New Zealand Law Society - Gary McDiarmid outlines Russell McVeagh's Cultural Diversity project

Gary McDiarmid outlines Russell McVeagh's Cultural Diversity project

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Gary McDiarmid
Gary McDiarmid

Corporate law firm Russell McVeagh embarked on its Diversity Project two years ago. While the initial focus was on gender diversity, the project has now been extended to cultural and rainbow diversity. Russell McVeagh CEO Gary McDiarmid looks at what has been achieved so far and where the project is heading.

What positive changes did you see internally and externally as a result of your gender diversity project and what compelled Russell McVeagh to extend it to cultural diversity?

"It was the logical next step. We have received great feedback on our new initiatives such as equal pay and gender pay equity reporting, increased opportunities for flexible working, new training and support for those returning from maternity leave, 'Catch up time', smartphone allowance for those who wish to have access to emails on their phones (73% of employees), and an emergency nanny service, for example.

"The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion." 

"We have had quantifiable success, with a 24% increase on our staff engagement scores, and of the last 10 partners admitted, 60% have been women.

"In mid 2015, we received feedback from a lecturer at one of the law schools that Māori and Pasifika students were 'self selecting out of the recruitment process' for our summer internship and graduate roles. It seemed there were a lot of assumptions made by these students, about what working for a commercial law firm such as ours meant, both from a work and a cultural perspective.

"This feedback was disappointing for us. We want the best people working for us and to ensure there are no barriers, perceived or otherwise, standing in the way of that happening. This difference between external and internal perceptions, showed a gap between how we and our employees perceived our firm and what working here is like and how students, our potential future workforce, viewed it – a big issue for us.

"We needed to de-mystify what a commercial law firm is about for this group of students, to ensure that the way they viewed our firm matched up with the reality both in terms of what working for us is like and the type of work that we do."

In what specific ways have you found your clients to benefit from working with legal advisors who are focused on improving gender and cultural diversity in their workplace?

"Clients are increasingly seeing diversity initiatives as one of the reasons they want to work with us. Not only are we seeing the benefits of our diversity agenda having a positive impact on internal firm culture and our people, but externally, our positioning and initiatives are helping us to stand out from the crowd in a competitive marketplace for both work and talent

"It feels good doing the right thing – and it makes good business sense.

"We see ourselves as the best in the business so we want the best staff – and this is what attracts our clients to want to work with us."

From your point of view as a CEO, what value do you see in clients 'connecting' with their lawyers on a cultural level?

"There is growing awareness of the value of diversity and how it can be leveraged for growth and innovation – anticipating demographic changes, and meeting the growing expectations of clients, staff and communities in which we live and work. The extent to which our firm benefits from diversity depends on the extent to which we create an inclusive culture.

"When employees see that the firm is committed to and supportive of diversity – and they feel included – people bring their whole selves to work, and this results in positive, functioning and engaged employees at all levels of the business.

"Our clients are a diverse mix of people, and we want our firm to align with that variety of culture. People are naturally drawn to those of similar backgrounds, culture and beliefs, that's human nature. To align ourselves with our clients on a cultural level builds trust, builds relationships, and gains repeat business."

As part of your cultural diversity project, Russell McVeagh has worked closely with the Māori and Pacific Islands Students' Associations. What have been some of the areas of focus and how has this affected the interest of law graduates in legal roles at Russell McVeagh?

"As part of our overall diversity plan we have been focusing on breaking down the perceived barriers for Māori and Pasifika students to come through as summer clerks and graduates. During the application period for university recruitment, we delivered workshops through the Māori and Pasifika law students associations at each of the universities. The most active discussion was around why Māori and Pasifika students would or wouldn't want to practice commercial law, and this is where there were many misconceptions.

"Since 2003, Russell McVeagh has offered a Māori law scholarship with varying degrees of success. As part of our overall stock take of diversity initiatives, we have reviewed this scholarship offering to figure out how to best target and support Māori students. This year, we started a partnership with Tuputoa, a Māori and Pasifika corporate pathways programme, to introduce a Māori and Pasifika specific internship opportunity as a more effective way of supporting Māori and Pasifika talent.

"In July 2016 we sponsored the Pasifika Law and Cultural Conference held at Victoria University. This conference aims to increase understanding of Pasifika legal issues and strengthen relationships between Pasifika students and legal scholars.

"Internally, a range of cultural awareness seminars have been run for all our staff including graduates. These were run through Arapai with Sir Pita Sharples and Dominic Wilson with the key aim to increase awareness and education.

"We are starting to see some results. At university recruitment time this year, the numbers of Māori applicants remained stable and our number of Pasifika applications increased by 42%. The key difference we have seen is that people are talking about their cultural involvement much more in their applications, as opposed to just 'ticking the box', and applications were of a higher quality."

At the same time, you have held unconscious bias training for partners and recruitment teams to ensure that you recruit a diverse workforce. In your experience generally what are some of the most common biases people have, and, what has been the most effective way of overcoming that?

"Conscious bias is much easier to deal with than unconscious bias, because the individual themselves is generally aware of their bias and seeks to moderate their own behaviours. With unconscious bias, the individual is unaware that they have certain inbuilt preferences and also unaware of how these preferences influence their decision making.

"Unconscious bias can result in a range of negative workplace behaviours, which can take place either on an individual level or in a group context, especially where there is one dominant group.

"The first step is awareness. Once that you have realised that you may be impacted by biases, then step back and evaluate how they may be impacting your decisions. When participating in experiential learning sessions, it really does open your eyes to your environment, the people around you, and just how unconscious your own bias can be."

Has the number of Māori and Pacific Island lawyers working at Russell McVeagh increased over time? 

"We have definitely seen more graduates and summer clerks who affiliate with either Māori or Pasifika cultures, however it is difficult to formally track these figures. For example, an individual's appearance is not necessarily a reflection of their culture or ethnicity – it's not that simple.

"Our goal is to maintain a workplace environment where people can confidently express their culture and ethnicity, if they choose to do so."

What has the response been from your clients and other law firms to this project?

"The immediate positive impact of our initiatives has been seen within the student population and, although this isn't technically clients or other law firm evidence as such, my general observations are that we all have a lot more we can do."

What long term goals do Russell McVeagh hope to achieve as part of the Diversity Project?

"We have a long way to go but the partnership and senior management teams are all committed to our Diversity Project. We have implemented a formal quarterly reporting regime to report to the Board, to track the initiatives we have committed to, and whether they are working. Our recent employee engagement survey has been a real indicator of how far the firm has come, and we encourage open feedback to ensure we are continually improving."

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

"The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.

"Thomas Berry (an American Ecotheologian) once said, 'Diversity is the magic. It is the first manifestation, the first beginning of the differentiation of a thing and of simple identity. The greater the diversity, the greater the perfection'."

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