Rob Marrs, our Head of Education, talks about the recent roundtable we hosted for people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background, and explains the steps you can take to get a more diverse group of people applying to your organisation.  

Last year I attended a diversity event. At the coffee break a solicitor spoke to me and noted that she wished people would stop ‘’highlighting superstars’’. This was an interesting thought I’d never considered before. I asked why? And she went on to explain that whilst it was always interesting to hear how a hyper-successful woman had got to the top it wasn’t always massively relevant. She noted that the lived experience of her – as an associate in her early-30s with two children – was necessarily different from that of the managing partner we’d just heard from. The latter acknowledged in the talk that her husband was ‘’stay at home’’ and that at points the couple had a full-time, live-in nanny.

Of course, we should celebrate those who reach the very pinnacles of the profession, but we shouldn’t expect their experience to be universal. What my new friend wanted to see was both: celebrating the successful and also for the sector to highlight other people in the earlier stages of a career and managing to balance in some way their home-life including children and work-life.

This thought swam into my head at the recent roundtable we hosted for people from a black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) background to discuss their experiences on the route to qualification. A number of attendees noted that it was all too easy for the justice sector in Scotland and across the UK to point to high-fliers: the first Asian sheriff, the first black Attorney-General etc. There is a danger here. Highlighting superstars gives people a false sense of comfort that ‘’everything is ok’’. There will likely always be high-achieving people who have overcome barriers because of their supreme abilities. We shouldn’t assume though that everyone should overcome these barriers. Perhaps it would make more sense to focus on the barriers than cheering those who clamber over them?

A consistent theme at the roundtable was that they’d feel more included in the profession they are about to join if organisations showed that people like them thrived there.

No one doubted that organisations are genuine in their commitment to diversity. Or that organisations wanted a more diverse pool of candidates at trainee level. The mood of the meeting though was that organisations were sometimes not as good as they could be at showing how diverse they were and that, in itself, stopped some people from a BAME background applying for roles.

As one attendee put it: ‘organisations talk about the importance of diversity but when you walk into a recruitment fair the people behind the desks are generally white’. There is a fairly obvious dissonance there. Organisations need to show that people from all backgrounds can thrive at all levels: partner, sure, but associates, trainees, and paralegals. We heard that it was important to show that people from a BAME background had a presence across the organisation.

One of the many perceptive things said at the meeting was: ‘if you try and innovate from the same people with the same background and the same viewpoints you’ll get the same answers you always got’’. Quite so. No organisation wants that! So how can you ensure that your organisation is attracting the widest range of people possible?

How to get a more diverse group of people applying to your organisation

There seems to be a vicious circle. On the one hand, firms bemoan to me that they don’t get proportionate numbers of applications for trainee roles from those from a BAME background. On the other hand, people from a BAME background tell me they struggle to access traineeships. So how do we encourage more people to apply and, hopefully, in turn be successful?

Ultimately, diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be an add on or a ‘’nice to do’’, It should run through everything you do like the lettering on a stick of rock. Many organisations have plenty of policies, procedures and protocols yet still aren’t getting it right. Inclusion should be a mindset not a process and it can’t just be a policy.

  1. Consider unconscious bias training for those involved in the recruitment process interview candidates. A good, free starting point is Project Implicit at Harvard - you might want to invest in more advanced, classroom style or online training after that.
  2. Data! Do you have the data? Do you know how many people in your organisation are from a BAME background? Do you know the number of people who apply to your organisation? Is the number of BAME people applying roughly proportionate with the number of BAME people on the LLB/DPLP? Without the data, how do you know how you’re doing?
  3. If your organisation attends recruitment fairs at universities think about the diversity of the staff attending. If you welcome diversity then consider how you can show this rather than how you say it.
  4. Think about the messages you might be sending by accident. For instance, some of the largest organisations hold recruitment drinks events. Might an alcoholic drinks event put people off? If so, why not hold a different sort of event? Another example: One Muslim member recently told me he tended not to attend events in the evening during Ramadan. Would it hurt to hold off the meeting a few weeks? Or hold it at a different time?
  5. Make it clear on your website and in your promotional materials that people from a BAME background have successful careers throughout your organisation.
  6. Consider using task-based exercises in your recruitment process. Some of the attendees noted they often fared better when they were asked to write a client letter or make a presentation (as this is likely to be less subjective).
  7. Give feedback to interviewees: we all know that giving feedback takes time and that everyone is busy. What we heard was that BAME candidates in particular may feel that their ethnicity was a factor in recruitment. A lack of feedback will only compound that.
  8. Support the Scottish Ethnic Minority Lawyers Association (SEMLA). There’s lots of ways organisations can do this – by hosting joint events, encouraging your staff to join, providing speakers for events etc. 
  9. Think about your trainee recruitment process. There is a place for school grades on occasion but do you really need them to adjudicate whether someone can be a great trainee at your firm? Do you really need school grades at all? Someone who has migrated to the UK who has gone through to the route to qualification will have to input grades from overseas. Do you really want to miss out on international candidates?
  10. Many people from a BAME background can speak a second or even third language. Is that useful for your clients? Could it be useful to serve future clients? Does your application from ask for this? Are you missing a trick?

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