Keeping law practices fair is good for business

Recent research has shown that a pay gap exists between men and women. Picture: PA

Recent research has shown that a pay gap exists between men and women. Picture: PA

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SCOTTISH solicitors have been asked if they are compliant or complacent when it comes to equality and diversity in their business practice.

The Law Society of Scotland’s new guidance, Ensuring Fairness, Creating Opportunity: A Practical Guide to Equality and Diversity for Scottish Solicitors, aims to ensure solicitors incorporate the principles of equality and diversity throughout their organisation. It explains why equality is good for clients, good for staff and good for business – and provides advice for firms on how they can ensure they are equality compliant.

All businesses succeed by retaining existing clients and attracting new ones – law firms are no different. By taking into account a changing population and its needs, firms can adopt practices which will best serve its existing and potential client pool.

For example, we have an ageing population – there are one million people in the UK over the age of 65 and this is set to double by 2050 – who will have specific legal needs and also access and communication needs.

Working to attract specific groups can boost business and there are many firms who could generate new business from ethnic minority or local gay communities. Even something as simple as installing a ramp to provide wheelchair and pushchair access can make the difference between a client opening the door or going elsewhere.

Workforce

Equally important to business success is retaining a talented workforce, and having a more diverse team on board can generate new ideas and ways to reach new client groups.

Many studies also show that staff perform better in equality-aware organisations and more than 70 per cent of final year university students say equality and ethical considerations are important to them when choosing an employer.

Employers who don’t offer flexitime are now in a minority and our own recent equality research (www.lawscot.org.uk/profile), published last month (October), has shown that an increasing proportion of solicitors (now 23 per cent) are opting to work less than full-time hours. This is almost a quarter of the available talent pool for employers which means they need to consider what this means for their business and how they might want to change to retain good staff.

Technology is rapidly changing the workplace and working away from the office is becoming much more commonplace. According to the 2013 research carried out for the Law Society by independent researchers MVA, almost two-thirds were permitted to work away from the office, although just a quarter of respondents did so at least once a week.

Male and female solicitors

Currently, more male solicitors than females were permitted to work from home (69 per cent male, 56 per cent female) or remotely (66 per cent male compared to 51 per cent female) and it will be interesting to monitor this to find out if flexible working increases across a wider proportion of the profession in the next few years.

The Society is encouraging employers to carry out a pay audit to ensure there are no equal pay issues and we can provide confidential and bespoke advice for firms on free toolkits or professional advisers.

We know from our most recent research that a pay gap exists between men and women; however, although men (in general) continue to be paid more, the gap now starts later, at around ten years in work, although it continues throughout a solicitor’s working life.

We also know there are more women at the earlier stages in their legal careers. Although we can’t make definitive statements about barriers to career progress, it’s clear that more women than men take career breaks and work amended hours, often because of child care responsibilities, which is believed to have a long term impact.

There also appear to be different gender approaches to career success, but it is critical for the profession as a whole that it does not lose out by limiting the career options of people working part-time for whatever reason.

Sadly, figures for incidents of discrimination have remained the same as previously reported (16 per cent), with a worrying number of those solicitors saying they had been bullied or harassed at some point during their career. The Society has launched free online Continuing Professional Development to help individuals and firms and is funding a confidential helpline service provided by LawCare.

Equality research is important work for us as a professional body. It helps us discern trends as well as any issues so that we can take steps to tackle them.

It’s important to us all that the legal profession attracts and retains talent to ensure a vibrant and innovative profession which is accessible to all those who need it.


Neil Stevenson is the Law Society of Scotland’s director of representation and support www.lawscot.org.uk

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