It’s a significant achievement when a law firm gains a major award for gender diversity in the workplace, particularly when the culture of law firms has been a big talking point over the past year or so.
At June’s Women in Governance awards, Canterbury law firm Saunders Robinson Brown took home the Gender Diverse Organisation of the Year Award. They weren’t competing against law firms, but were up against many non-law or mainstream organisations.
Reviewing the workplace culture and creating strategies that celebrate equality is something many law firms have been working on over the past year, so being judged the best when it comes to gender diversity against other non-law organisations is somewhat of a milestone for the profession.
As Saunders Robinson Brown managing partner Anna Fox explains, law firms have been through a lot of negative publicity so this award should mean a lot to the profession, perhaps even serve as an inspirational message to others.
“We’re really proud. We’ve worked really hard on this. It’s one part of a journey we’ve been on for some time. Gender diversity is something you have to continue to work on and review. You don’t stop the work just because you’ve been recognised as a leader in this area,” she says.
What have they done?
Ms Fox credits the forward thinking of the founding law firm partners, Geoff Saunders, Lee Robinson and Bill Brown, saying that the result doesn’t happen overnight but is the product of a philosophy that has long been embedded in the firm.
As managing partner, Anna Fox worked alongside People Manager Nikki Harkerss on various initiatives that would enhance the workplace culture and equality. This included making changes that would optimise partner leadership with relation to gender equity.
“We don’t make it a barrier if a woman is a part-time employee. So, if they have a family and work, perhaps four days a week, partnership is still achievable. We’ve been clear in setting our guiding principles and our vision and one of the principles is a commitment to diversity in its wider sense. It’s not just about gender. It’s about diversity in a range of areas including background, ethnicity and religion,” she says.
Having someone to look up to that inspires an employee has many benefits including staff retention. Saunders Robinson Brown has implemented an initiative they call the Responsible Partner Programme.
Each person in the firm is assigned someone who will be responsible for their professional development and wellbeing, meaning they essentially have a mentor.
The programme was developed by Sean Larkan, principal of Edge International, which specialises in strategies for law firms of all sizes.
“So, people are professionally trained in positive leadership and coaching skills. They use those skills to help the person they are mentoring achieve their goals in relation to progression as a lawyer within the firm,” Anna Fox says.
She says if an employee is facing challenges at work, the Responsible Partner Programme is utilised to help them overcome or manage these challenges. It’s about being connected and forming relationships in the workplace.
“We also have a buddy system. This means each person will have a buddy who is at a similar level or stage in their career beside them, along with someone above them in seniority. So, if there was ever an abuse of position or power, then everyone has a number of avenues they can go down to address a situation such as workplace bullying,” she says.
Gender Equality Charter creating a set of commitments
The firm has found the Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter very helpful in meeting its goals and vision.
“It’s fantastic and we would encourage other law firms to also sign up,” says Anna Fox.
The strength in the Charter, she says, is that it creates a set of commitments that support the retention and advancement of women in law.
“Making these commitments creates a level of accountability. We’ve recently had the firm undergo unconscious bias training. Everyone was made aware of what it looks like, how it forms and exists.”
The firm hired a specialist who held a live seminar with all staff.
“That way within the workshop we could create small break-out groups and everyone could work through exercises. We made it personal and inclusive rather than watching a webinar.”
Diversity in a wider sense
While it might appear as if there has been a major focus on just the wellbeing of women in law at the firm, Ms Fox says that isn’t so as they’re addressing diversity in a wider sense, and men are also reaping the benefits of leadership development and mentoring through the Responsible Partner Programme.
“Flexible working arrangements, for example, are available to both men and women to balance professional, family and personal commitments. Generally, the initiatives that are introduced to address gender equality will always benefit the whole firm, not just one group of people,” she says.
Creating the cultural environment the firm has and winning a top award for gender diversity isn’t something that happens quickly. As Ms Fox explains, the founding partners of the firm have always had a focus on reward through merit.
“It’s never been about women or men or ethnicity here. It’s about creating conditions that allow people to be the best they can be. We are continually looking at ways to ensure that we reflect diversity in its wider sense. We will be reviewing our strategy in October as it has been two years since we started this journey,” she says.
Saunders Robinson Brown has offices in both Christchurch and Rangiora.