The Every Lawyer

Conversation with a diversity and inclusion leader

Episode Summary

Ray meets with Sacha de Klerk, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Canada, Norton Rose Fulbright. They talk inclusion initiatives, promoting diversity and the need for substantive data.

Episode Notes

Conversations With The President: Raising The Bar on Inclusion, Ep 7:

Ray meets with Sacha de Klerk, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Canada, Norton Rose Fulbright. They talk inclusion initiatives, promoting diversity and the need for substantive data.

Sacha has a degree from the IMM School of Marketing in South Africa. Nine years ago she joined Norton Rose Fulbright in London, where she led the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

She answers questions like: Are you dealing with the same problems at different levels, or different problems when it comes to many parts of the world ? What special insight into the problem does your homeland give you? What is the disconnect between hiring and promoting?

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Episode Transcription

Conversation with a diversity and inclusion leader

Voiceover: This is The Every Lawyer, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

Ray: Hello, and welcome to Conversations with the President, a podcast series about diversity in the legal profession. I'm Canadian Bar Association President, Ray Adlington. I'm a cisgendered white man who became a successful lawyer without having to face discrimination based upon my gender identity, race, sexual orientation or physical abilities.

This podcast is my way of learning about those who have to face these kind of obstacles, and maybe figuring out ways the CBA can help the profession move toward a more inclusive future. In this episode, I'll be speaking with the Head of Diversity and Inclusion in Canada for Norton Rose Fulbright, to find out what the global firm is doing to promote both diversity and inclusion within the ranks.

Sacha de Klerk has a degree from the IMM School of Marketing in South Africa. Nine years ago, she joined Norton Rose Fulbright in London, where she led the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In 2016, she moved to the firm’s Toronto office to do the same thing in Canada and Latin America. Welcome to the podcast, Sacha.

I suspect there’s a certain amount of eye rolling when I speak about diversity and inclusion, because the legal world was built by and for guys like me. Nonetheless, I'm troubled by the prospect of the status quo continuing and the impact that will have upon our legal profession’s ability to deliver value for our Canadian society. How did you become involved in working to improve the diversity and inclusion within our legal profession?

Sacha: So, Ray, I've been doing this work for around 10 years now, almost 10 years actually. I started doing this work in my firm based in London and was working primarily across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and then three years ago I came to Toronto to do the work here for my firm in Canada.

And it was really by chance that I fell into this work. I had been working in the HR space in a bank, and I got assigned a project to lead an initiative on diversity and inclusion for the bank. And it was work that really resonated with me, and not just the type of work but the purpose of the work and [the] journey to making a career out of it.

Ray: What special insights into diversity and inclusion problems do you believe your South African homeland provided you?

Sacha: Oh, Ray, that’s a hard question that one. So, I think having grown up at the tail end of the apartheid era and coming of age when some significant events were happening – the release of Nelson Mandela, the first free election, and just being part of the changing dialogue at that time in South Africa – has really motivated me to think a lot about equality and fairness. And those are themes that really carry throughout all my work even today.

Ray: Very good. I know that work has taken you to Europe, the Middle East, Asia as well as now Canada and Latin America. Have you seen similarities in the diversity and inclusion challenges in different parts of the world? Are they different problems? Or are they different levels of the same problem?

Sacha: You know Ray, I think people often ask me this question, and I'm also often surprised to hear there are more similarities than differences. I think at the heart of all barriers to achieving diversity and supporting diverse talent to thrive is inclusion and creating a culture that doesn’t force people to minimize their differences or expect people to fit in.

The barriers that women and minorities face to thriving are quite similar in that workplace culture. And the way that firms and organizations recruit, promote, and even in terms of what they value in each other in their everyday interactions have revolved around this majority male work environment.

So, to achieve success in the attraction and the retention and the advancement of women and people from diverse backgrounds, we need to reinvent some of the deeply-ingrained processes and habits in the workplace. I think that all around the world we are looking to do better with progressing women and people from diverse backgrounds, so the overarching goal across many countries is pretty similar. And we cannot really expect any different outcomes if we keep doing things in the same way. And this holds true whether we are in Canada or the Middle East or Europe or Asia or Africa.

The differences are in the details, though, the slight nuances in the type of diversity, and the differences in starting point for each region or country. So for example, Canada is considered to be a global leader in our approach to LGBTQ class inclusion. And our starting point and the type of work that we are doing now is quite different to the approach in, for example, Singapore, so there’s societal and legislated differences. And the goal might the same in terms of what we’re all trying to achieve. But the difference in the approach, that’s where you’ll probably see the variety.

Ray: And you’ve touched on the culture question, and that I think is one of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced within North American law organizations is the dominant culture being the white heteronormative where there are many golf events and there are firm hockey teams and baseball teams that develop those referral systems that exist within the firms. How are you working to try and shift that culture within Norton Rose Fulbright?

Sacha: So, I think that a change in culture is - it's really hard because it requires people to change behaviours that have been reinforced and validated many times over many years, and the way that things have been done in law firms. And it’s working and continues to work for many people. So, if law firms don’t reinvent themselves by tomorrow and change how we do everything tomorrow, our business is still going to be here tomorrow.

And change requires a burning platform, a reason, and not everybody feels that burning platform in the same way every day. So, as a diversity professional, part of my role is to light that fire, and to keep it lit and to keep it burning, to feed it, so that we keep moving the dial.

Ray: So that obviously means communicating with the partnership frequently. What do you find has resonated with those partners? And what hasn’t resonated quite as effectively? What’s fallen a little flatter?

Sacha: So, I believe that the cornerstone of all this work is to create this culture where diversity is part of all the decisions that we make of our people. So, everything from pitch teams to succession planning for client relationships, the type of business development activity firms pay for, recruitment, promotion, who gets allocated what type of work.

Now all of these decisions, this isn't going to happen organically, and it’s not going to come naturally to everybody to interrupt those behaviours and those processes. So, to do it effectively, there needs to be a level of accountability. And accountability can help to accelerate the full integration of making diversity part of decision making.

So, what does that look like? One might be, if we’re putting together a pitch team and someone says ‘This team is looking a little bit homogenous, is this the best group of people for this client? Should we cast the net a bit wider to showcase the talent that we have in our firm?’ And true success is, when the pitch team is diverse, everybody contributes to the pitch and, if the work is won, that the people from diverse backgrounds get to also do some of that work that flows from that client.

So, how do we ensure that people ask these challenging questions about the composition of a group, or ask a peer to clarify what they mean after an interview when they say ‘I don’t think someone will fit in’, or when someone defaults to their go-to associate time after time and that associate is very similar to themselves?

One of my favourite initiatives that I like to talk about that we implemented is auditing our partner promotion process for bias on the basis of gender. So, firms often run unconscious bias training and you know we all do it, but -

Ray: Yes, we all have to.

Sacha: - to make it stick you really need to integrate the learning in your decision making processes. So, for example, two years ago we decided to implement a process in our partnership application review to audit for gender bias. It was the brainchild of our managing partner, and we decided that all partner applications would be presented to our promotions committee on a gender-blind basis.

So, during the first assessment level, the promotions committee will score applicants without knowing their gender. And then during the next stage they have all the information. And at the end of the process we compare the scores from that first assessment to the final recommendations. And we also look at the differences in how men and women score female and male applicants.

So seeing or not seeing any differences in the scores is not actually the biggest impact this process has resulted in. It’s really knowing that decisions are being audited on the basis of gender that changes the conversation and the approach of decision makers, and creates an opportunity for them to ask themselves challenging questions, and also to challenge each other.

So, when this happens, I feel like we are really starting to move the dial. And this is what I aim for in all my work is to create those checks and balances to ensure that these conversations are happening. And this is how we start to shift culture.

Ray: Interesting. You had raised the concept of the unconscious bias training that I've certainly undertaken as well. And I think an element of that is education. And this is a theme that many of my previous guests have touched on is the desire to have people in my positions, in leadership positions within law organizations who are white, cisgendered men understand their lived experience. How have you sort of tried to translate that within Norton Rose Fulbright around this education around difference?

Sacha: So, like many law firms, we have rolled out unconscious bias training. We decided to create our own offering, something that was scaleable that we could take across all our offices. And in fact, the training that we’ve rolled out here in Canada is a version of what we’ve rolled out globally to all our people. And, in 2016, it was our objective for at least 50% of our firm to have completed this training. So we wanted to create a common language and a common understanding around some of these concepts.

And training is very important, but on its own training is not effective. It’s not effective in changing behaviours. People enjoy the experience, they learn something new, but they don’t often understand or see the link, or take that learning and integrate in their daily work, their decisions, their interactions.
Ray: So, what’s the next step?

Sacha: So, for us, the next step is creating those checks and balances and creating opportunities to audit. And I already mentioned the blind partnership process, but another example is we started to collect demographic information for students in the recruitment process. So, we ask students to give us their demographic information on a completely voluntary basis at the beginning of the process, so during the OCI stage, and then we ask them to provide it again at the in-firm interview stage.

And then, what we do is we look at that data to ensure that we are maintaining our ratios of diversity throughout the process. So, ideally, we look at what is the representation at law school. Are we achieving that level of representation in our OCIs? Are we achieving that same level of representation in our in-firms? And when we are making offers and having offers accepted, are we able to maintain those ratios?

And again, the biggest impact is not what those ratios are or seeing no difference or any difference in those ratios, it’s how it changes the conversation, how we start to see that our student committee, how they’re challenging each other on points that could be about bias, that they’re looking for that additional information, that they’re asking each other to explain, they’re holding each other accountable. And I think that’s when you start to see the impact of where unconscious bias training can have an effect and work.

Ray: Very good. So, it sounds like you’re doing your own data collection efforts. But I've noted in my own research that there is a lack of substantive data about the level of diversity within law firms in Canada. How does that lack of comparative data affect your work?

Sacha: So, I think that everyone who knows me knows that I'm a big supporter of leveraging the power of data. I talk about it often. And there’s this concept of what gets measured gets managed, and I certainly think that that’s true. So data creates a baseline. It creates a starting to point to set an objective of where you want to get to. And it can help you measure the effectiveness of your interventions and the journey to achieving those objectives.

And in the U.S. and in the UK and even Australia, law firm data is very readily available. So firms either publish it themselves or they have a variety of organizations that put benchmarks out there to show how firms are doing in comparison to each other.

And law firms are competitive places, and of course we all like to know what the others are doing. And we all want to be the best. And I think that data in the public domain can act as a catalyst for conversation and increasing dialogue at the very least. And it can also accelerate progress motivated by our competitiveness within the legal sector.

So, my firm decided to collect our demographic data ourselves, and we do it on a confidential but not anonymous basis. It is voluntary, so people can choose not to specify. But three years ago we also decided to publish it on our website. And we didn’t do it because it looks amazing. And, to be clear, it isn't amazing, but it is what it is. And we wanted to be transparent about where we are at and be accountable for the progress that we’re making.

And we are making progress. It’s slow. But law firms are actually great places to work in the D&I space because the progress is a real and tangible possibility. We’re in this really unique position where 50% of our pipeline are women, so other industries take…

Ray: More, more than 50%.

Sacha: More than 50%, yeah. And take in financial services and engineering; those sectors don’t have this kind of advantage. So our opportunity to make progress is really huge.

I think I would love to see more firms being transparent about their data. And I'm not talking about the broad aggregate data that we see for the profession. I think that seeing what our peers are doing and our closest competitors are doing will encourage a focus and help to accelerate progress and even just the dialogue on all these areas of diversity.

Ray: Yes, the interesting aspect about data collection is that it’s not as readily available from Canadian law firms as it is from UK law firms and U.S. law firms, as you’ve mentioned. Recently, our Women Lawyers Forum attempted to undertake a study of partner compensation within major law firms in Canada, looking to identify the extent to which a gender pay gap may exist as well as understanding some of the underlying variables.

And the roadblock that was presented was a lack of willingness of the firms to share that data, even on an anonymous basis, to third parties. How do you think we can progress to the point where Canadian law firms are more willing to share this data, so that we can understand the scope of the problem as well as brainstorm around possible solutions?

Sacha: I think that there are a few things there and I can offer my personal opinion. I certainly can't speak for firms as a whole. I think that for many people there’s still a hesitancy of sharing personal information. I think that that is a barrier to having a complete set of data.

I think also that there are a lot of assumptions perhaps that firms make, that people might not be willing to give this data when people may be more willing than they think. I have been pleased to see that the level of disclosure and the numbers in which people are disclosing data in our firm are increasing year on year, which shows that people’s comfort level with giving that data is increasing.

I think, as it comes to gender pay equity, it is baby steps. Industry across Canada don’t do a lot of reporting, certainly no publicly, on gender pay equity. I think countries like Australia and the UK, they are more advanced, in the UK especially where it’s legislated to publish your pay gap. And I think it will be an evolution. We might get there eventually, but it will be an evolution. And maybe there’ll be a few smaller steps in that direction before we get to a partner pay equity across the legal sector comparison.

Ray: How long has that legislation been in place in the UK?

Sacha: I don’t want to get it wrong but I think it’s a couple of years now. And it’s across all industries for workplaces bigger than a certain size that they have to publish their pay gap data according to a set [form] as set by the government.

Ray: So, still a little early to be assessing whether or not it’s made a material difference in the actual data around pay gap, yeah.

Sacha: Yeah, I think it’s probably a little bit early. But it is interesting to see how it changes the conversation in organizations. It comes back to that point about what gets measured gets managed. When you’re measuring something you’re going to pay much more attention to it as you make compensation and rewards decisions.

Ray: I want to go back to what you mentioned about pipeline of women entering the profession being more than 50%. It’s been that way now for approximately two decades in Canada. And there’s still that disconnect between the hiring of women and other diverse lawyers into our profession versus promoting women and other diverse lawyers into partnership and other leadership roles within our law organizations. Where do you see the disconnect between the hiring and the promotion?

Sacha: So, I think for many firms the foundations are already in place. So, firms have great policies. They have fantastic programs. And in order to really move the dial forward, and I think what is required, is for the profession to move forward as one in addressing institutional barriers and how we do things. So, things like how work is allocated, how we recognize and reward contributions, and even how the role of partner is structured so that it remains a role that people aspire to. And at the same time, it provides for the flexibility that people want and how they manage and integrate their work and home life.

So, I think that entry into the profession, as you pointed out, Ray, is not, it’s not an issue. It is the retention of women and people from diverse backgrounds, and ensuring that those individuals are able to thrive. And that’s not going to happen until there are some fundamental changes in how we do things.

Ray: Yes. One of my recent guests, Lorin MacDonald, is a lawyer with a profound hearing loss. And she mentioned the statistic that the vast majority of lawyers with sensory disabilities are practicing either in government or on their own as solo firms. And I suspect that one of the causes is the billable-hour model. Do you have any sort of suggestions as to what law organizations can do to be more welcoming for lawyers with physical disabilities?

Sacha: I think these are issues that all law firms are grappling with, the billable-hours model, the career structure, the role of the partner, and how work flows around the organization. And these impact, you know, not only gender and racialized diversity but also disability and LGBT inclusion also. And I think making progress in how we change these institutional measures and how we do things will provide benefits for all areas of diversity.

I think with disability in particular, and people with disabilities, there needs to be a greater openness in how we talk about people of different abilities. I think that examples that I can draw from from my prior experience in the UK where there has been years of work in encouraging people with disabilities into the law, one of the most successful things was creating opportunities for people to talk about their disability.

So, for example, we had a recruitment initiative that the government had endorsed and that organizations could sign up for the disability, two ticks. And as part of the two ticks commitment, you committed to offering a guaranteed interview to anyone who met the minimum requirements for the role and had a disability. And through that program we saw a huge increase in people with disabilities making applications to us, but also having open conversations with us about [unintelligible 00:22:38] and accommodations they required in order to be successful.

And in some cases it wasn’t easy for us. It was new territory. We didn’t know what we needed to change until we were in the position where we needed to change it. And it required lots of open conversation and dialogue and checking in with each other to make sure that we are meeting people’s requirements.

Ray: So, for the leaders of your organization and any other law organizations that may be listening, do you have any suggested reading that people can do to become more conversant with diversity and inclusion principles?

Sacha: I think it’s often hard to find the time to read a whole book. So, for law firm leaders who want to educate themselves, I think that great sources of thought leadership and information would be Harvard Business Review. They do a whole series on diversity and there are excellent articles highlighting excellent research. And Deloitte do a newsletter and a blog that is really great to subscribe to. And McKinsey releases reports on women on an annual basis. I think those make for some really excellent reading also.

Ray: Very good. Yes, I find the Harvard Business Review must-read series to be good airplane reading. So, hopefully people take up that advice.

Sacha: There’s also a really good podcast that Harvard Business Review do, and I'm happy to circulate a link to you, Ray, if you want to include it in the description to the podcast.

Ray: Please. We would absolutely do that. The Canada Bar Association mandate includes cultivating an inclusive, engaged professional community. So we, I believe, have a role to play in this area of promoting diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. What would your recommendations be about what the CBA can do as an organization that is for lawyers in Canada?

Sacha: I spoke earlier about the burning platform, and I think the CBA has a role to play in helping to feed that fire and to keep these issues very firmly on the table, and doing this by assisting in research, providing opportunities for people to learn, to add to the dialogue, to create opportunities around data. We talked about data and publishing data, so to help firms to publish their data. And to do so, I think that tools and process and practices and even toolkits are really important.

Not all firms have the resources or are large enough to have a specialist working in this space. So, the CBA can make a good contribution I think by offering people a toolkit or a methodology to follow to implement some of these things.

Ray: What can we all do to support new entrants into our law organizations who are women or who identify with another equality-seeking group?

Sacha: I think that it’s important to connect people from diverse backgrounds to help them build their support network as they come into firms. So, this could look like ensuring that they have the right mentor, and that those mentors are prepared and able to support them as women or as minorities or as coming from a diverse background.

And that doesn’t mean that they have to be diverse themselves. It just means that they’re able to have those conversations openly, that they can create a space for people to talk about the barriers that they’re experiencing, the experiences that they’re having, and to help them navigate those situations.
I think it’s important also to continue to challenge ourselves, to challenge how we make decisions about people who we involve in pitches, who we allocate work to. And finally, I think it’s really important to continue to be curious about people. So, if we have someone who has a different background to us that is joining or firm and working with us on a regular basis, to recognize that difference, to see that difference, to value it, and to build a relationship with that person, to ask questions about themselves.

And I think, through strong relationships, we build trust over time. And when we have trust, people have a sense of belonging. And that’s when people from diverse backgrounds and women are able to really thrive.

Ray: Very good. And how about transforming these new entrants into the next generation of leaders within our law organizations, so that our leadership truly reflects Canadian society?

Sacha: This is actually one of my favourite topics, Ray. I like to encourage ownership from our young students and our junior lawyers. I like to let them know they have an opportunity to make a contribution to the culture of the firm. And that the relationships that they build and the dynamic that they cultivate with their colleagues and their fellow students and fellow junior lawyers right now, that is the dynamic that they will be cultivating in the future and carrying through when they become the partners in the firm and the future leaders of the firm.

Ray: Excellent lesson. Yes, I hope they take heed and I hope others do as well. Well thank you very much, Sacha. This has been a very interesting conversation. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today.

Sacha: Thank you so much, Ray. It was great chatting to you.

Ray: Have you experienced discrimination or exclusion at school or at work because of your gender identity, race, religion, colour, class, sexual orientation or other cultural differences? Or, on the other hand, have you experienced inclusivity? We want to hear your stories.

You can reach us on Twitter at CBA_news, on Facebook or on Instagram at @Canadianbarassociation. You can hear this podcast and others on our CBA channel, The Every Lawyer, on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Stitcher, wherever you listen to your podcasts. Please subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes. And to hear us in French, tune into our Juriste branché channel.

Please listen for us next time when we’ll be talking to CBA members who have there, experienced that, and have stories to tell about it. Thanks for listening.

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