Kathleen Russ, Senior Partner at the U.K.-based law firm Travers Smith, declared when she stepped into that role that increasing the representation of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) talent at the 84-partner law firm was one of her top priorities.
Now, in her role as Senior Partner, she is the public ambassador for the firm and one of the main keepers of the firm’s strategy, and her commitment to BAME talent makes Russ somewhat of a rarity in the legal market.
Russ and Chris Edwards, the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Diversity & Inclusion at the firm, understand that like every other law firm, Travers Smith is on a journey. As such, firm leaders do not know everything as it relates to creating an environment where BAME talent — and every other lawyer at the firm — can thrive and achieve their highest potential.
However, the firm is rather unique in its willingness and commitment to transparency and experimentation on BAME inclusion, in order to learn as it moves along its journey. Edwards describes that the commitment to BAME inclusion is in the context of a wider inter-sectional lens and runs complementary to the firm’s CSR work. For example, the firm shares its ethnicity statistics as a means of transparency; and for International Men’s Day on November 19, it looked at the issues men face, including men from minority backgrounds.
Removing Structural Barriers to Ensure Equal Access to Opportunity
Furthermore, the main differentiator of the firm’s BAME inclusion initiative centers around analyzing that inclusion as a system and as part of the business. If there is a practice or a policy that “decreases fairness and is disproportionately affecting women or people from a minority background, then we seek to change the system,” Edwards says.
The firm’s formal mechanisms to create fairness at critical inflection points of lawyers’ careers include:
- Formal sponsorship — Russ explains that because many people at the firm come from “privileged” backgrounds (see more about privilege further below), they have natural sponsorship within their own networks. For BAME lawyers sponsorship and networking opportunities may not be easily identifiable or accessible due to the lack of BAME people in leadership roles across The City. So, the firm is setting about thinking how it can create equal opportunities for sponsorship (albeit without formal structures around it) for every lawyer so they are on an equal playing field and have equal access to opportunity.
- Work allocation — To address structural inequality on work assignments, the firm is focused on work allocation as well and inserting processes that ensure fair access to opportunity on key matters and on work for important clients.
Making BAME Inclusion about the Majority
It is common for many white professionals to mistakenly assume that it is the job of minority colleagues to educate the majority on what they can do better. However, Travers Smith makes it clear that the responsibility for inclusion is on the dominant group, Edwards emphasizes, adding that helping majority lawyers realize that there are many every-day situations that people of color face that white people don’t, and these every-day, minor experiences can build over time. And this build-up taxes BAME attorneys both emotionally and mentally, which without intentional disruption adds to the low retention rate of BAME lawyers.
As a result, the firm has focused on having white lawyers as the key stakeholders in inclusion because it is their behaviors and actions that will create an environment at the firm where lawyers from diverse backgrounds can thrive. During a recent program, for example, the group examined the language used and behaviors exhibited when interacting with BAME colleagues, describes Edwards. The group analyzed the impact of microaggressions and racial biases, and how innocuous-sounding questions, such as ‘Where are your really from?’ can make people from under-represented groups feel “other-ed.”
The impact of these common occurrences happening over and over reinforces the feelings of exclusion and lack of belonging until the lawyers of color leave their law firms — and often the legal industry — in droves.
Some of the other way Travers Smith sought to enlist majority lawyers in the process and re-enforce a culture of inclusion included:
Evoking commitment of allies through story-telling — In the ally journey, one of the common experiences that catapults an ally’s commitment from passive to active is “a-ha” moments. Potential allies hear an experience of someone that they care about that dumbfounds them and is so illuminating that it propels them into advocacy.
Using this type of story-telling is a powerful modality to move potential allies from sitting on the sidelines and passive support to outright vocal urgency for change. In many of the firm’s programs, story-telling is a key component, and Russ often shares her own a-ha moment when she knew BAME inclusion was to be one of her top priorities as Senior Partner of the firm.
She explains how several black contacts shared experiences with her that they encounter every day and that she would never have to face. One mentioned instances of taxis not stopping for him because he is a black man. Another cites examples of people at a law firm or courthouse assuming he is a security guard rather than a client. Russ says that one of her contacts told her that ‘You, as a leader in an organization, can’t change the fact that that’s what society does to me or you can’t change it completely. But what you can do is ensure that in your own interactions with me, I don’t know need to go through any of those issues.’
Along with implementing inclusive procedures in the firm, Travers Smith is equally focused on promoting a more inclusive culture. As part of its broader support for the arts and diverse artistic talent, in particular, the firm recently hosted an event celebrating black music and musicians. The firm believes that hosting events of this kind helps raise awareness of cultural differences and enables people to be more engaged with issues on inclusion and the experiences of people from minority backgrounds.
In addition, in keeping with its ambition of examining diversity though an intersectional lens, its various professional network groups often collaborate to examine how different identities can compound inequalities.
Institutionalizing ally relationships in the firm through the BAME ally toolkit — Most recently, the firm created a roadmap to help embed ally relationship behaviors into the firm’s culture. The aim of the toolkit is to outline what an ally is, what an ally is not, and what an effective ally relationship looks like. Further, it outlines 10 actions that allies can do and how they can learn about BAME colleagues’ experiences. These actions include: i) educating yourself; ii) realizing your privilege; iii) recognizing diversity among the BAME community; iv) stepping up; v) mentoring and sponsoring others; and vi) not being a bystander to other’s bad behavior.
Intentionally discussing privilege — Russ acknowledges that some of the 10 actions are deliberately challenging, such as getting people to reflect on their own privilege. Indeed, when people talk about privilege, it tends to make them feel defensive. “That’s not what we want people to do, but people need to acknowledge the fact that they are privileged,” Russ says. “Yes, you may be a straight white man, and you may have had some challenges in your childhood or growing up with some experiences which have made you less fortunate, but by the very fact that you are white, that in itself is a privilege that has given you a step up or a step forward in the race of life.”
Travers Smith is keen on instilling the “growth mindset” into the conversation of privilege as well, because many times, the defensiveness often comes from white lawyers fearing that their privilege is being interpreted as de-legitimatizing their own hardships or the hard work they have put in to get to the level they are in their careers. This defensiveness stems from a fixed mindset of “I win, you lose — and if someone has a leg up, somehow that is taking the opportunity for success away from me.”
This interpretation negates the fact the playing field is not equal to begin with. For Russ and Edwards, however, they plan to continue normalizing this aspect as a part of an overall culture of inclusion within the firm by continuously repeating, reinforcing, and reviewing the reason why this dialogue is happening: To ensure fairness and equal access to opportunity.