Raising the bar

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July 12, 2021 – My professor of constitutional law in Aix-en-Provence, France, told the class on the first day, “les libertés de l’un s’arrȇtent là où les libertés de l’autre commencent” [the freedoms of one person end where the freedoms of the other person begin]. This has stuck in my mind ever since. I confess I was also one of the few students in class that had memorized the entire French constitution.

In fact, I read law because I wanted to work for UNICEF in the defense of children’s rights. Instead, I have worked as a finance, corporate, commercial and media lawyer, both in-house and in private practice, serving the needs of multi-national companies out of London, Paris and Dubai.

For a while, I wondered if I had really missed my calling, or lost my way. More recently, I came to realize that I have not, because irrespective of the kind of law I practiced or where, I have never cared any less about these fundamental issues of rights, and my belief of the important role — indeed the duty — of the legal profession in this respect has never wavered.

As lawyers, we should not forget our voice when it comes to influencing legislation in the right direction, through our relationships with regulators and law makers, and to advocate for any transformational change that is needed to create a more just society.

If anything, the pandemic has made this need even stronger. We have also learned from the pandemic, and the behaviors it has changed, that this extends to creating more equitable and inclusive working environments.

The legal profession fills an essential role in our societies. This is reflected in the oaths we all take when we accede to the bar in our respective jurisdictions. Even as business lawyers, we are expected to set the standard for ethical behavior and the defense of rights, whether individuals’ rights, companies’ rights, or rights of society at large — and we are expected to intervene when these collide.

I was recently reading a global survey of millennials and Gen Z’s on a range of current issues incorporating the impact of the pandemic, including but not limited to mental health, their outlook on the world, as well as on diversity, equality and racism.

A couple of interesting results stood out:

•Firstly “diversity, equal opportunity, and discrimination rank in the middle of the pack among respondents’ concerns”, as opposed to at the top of the list of concerning issues. I believe this is because, for Millennials and Gen Z’s, inclusiveness is increasingly part of who they are. They are more focused on other serious problems to tackle such as climate change and social inequality.

•Secondly, “the workplace” fared quite well among institutions seen as concerning with respect to these issues, particularly racism. However, the justice and legal system did not fare as well in the list which, from my perspective as a lawyer, was disappointing. It means those of us in the legal profession need to do better for the societies we live in.

At Lex Mundi, since last year, we have been running the Lex Mundi’s Women Initiative to Network Success (‘LM WINS’) initiative, the first phase in our diversity and inclusion program. This phase is targeted at the advancement of women in the law firm industry. The challenge is fairly well-known and not new.

While law firms are often very gender diverse at recruitment stage, with many firms even recruiting slightly more women than men, when it comes to advancement and promotion to partnership and leadership roles, the gap widens — often substantially.

What is new, however, is the disruption to traditional work practices brought about by the unprecedented and ongoing COVID pandemic.

I believe that it will take more than incorporating home working into our work practices to solve the issue of equal advancement of women in law firms. In fact, some research has shown that home working may set women back more than men, because women continue to do the “heavy lifting” with home and childcaring responsibilities. This puts them under a great deal of pressure on the work front. In truth, we need to tread carefully and not make rash assumptions because complex issues and challenges remain.

In this respect, the real benefit of the pandemic — in my opinion — is that it has proven that some of our firmly established work beliefs and practices, particularly in law firms, can shatter pretty easily and that we can reinvent ourselves quickly. Law firms have shown themselves to be very resilient and adaptable when faced with an extreme crisis.

Therefore, if we can take a very different perspective on working in the office versus at home, what other issues can we address that have traditionally resulted in fewer women rising to the top? I am not advocating change for the sake of change.

I advocate change for the sake of improvement, and for the sake of steering us towards an ever more just and fair workplace for all. The change I am talking about is one of mindset.

Indeed this mindset is enabling us to have more frank and open conversations, to be willing to consider a different way of doing things, and to embrace the benefits of a different reality.

This is actually the best thing that has come out of the pandemic, against a backdrop of so many negative consequences. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to set aside what you think you know, and take a look at things with a fresh eye.

For law firms, like for many businesses, the ideal outcome is one that balances the interests of employees and the clients they serve. Happy employees make for happy clients, and happy clients make for successful law firms.

So how do we get there?

At Lex Mundi, driving collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. We believe in smart collaboration. Our LM WINS initiative is no different. Our membership spans 100 countries and is comprised of highly established and successful law firms in each jurisdiction.

By bringing together all of this knowledge, influence and expertise, along with various business practices, into fora designed for open sharing we are able to promote continuous improvement and advancement across the membership.

The momentum of learning from each other in order to improve is constant. And Lex Mundi sits “in the middle”, working with our members worldwide to ensure consistency across a wide range of standards.

We are motivated to influence the adoption of equal rights in the legal profession worldwide. Through driving and celebrating best practices in our own firms, we can improve the representation of women and minorities in the workforce within Lex Mundi.

More than that though, our firms are leaders in their local markets and therefore their competitors will look to them. So there is a multiplying effect to or initiatives which we believe has the potential to be very powerful and extends our reach exponentially.

For the LM WINS initiative, we have enlisted the support of expert Debbie Epstein Henry and we formed a Task Force. With Debbie, we established a matrixed program that launched along a regional footprint initially, and is now running on the basis of a global, themed, basis.

We took this approach because every region has its own cultural and political realities that impact the way businesses are shaped and the way people behave. As a starting point, we felt it was important to understand and work with these differences in order to effect change on a global level.

Lasting change takes some time to come about and may move at a difference pace in different regions. This is fine. The essence of diversity is understanding and accepting those differences and then folding them into your strategy.

We gathered broad input from our members on the main challenges to women’s advancement in the firms, and applied regional frameworks around societal and social norms. We asked about the current status of women’s representation in equity partnership and as firm leaders.

We then drilled down into recruitment, retention and advancement approaches, and we asked about work practices as regards clients including business development opportunities and ownership of client relationships. We sought views on the sustainability of the billable hour model. We also asked what people thought the future of the workplace would look like and the impact on firm culture.

We then applied regional factors against these mainstream issues: cultural differences, spousal influence, disproportionate childcare/eldercare responsibilities.

Having taken this substantial amount of information, we moved the discussion to a global level around key common themes: sharing best practices (including the sharing of resources); flexibility and remote work; and engaging men and male leaders as well as firm management.

LM WINS is still under way. We are engaging our members on the outcome of this important work we are doing together, including how to measure success over time. For Lex Mundi, it reinforces a shared set of values across the membership.

So why is it important? There are too many reasons to list beyond the simple proposition that creating equality of opportunity, enhanced by leaving behind prejudices and assumptions, is simply the right thing to do. Law firms are businesses and they want to be as successful as possible. Importantly, they are people businesses.

Although technology is playing an increasingly important role (which is continuing to grow) in shaping the delivery of legal services, I believe that for now at least, law firms’ main assets are people and knowledge.

Clients are increasingly expecting to see law firms become more diverse, more flexible, and more transparent — essentially more like them. It is not about being seen to be diverse and inclusive, it is about enacting changes that will actually lead to a more diverse and inclusive team serving the clients. This starts at the top.

Indeed, one of our firms told us they had focused their initiative on ensuring more women held positions in management. Once they achieved this they noted that the decisions which the firm was making were different — and better — than before.

Beyond meeting client expectations to ensure success of the firm now and in future, I started out by saying that lawyers, and thereby law firms, have a special role to play in their societies. And this includes setting the bar (no pun intended) for diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Helena Samaha

Helena Samaha, president and CEO of Lex Mundi, helms the world’s leading network of independent law firms, with a 125-plus country reach. Prior to joining Lex Mundi, she held senior in-house counsel positions at the Virgin Group and Liberty Global in London, AlixPartners in Paris, and Orbit Showtime Network in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She also served as a partner at DLA Piper in London and worked as a finance lawyer at Clifford Chance.

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Helena Samaha