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How the Society’s Equality Standards Can Work for In-house Teams

Neil Stevenson looks back on the launch of the Society’s Equality Standards, and how they can be implemented by in-house legal teams.

Earlier in the year the Society launched its new Equality Standards and in-house teams have shown significant interest. 

The top enquiry has been around the balance of drawing on organisational polices and approaches, and elements more specific to a legal team. Many have reminded the Society that a legal team might be fluid or defined differently by different people within an organisation (due to matrix/cross-team working, internal secondment to project teams, shared central support services like administration, etc.).

As always, it’s been valuable to have these conversations with members, and is useful to share the thinking that emerged with a wider group. Indeed, a key focus of the new standards was to avoid being too prescriptive but to encourage conversation, planning, and the setting of agreed outcomes.  Dialogue and increased internal awareness about an issue is often one of the most powerful drivers of change.

On that basis it is useful to read the standards thinking of pragmatic routes to meeting them, some examples below link back to the numbered standards.

A named equality lead (1) is simple, picking someone with enthusiasm and some level of seniority, or giving them a senior manager to report into on this issue, who can make sure plans are followed. They do not necessarily have to have a strict responsibility in your business structure, but will simply be the lead for your team and ensure progress with work agreed within the team.

Having a strategy(2) and objectives(3) could sound huge, but does not need to be made complicated for your first attempt.  As a team you will have much within your direct control through normal delegated line management responsibilities, focus on areas you can control, rather than worrying about those you can’t.  I’ll give an example of this in a moment, but it’s worth first touching on another element.

Teams are encouraged to use workforce monitoring (4), to inform their plan.  In an ideal world we know our workplace composition and our local population to feed conversations about whether our teams are diverse, but in the absence of that simpler observations can inform your approach.  The Society publishes data on the composition of the profession.  If you see in your team that the last five trainees have been male, but you know over 60% of trainees are female, that can be enough to start a discussion (this is different to forming a conclusion there is definitely an issue, it’s about exploring if there could be).

Bringing these three elements together you could have an example where any objective is set to increase the diversity of traineeship applicants.  HR may have final sign-off on where paid advertising is placed, and you might not be able to influence that, but once that official advert is live you can ask people like Scottish Young Lawyers Association, the Society of Asian Lawyers, or the  In-house Lawyers’ Group, to tweet and share by LinkedIn the advert, possibly flagging your team’s equality credentials and widening your pool.

Again, it may be that formal training plans (5) and funding are held outwith the team, and your overall business does not deem equality a priory in a particular year.  Again, this can be addressed at a team level.  You might all commit to doing one of the Society’s free online seminar’s on equality, or one of the team might agree to read the Equality and Human Rights Guidance on making fair financial decisions in terms of equality and summarise it for the team. All of these would be valid in a training plan an in-house team can control and resource itself.

Publishing plans (6) and data on the composition of roles (7) might initially be only to your internal clients, although as you make progress this may become a positive story for your whole organisation.

Many public sector in-house teams will already have an equal pay statement (8 & 9), other will be smaller than the 150 staff cut-off where these are required by law. However, all teams may value looking at the issue, a simple listing of staff by gender/grade and salaries on a spreadsheet can be the starting point, and then deciding if any action is needed. If not at that stage, making a future defined commitment to such a review can also be a powerful commitment.

A statement on access to services (10) may seem odd for internal clients, but it can fit well with the 'outreach' attempts many in-house teams have been making anyway to engage more a cross their organisations. It might mix existing service which may be of use to people (email and phone based advice, email bulletins, pod casts, etc.) with specific variations around disability. For instance, we spoke to one in-house team who had not realised their point of asking for written request for advice had put off a dyslexic manager, or that one colleague with a visual impairment would have been happier with the lawyer’s dictation files than the typed up final. Flagging these options can be really valued by colleagues.

For many this will be a pragmatic first step, but for enthusiasts this could all seem to lack aspiration. I’d suggest it’s like a ‘couch to 5k’ running programme.  If you’ve never run before and you go straight out and try to sprint a 5k you’re unlikely to succeed, will find it unpleasant, and probably won’t try again.  If you can start in small bites, see success, and build on it you are far more likely to commit and to succeed.  Thinking this through, setting objectives and trying to get in a positive cycle is more likely to lead to success than a huge raft of initiatives or policy development that are not sustained or delivered. For those more experienced, with more resource, or more daring we can advise on really cutting edge and stretching initiative we’ve seen in other jurisdictions and sectors.

More information is available on the Equality Standards section of our website.