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By diverse means

18 April 16

The Society's equality standards, voluntary for now, may acquire a more formal status. Should this cause any concern? The Journal spoke to three firms which have benefited from a progressive approach

by Peter Nicholson

Early last year the Law Society of Scotland launched its “10 equality standards” (see Journal, February 2015, 42). Designed to focus on key areas where responses to member surveys indicated that insufficient progress had been made in relation to equality and diversity, they encourage legal practices to put in place and monitor their own equality strategy, train staff appropriately, and report to them and to clients and others on progress.

Importantly, with an unacceptably large gender pay gap continuing, especially at more senior levels in the profession, firms should also publish an equal pay statement and (if they have more than 150 employees) gender pay gap figures, as well as information on accessibility options for disabled and other service users.

Have these standards had an impact? Some practices at least have taken them to heart, perhaps integrating them with work they were already doing. The Journal spoke to three very different firms, and discovered that whether you are looking to reach out to clients across a rural area, thrive as a criminal defence practice dependent on legal aid, or meet client expectations as a national commercial firm, taking a proactive approach can transform the working environment. 

MacPhee & Partners: rural development

One of the first to adopt the Society’s equality and diversity standards, West Highland practice MacPhee & Partners regarded the decision actively to pursue an equality and diversity strategy as simply reinforcing what it was already doing.

“Our firm ethos has always been to stimulate, develop and support our employees and be as accessible as possible to our clients,” partner Duncan MacPhee says. “We believe that successful implementation of equality and diversity in all aspects of our business ensures that colleagues, staff and clients are valued, motivated and treated fairly.”

A main focus is the personal development and progression of all staff, with flexibility as the key. Across its offices in Fort William, Oban and now Tiree, 16 of the 19 fee earners are female, and nine employees (including support staff) currently work flexible hours for reasons including “mothers of young children working around school/nursery times, those with a view to retirement, and even our resident crofter (and father of five) who is busy tending his flock when not in the office”.

Given the firm’s location, distance learning is the most realistic study option, and the firm has worked to facilitate this with relevant professional and academic bodies. The majority of its secretarial staff have qualified as registered paralegals; the cashroom department has completed the SOLAS qualification; one NQ solicitor has progressed from secretary to paralegal, then the pre-Diploma training contract and the Society’s professional exams, taking her Diploma at Glasgow University before rejoining the practice as a trainee in 2013 – and this has inspired an Oban paralegal to set out on the same route. “We consider the opportunities for progression available to our employees to be limitless,” MacPhee maintains.

Opening on Tiree last year allowed a native islander to return from practice in Glasgow, to raise her family while working flexibly and also making the firm accessible to clients on the island. “We recognise that in order to provide a fully accessible service to our clients, we may need to respond differently to individuals and offer flexibility in our approach,” MacPhee comments. “We had not considered the implementation of the strategy as a branding or marketing tool; we view it as a reinforcement of our firm’s culture of championing equality and diversity by promoting fair treatment and opportunity for all while recognising and respecting people’s differences and placing positive value on diversity in the community and in the workplace.”

Shepherd & Wedderburn: external collaboration

Shepherd & Wedderburn, one of the firms with a UK reach that have retained a Scottish headquarters, is one that is aiming to attain all the Society’s equality standards.

For Shepherd & Wedderburn this means working with external organisations such as Stonewall, Job Centre Plus, Investors in Young People, Healthy Working Lives and the Prime initiative which promotes social mobility in the legal sector. A longer term commitment to promoting equality and diversity was underpinned last year when the firm launched a campaign promoting inclusion for all protected characteristic groupings, backed by chief executive Stephen Gibb and four partners appointed as diversity champions.

“We believe that working with the external organisations provides fresh ideas and impetus for our internal work,” HR director Carole Ritchie explains. “This also gives us important benchmarking criteria to track progress, for example attaining ‘Double Tick’ status for promoting opportunities for prospective and current disabled employees, upward placement in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, introducing the offer of mentoring support for all young staff (IIYP), ensuring that all staff undertake equality and diversity training, enhancing our maternity and shared parental leave provision, introducing PEAT 1 funding and maintenance allowances for incoming trainees, ensuring our key suppliers promote inclusiveness in their businesses, and offering week-long work experience placements to 10 Prime pupils each year.”

She continues: “In order to progress our equality agenda we recognise that one individual within the firm has to co-ordinate and implement initiatives – this role lies with me as our HR director – and that you need to engage with employees across the business. We are doing this via focus groups which are provided with senior level support, such as LGBT & Allies, and Healthy Working Lives, as well as securing feedback via a firm-wide employee survey.”

Targets for 2016 include rolling out an unconscious bias training module to all management staff, setting up two additional employee focus groups, partnering with Project Scotland and the School Law website, and attaining top 250 status in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index. “This will send a strong message to the broader business world that we are an open and inclusive business seeking to recruit and retain the best staff, with a commitment to providing outstanding quality services to our client base,” Ritchie concludes.

McCusker McElroy & Gallanagh: wider client base

An interesting angle on the business benefits from equality and diversity, in the context of a criminal defence practice, emerges from Paisley and Johnstone firm McCusker McElroy & Gallanagh.

Fears for the future of the sector have been expressed for many years, as the squeeze on legal aid made it increasingly difficult for firms to invest in trainee and junior solicitor talent.

A progressive attitude by the three partners, however, has seen them take on solicitor Waqqas Ashraf, one of Scotland’s Pakistani community, who joined as a trainee in 2012, and then two women trainees, both in their 40s and one of them Polish.

Ashraf believes that since he joined, the firm has benefited from an increased ethnic minority clientele. “Traditionally clients would try and speak to a solicitor from a similar background to themselves,” he comments. “They just feel a bit more comfortable that way. There is also a benefit if you have people who can speak other languages, when there are many people in Scotland now who can’t speak English fluently.”

He suggests that the financial constraints mean that whereas traditionally, criminal firms would employ people based on whether they could appear in court properly and do the job, “now they are looking for the type of individual that can attract business as well. I don’t just mean from different ethnic groups; I see myself as a businessman, and try to promote the firm on social media: Facebook, Instagram, and through articles, radio and TV appearances. I’m trying to promote certain issues but it’s also a stepping stone to attracting more business.”

He commends the partners’ open and broadminded approach. “Many people think that those from ethnic minorities or those over a certain age can’t contribute properly, but the partners here look at the positives and ask what they can bring to the business. When you look at it, there are more positives than negatives.”

Ashraf has been aware of certain comments from other members of the profession, directed at those from non-traditional backgrounds. “People will say little things and it’s about how you manage that. I and others from my firm challenge them, but we can only properly fix the problem by promoting the issue even more and by employing more people. Once we break that feeling, I think it’s only positive for all firms, but also for the Law Society and the profession as a whole.”

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