused, while adding that the quantum of such pressure is not as strong as jurisdictions in the northern hemisphere.

“Acritas data on the Asia-Pacific region indicates that there is certainly client pressure on law firms to promote gender equality, but the pressure isn’t as significant as what we have seen in the US and UK,” she said.

“The data shows that we have room to do more in the Asia-Pacific region to voice client expectations. Conversations like these need to be had regularly so that expectations are clear.”

Ultimately, and on reflection of the past year or so, Ms Roberts surmised that the legal profession “still has a long way to go before we see the structural change required to improve the progression of women lawyers in Australia”.

“We would do well to consider programs rolled out in other regions, to see where we can improve. Ambitious gender targets, transparent pay and targeted programs that nurture female talent, will all help to improve the position of women lawyers in Australia,” she suggested.

To view the full webcast with Ms Roberts, as well as Leo Cussen Centre for Law executive director Shirley Southgate and Hive Legal principal Melissa Lyon, click here.