19 February 2019

Leading law firms team up to address cultural diversity

Leading law firms Herbert Smith Freehills, Clayton Utz and King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) recently joined forces to host a panel discussion with their senior leaders on cultural diversity in the workplace.

ABC TV journalist Kumi Taguchi moderated the session, "Off-script: cultural inclusion in the legal profession" with the firms represented by Andrew Pike (Regional Managing Partner, Australia, Herbert Smith Freehills), Rob Cutler (Chief Executive Partner, Clayton Utz) and Berkeley Cox (Chief Executive Partner, KWM).

Former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane also joined the discussion.

The panel spoke to their own personal experiences around diversity in the workplace, why a lack of diversity exists in the profession, and the structural challenges that need to be addressed to improve the situation.

Andrew Pike said the future legal workforce would look different in 20 years' time. "To force a change we need to embed structural changes into recruitment, career development and leadership programs to ensure diversity is present and will continue to flourish in our industry," he said. 

Speaking on the need for greater diversity, Rob Cutler said: "Our clients represent a diverse group of people across many sectors and they expect the same from their legal advisers."

While the panel acknowledged the time for diversity is now, they also recognised the challenges of the partnership model, common in law firms, and its impact on the pace of change around diversity.

Mr Cutler said: "We are definitely seeing positive change and that will continue. There is a strong and authentic desire to see more diversity across the legal profession."

Speaking on how to effect change, Berkeley Cox said: "It is incumbent upon us given our roles to improve equality for our people now and in the future." The panel session was born from the inaugural Cultural Diversity and Leadership Fellowship held from November 2017 to March 2018.

Run by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the University Sydney Business School, the course was the first program of its kind in Australia and was designed to specifically address the lack of cultural diversity in senior leadership of Australian organisations. A range of leading Australian businesses participated including Herbert Smith Freehills, Clayton Utz and King & Wood Mallesons.

The three firms are also members of the Managing Partners Diversity Forum, which consists of 11 firms in total that made a commitment in 2017 to work together to improve cultural diversity in the profession. As part of this initiative, the firms have conducted research into the diversity of their organisations, and the resulting data will be used to develop practical steps to tackle the issue.

The "Offscript: cultural inclusion in the legal profession" panel is one of many joint initiatives between the law firms to help tackle diversity and inclusion in the legal sector.

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