Bringing diversity to ‘the last bastions of white male-dominated business’

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Simpson Grierson, one of New Zealand’s leading commercial law firms, has over 330 employees in offices around the country.

At the recent NZAGE Awards, the firm was awarded in two categories: Best Graduate Recruitment Print Campaign in New Zealand, and Best Diversity Strategy.

But with hundreds of staff members based in various cities, how exactly has Simpson Grierson managed to create and maintain an award-winning diversity strategy?

According to Jo Copeland, the firm’s HR director, there are a number of industry-wide issues affecting diversity in the legal sector – both nationally and around the globe.

“For us, a lack of females at partnership level across entire legal industry remains an issue,” she told HRM.

“Flexibility is also a real issue for law firms; the legal industry is one of the last bastions of white male-dominated business.”

Copeland explained that because of this, firms are falling behind in terms of meeting client expectations.

“Clients are moving faster than firms,” she said.

“We had some General Counsels in here last week from multinational clients, who warned us – like they do all firms that they work with – that if we don’t have female partners, or make progress on diversity targets, that they won’t give us work.”

Copeland praised the industry’s leaders for taking a stand.

“Now the customer is speaking,” she told HRM. “All law firms are facing this – those at the top are taking a lead, and it’s great.”

Simpson Grierson’s strategy

When it comes to diversity initiatives at Simpson Grierson, there is a range of interweaving strategies in place.

“We look for specific people,” Copeland said.

“For example, we are always looking to increase the number of women in senior roles, as well as people with accessibility needs, Asian diversity, Maori and Pacifica peoples, and people from the LGBTI community.”

While diversity is an ongoing initiative at Simpson Grierson, it is also something that is heavily influenced by the firm’s annual influx of graduates.

“A picture says a thousand words,” Copeland told HRM.

“I was sent a picture of our 2012 graduates recently, and every single one of them was blonde and blue-eyed – but when we look at our most recent intake, we interviewed graduates from 11 nationalities and hired from six.”

The firm has also just hired a graduate who is legally blind.

“Our graduates are changing quite quickly at the bottom, and because we have such a big intake it really makes a visible difference,” Copeland added.

“We also do our best to ensure that in our smaller offices we are upping the numbers – so rather than having just one person from a minority background, we hire two or three, so that new hires are not just a ‘token’ on their own.”

The firm also has several initiatives in place around gender, which include “the usual business approaches” – but what makes Simpson Grierson stand out in the industry is that “most businesses focus on gender, and gender exclusively”.

Working with the LGBTI community

Copeland told HRM that Simpson Grierson has put “a huge amount of work into the LGBTI community”.

“We have been out there deliberately looking for and talking to people from the LGBTI community,” she explained.

“The most visible thing for us in this space is that we were the first organisation in New Zealand to become Rainbow Tick certified.”

While law firms are traditionally “very conservative”, this is not something Simpson Grierson wants to continue.

“We are currently working with the law school to help build its LGBTI community; we are partnering with them and mentoring students,” Copeland continued.

“Some businesses work on building ethnic diversity, but very few have moved onto including the accessibility and LGBTI communities – we strive to put ourselves out there.”

Diversity in New Zealand’s legal space

Copeland predicted that while New Zealand still has some catching up to do, its workforce is changing across all industries.

“I think generally the global players are better [in terms of diversity], but New Zealand has traditionally been quite an isolated island,” she said.

“If you work somewhere like Australia or the UK, the workforce is going to be more diverse; but the changing face of Auckland is seeing more openness and acceptance being brought into New Zealand.

“The nice thing is that the business community is getting behind diversity.”

Copeland noted that for the majority of Kiwi businesses, diversity is now a key agenda item at board level.

“We’ll have a very different looking workplace in 15 years’ time,” she speculated.

“People are no longer accepting the ‘time will change things’ argument – that’s just dead in the water.”

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