Initiatives focus attention on social mobility and equality

Diversity and inclusion are becoming ever more important for businesses as they increasingly realise the value of attracting employees from a variety of backgrounds who can make a positive contribution to organisations because of their differences, not despite them.

A survey published in July by the Law Society of Scotland found that while the profession is steadily becoming more diverse, further work remains to be done to attract and retain a wider range of people.

Law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn says it recognises that its success lies in ensuring its culture is one that all colleagues want to be a part of, where they feel welcomed and supported, where they can be their ‘authentic selves’, can challenge and be challenged, and develop to their full potential.

To help foster this environment, the firm has a number of social mobility and inclusion, diversity and development-led initiatives in place. These initiatives work in close collaboration with its five partner-led S+W Together diversity network groups: Race, Faith and Belief; Gender; LGBTQIA+; Disability and Healthy Working Lives; and Social Mobility.

Shepherd and Wedderburn Chair, Gillian Carty, leads the firm’s people strategy, which includes its diversity and inclusion initiatives. On why the firm places such focus on these, Carty says: “First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do. Society is looking closely at a whole range of issues around equality. It’s important for a business like ours to be at the forefront of encouraging greater diversity and inclusion and to be actively supporting it.

“It’s not just about doing what we can internally – it’s also about collaborating with clients and other firms in the sector. Many of our clients share our values and want to have inclusive workplaces. We share common challenges in many areas and so by collaborating we can make a greater impact.

“We’re a people business. It’s fundamentally important to us to be able to attract, develop and retain the best talent. That doesn’t just apply to lawyers, but also to roles that support our lawyers, such as marketing and communications, IT and finance.”

Shepherd and Wedderburn has a board-approved strategic diversity action plan that has the following five pillars: recruitment, selection, promotion and retention; training and personal development; culture and policies; communications, client engagement and business development; and suppliers and partnerships.

According to Carty, diversity and inclusion has risen up the agenda for clients. Although no single organisation has the solution to the common challenges they are facing, she explains: “By collaborating with clients and other law firms we can make that collective change. For example, we’re hoping to collaborate in running a conference later this year that aims to attract young people to legal and non-legal roles in the sector. We really want to showcase the opportunities that exist for young people coming from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

She refers to the findings of the Law Society of Scotland report published this summer following its first review of diversity data from solicitors’ practising certificates. “It makes pretty sobering reading for anyone in the legal profession,” says Carty.

“There are talented young people from minority ethnic backgrounds coming out of school, getting good grades and going to university. But the numbers of minority ethnic students choosing to study law remains quite low and those law students don’t necessarily move from university into a commercial legal environment. The representation of lawyers from minority ethnic backgrounds, whether that’s in Scotland or the City of London, is not high in commercial legal practice.”

Carty believes that since the pandemic, and on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is now a much-needed focus on increasing minority ethnic representation in businesses: “For me it’s all about creating a more inclusive workplace. You will retain people and gain more loyalty.”

To tackle this under-representation, Carty is speaking with clients about finding role models for young people from diverse backgrounds. She stresses the importance of showcasing diversity, explaining: “If you don’t see it, you won’t be it.”

Shepherd and Wedderburn is a founder member of PRIME, an initiative led by UK law firms to encourage social mobility and career development by offering work experience to young people aged 13 to 17 from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The firm runs the programme across all its UK offices – in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and London – and offers five PRIME weeks each year. To date, it has supported 60 students. “PRIME gives young people who wouldn’t really see themselves pursuing a career in law some exposure to the legal world and helps dispel myths about what the legal profession is like,” explains Carty.

She says she is particularly pleased that Shepherd and Wedderburn achieved accreditation from Investors in People and Investors in Young People at the highest level last year. During the pandemic the firm has also worked hard to support the physical and mental wellbeing of its workforce, building on measures already in place such as providing trained mental health first aiders and a 24/7 counselling and advice line.

The firm works with a charity called Support and Offload, a new organisation that helps combat mental health issues through sport and exercise, and provided pro bono support to get the initiative off the ground. In February this year, the firm’s Healthy Working Lives Group hosted a mental health panel discussion to mark Time to Talk Day, which aims to stimulate a national conversation about mental health issues.

Carty led a panel discussion involving two of her senior colleagues as well as Dr Prem Shah, a psychiatrist working for NHS Lothian, and Richard Yianni, Corporate Liaison at Support and Offload.

Following the session, a colleague thanked Carty for the open discussions on anxiety and depression. “When I joined the profession 30 years ago such conversations just didn’t happen,” she adds.

Looking ahead, Carty is optimistic that there is a change of culture taking root, with the legal profession and its clients working together to tackle difficult issues and sharing a common commitment to effect real change.

Partner content produced in association with Shepherd and Wedderburn