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Diversity in professional services: Listening to what clients want

It is not often that a legal pitch makes the front pages of anything. So, when I first glanced at the article that announced that EasyJet had stranded potential law firm candidate firms in the Himalayas, my first thought was “gosh, that’s brave”. Of course, reading on past the headline, I discovered that this was only a virtual simulation. However, brave none the less.

At last, a company was willing to go beyond the usual requests for pages and pages of credentials and “miserable presentations” and swap it instead for voicemail challenges and a team exercise in the (virtual) Himalayas.

EasyJet’s Head of Legal Operations was at the time reported as saying:

“if you want law firms to change, we have to change how we do it. It is us using our leverage as clients to say that this needs to be different”.

The difference EasyJet was looking for was O-Shaped. The O-Shaped lawyer is a movement that another GC, Dan Kayne, has spearheaded. The movement aims to promote non-technical skills that are so often lacking in lawyers, but which are so central to the relationship with GCs. The need for emotional intelligence and soft skills is not new: the T-shaped lawyer concept also advocated these. What is different now perhaps is an impatience on the part of clients for professional services firms to deliver.

Diversity & inclusion: clients want more than just words

It is not just in the ambit of soft-skills and emotional intelligence where clients are demanding change. Another important area where clients are laying down the gauntlet is in the field of diversity & inclusion. However, this too is not new.

For many years GCs have asked firms to demonstrate their diversity credentials and have been part of initiatives to spotlight the importance of diversity and inclusion in the profession. The difference in the last year is perhaps the sense of impatience that has started to set in and the real need to get things done.

BT announced early on in 2020 that they would automatically reappoint the firm that demonstrated the biggest commitment to diversity and inclusion over the period of their appointment. The Global General Counsel of Coca-Cola in an open letter in February 2021 wrote that:

The hard truth is that our profession is not treating the issue of diversity and inclusion as a business imperative.”

He went on to say:

“Quite simply, we are no longer interested in discussing motivations, programs or excuses for little to no progress – it’s results that we are demanding and will measure going forward.”

Behavioural change and cultural change take time and often require different motivational forces to make them happen. By pushing professional firms to focus on more than just the service they provide, clients are providing a powerful call to action. This can help to drive the transformation that is needed.

This call to action is not just happening in law. At the start of 2020, only 11 of the 3000 UK partners across the Big Four professional services firms were black. Statistics like these are reported and do not escape the notice of clients. Putting forward a non-diverse team just does not cut it anymore. The benefits diversity brings are both recognised and sought after.

Are professional services firms being unfairly targeted?

Professional Services firms might feel that they are being unfairly targeted. However, at the heart of all these calls to action is the notion of a partnership. A relationship. One client we spoke to said:

"It is about how we want the people we do business with to be: diverse; inclusive; fun; collaborative; and empathetic. This benefits the relationship and the advice given."

All of these calls to action, some of which are now gaining teeth, have followed years of repeat requests from clients. We always speak about the need to listen to clients. Active listening, on both sides, should generate action. It seems this has been lacking.

Clients are looking at ways to change too

A brilliant example of this is the Mindful Business Charter. This is a collaboration between clients and service providers. It’s about recognising the impact that client demands can have on the wellbeing and stress of lawyers. It’s about having an open dialogue.

If in-house lawyers care about the wellbeing of their teams (both their internal teams, but also their external ones) they have a part to play in ensuring they are mindful of how this can be achieved. It is recognising that their demands can play a part in the problem. Wanting to have your external lawyers free from stress doesn’t happen if demands are made late on a Friday night.

Perhaps, professional services firms should be more demanding of their clients too?

The biggest unspoken need for change?

It has been argued that the lack of female talent at the highest levels in professional services firms is being perpetuated by a work/family narrative within firms.

The argument goes, that by diverting attention from the real issue, the long work hours culture, the wrong solutions are advanced. By focusing on the work/family narrative, women are offered ways to manage it (such as going part time or internally facing roles), men in turn ignore the impact it has on them. The culture of long hours continues, affecting both men and women. However, women pay higher professional costs as a result.

As aforementioned, this core problem (demanding employees are always available) is starting to be recognised and discussed in the context of wellbeing. Facing it head on might reap rewards beyond the wellbeing issue which it is trying to tackle.

Covid-19 has given firms the opportunity to do things differently. New ways of working and increased flexibility have been a necessity; however, many firms are now looking at how to leverage these benefits going forward. A shift or change in the long working hours culture could have extreme results.

What can professional services firms do to put themselves on the front foot?

Listen. Really listen. Understand what is needed and act. Action might be needed on both sides, and those conversations are ones that clients are open to having.

Be inquisitive. Companies are tackling these big societal and industry issues themselves. They are reaching out on some of them because they themselves are feeling pressure from stakeholders. For many, it is at the heart of what drives them. Whether it be the initiatives that BT are involved in to get more women in STEM, or the initiatives that they and others have to increase diversity and inclusion, or the focus that some companies have on sustainability, there is a real opportunity to be part of something bigger and to partner with clients in a completely new way.

We can build better cultures in law, in consulting, in accounting. At Client Talk we are excited to be part of it. If you would like to find out how we can help you meet the demands for change: whether that be through training or coaching programmes; or through our support on diversity initiatives; or, just a plain old chat over a coffee and a slice of cake, get in touch. We would love to hear from you.



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