The expression “unity in diversity” is often used to describe the plural society of India, a country that can take pride in being a melting pot of religions, castes, communities, tribes and languages, with an intrinsic sense of togetherness and integrity despite the presence of infinite diversity. However, mere cohabitation of a diverse population is not enough. What is required is cohabitation with equal opportunities.
To ensure the same, the Constitution of India under article 16 recognises the equality of opportunity in matters of public employment as a fundamental right, mandating that no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, in respect of any employment or office under the state.
The term “diversity” refers to the representation of different people in an organisation so that the workforce comprises a broad spectrum of people with demographic differences. Diversity and inclusion are not just public or state employment-oriented, but an important policy that must be adopted as a core principle of organisational ethics by private players and corporates across industries, including the legal industry.
A wide roster of people may not be able to uplift an organisation until and unless there is a sense of belonging. Therefore, “inclusion” must be practised; aimed at ensuring through conscious efforts that everyone, despite their differences, is valued and given equal opportunity to contribute to and influence the workings of an organisation.
IMPORTANCE OF POLICY
The first and foremost reason for introducing diversity and inclusion policy in law firms is the simplest of all. It is indeed the right thing to do that ensures wider public good. Society looks up to legal professionals while seeking “justice”, a principle that aims at ensuring equality, fairness and access to society. It is a matter of utmost honour to be associated with such a revered principle – and to sustain and maintain people’s confidence in justice, legal professionals should set examples of affording equal opportunities, along with hassle-free access to a full spectrum of diverse people without any discrimination.
Diversity and inclusion can add value to any law firm’s business and act as a driving force for the enhancement of quality, creativity, revenue, growth and profit. A diverse workforce of lawyers, paralegals and support staff can bring different viewpoints and perspectives to the table, leading to better-informed and wholesome decision making.
The amalgamation of diverse people from different backgrounds, having garnered a variety of life and professional experiences, can introduce a fresh approach to a given legal problem, enhancing the overall creativity of the firm. A team of diverse individuals can also synthesise better reactions to market changes. Moreover, the feeling of being valued and included will most likely result in higher employee engagement and retention rates along with improved performance.
Internal diversity refers to those differences that are by birth or situations to which a person belongs. These variations are not by choice and generally cannot be altered, such as age, ethnicity, race, descent, national origin, cultural identity, assigned sex, gender identity and physical and mental ability. None of these factors must ever be a ground for discrimination.
The recruitment and appraisal policies of law firms must provide adequate representation to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community at all levels including partnership – and concerted efforts must be made to create an environment in which they can thrive and are not made to feel like the “others”. Law firms should also foster an environment where people from different age groups and generations can work together in a comfortable and friendly manner.
As far as the present status of women in law in India is concerned, the gender and sex ratio may not be that skewed at entry level, but it is alarming in leadership roles. Although many women work at higher levels in many sectors, the judiciary, courtrooms and law firms tell a starkly different story. Bias related to appraisals, promotions, better opportunities and such prevents women from climbing the partnership ladder at law firms.
Discrimination increases two-fold in the case of pregnant women. While maternity leave helps women take care of infants without added professional responsibilities, it also acts like a double-edged sword. Absence from work for short or long stretches invites unspoken disapproval in the legal community and may result in a loss of networking and promotion opportunities. Law firms usually tend to avoid hiring female lawyers from a particular age group to avoid loss of working hours.
But that trend has been changing lately, and we see many law firms having more female lawyers than men. The legal industry will fully realise the actual potential of women if it adequately supports them through progressive and inclusive workplace policies. Avoiding odd working hours, introducing crèche facilities, having strict anti-harassment rules and increasing safety initiatives are some of the measures that companies and law firms can take to create a sex and gender-inclusive work environment.
External diversity refers to characteristics that are related to a person but are not by birth and can be influenced by surroundings. These factors can also change over time, such as religion, education, interests, skills, socio-economic status, relationship status, experiences, residence and geographical location, and citizenship.
Recruitment policies of law firms must be designed in a manner that lays down a path for diverse people to get access to jobs and opportunities. No one should be discriminated against based on religion or socio-economic status. In fact, the pandemic has taught us that work from home and hybrid models can work very well for law firms. Therefore, rejections or discrimination based on geographical location should be done away with. Personal relationships such as marriage, divorce or separation should never be grounds to deny or snatch away opportunities.
It is also important to touch upon a special kind of discrimination that we often see during the hiring process of legal professionals in India. Many law firms and even corporates looking for in-house counsel prefer candidates from certain elite institutions – and even list names of institutions in the formal job posting. This debars a large section of very capable candidates from applying for the job.
While alma mater may or may not matter, what really matters is the candidate’s calibre. Many of such elite institutions may not be accessible to a large number of aspiring law students due to high fee structure. Such hiring processes are therefore indirect discrimination on the basis of socio-economic status. While targeted absorption of talent at entry level is already happening through on-campus recruitment from certain institutions, the remaining number of positions and slots should be filled based on hiring open for all.
Organisational diversity refers to those factors that differentiate people at a workplace or organisation, such as designation or level of seniority, job profile, department, employment type and work location. Each member of the workforce is equally important, working towards wholesome growth of a law firm through diligent work as per their job profile.
While work quality expectation of seniors from their juniors is generally discussed, what is less talked about is expectations of inclusion and mentoring that junior associates may have from their seniors. The junior associates are the future of the firm and, once promoted, leadership and decision-making will be expected from them. But unfortunately, leadership and decision-making cannot be synthesised by mere promotion. Learning leadership and decision-making skills is a continuous process, and training pertaining to the same must start early. Therefore, it is imperative to include everyone in decision and strategy-making processes, so they are not taken off-guard when it is expected of them.
Worldview diversity refers to the differences found among perspectives and beliefs of people, such as morality, views on religion and atheism, political beliefs, outlook on life and epistemology. It is important for any firm or organisation to develop an environment where conflicting views and opinions are respected. The workplace must be inclusive enough to welcome and accommodate people with varied behaviours and attitudes that may range from extroverts, who are seen as enthusiastic and optimistic, to ambiverts and introverts who at times are commonly perceived as “quiet” or “anti-social”. A melange of personalities and working styles can help fill in the gaps, and encourage creativity and innovation.
The concept of diversity and inclusion is not just public or state employment-oriented, but an important policy that must be adopted as a core principle of organisational ethics by private players and corporates across industries, including the legal industry. The society looks up to legal professionals while seeking “justice”, a principle that aims at ensuring equality, fairness, and access to society. It is a matter of utmost honour to be associated with such a revered principle – and to sustain and maintain people’s confidence in justice, legal professionals should set examples of affording equal opportunities, along with hassle-free access to a full spectrum of diverse people without any discrimination. Manisha Singh and Aprajita Nigam give an insight into the importance of a diversity and inclusion policy for Indian law firms.