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Key takeaways: How men can #ChooseToChallenge gender inequity

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2021, Burford Co-Chief Operating Officer and founder of The Equity Project Aviva Will moderated an all-star panel of business leaders and change-makers: Ricardo Anzaldua (Executive Vice President and GC, Freddie Mac), Bendita Malakia (Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Hogan Lovells) and Daniel Winterfeldt QC (Founder and Chair, InterLaw Diversity Forum).

Below are highlights from their conversation about the role men can play in advancing gender equality in the workforce, especially in the business of law.

What it means to #ChooseToChallenge gender inequity

Simply believing in diversity isn’t enough; affirmative intentional actions are needed to impact change. Choosing to challenge means using your voice to influence firm policy, disrupting accepted norms by acts of solidarity and speaking up in the face of unfair outcomes. We can choose how to allocate work, who we choose to give profile-raising opportunities and who we introduce to clients.

Persistent unconscious bias impacts our decisions regardless of intent. Therefore, we must be purposeful and thoughtful about challenging inherent biases within ourselves and our organizations.

Why men need to actively support gender equity

Men dominate the senior structures of organizations both in law firms and broader business so tackling gender inequity is unlikely without their invested support. To build a fairer system and advance the cause of gender equity, the sponsorship and support of the senior-most leaders in the organization are imperative. 

As Daniel Winterfeldt QC put it, “There are more women in the world than men, so women have the unique position of being a disadvantaged majority. Law firms have been recruiting women at junior levels at 50% for over 20 years but somehow when it becomes time for partnerships those numbers change dramatically. It’s a crisis and something that needs to be addressed now.”

How law firm clients influence law firm culture

Law firm clients are ideally placed to help address the specific problem of origination credit by exercising their power of the purse. Yet the 2020 Equity Project study found that 52% of GCs and senior in-house lawyers said they were entirely unaware of how origination credit was awarded.

Ultimately, this is an area where greater collaboration with and transparency from law firms is needed, but GCs and senior in-house lawyers need to realize that they are the ones paying the bills and have a responsibility to find out if the diverse lawyer working on their cases is properly compensated and credited for the work.

Clients increasingly demand gender diversity from their external counsel, but often are met with inconsequential actions from law firm management who fail to address underlying systemic issues. Law firm clients should look for solutions that provide opportunities for new diverse talent, like Freddie Mac’s talent stewardship program which holds senior law firm leadership accountable for creating a diverse pipeline of future leaders.

As Ricardo Anzaldua noted, “The law firm partners that have been resisting diversity have been doing it on the argument that the clients don't really care. We have to show them that it’s just not true. We care. And we care so much that we are going take our business away from you if you don't address it.”

Changing economics and culture

Diversity efforts should be rewarded not only by verbal praise but economically incentivized. Hogan Lovells recently launched a diversity and inclusion (D&I) billable hour credit for US lawyers, meaning that D&I activity counts as billable and impacts yearly bonus levels.

National Grid implemented a 50/50 approach to law firm metrics with the traditional metrics making up half (e.g., billable hours, origination credit) and people metrics making up the remainder (e.g., maternity return rates, promotion of diverse talent). As a result, they saw a 180 degree change in law firm management attitudes to diversity as a result of the introduction of an economic incentive to implement change.

It is important not to generalize lived experiences at a law firm as individual  experiences will be different. To understand how women perceive the culture at their law firms, managers need to ask them directly and act on their feedback.

Bendita Malakia notes that “There are three aspects of law firm culture that need to change: More empathy, more humility and vulnerability. Humility in understanding that we don’t know or fully understand biases, more empathy in listening to the women within the firm that flag bias or report inequity and more vulnerability in sharing our struggles.”