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  • The Law Society has launched its Cultural Diversity Guidance.
  • The Guidance is focused on creating an environment where every person, regardless of background, has opportunity to reach their professional potential.
  • A diverse and inclusive culture improves the performance of your legal practice.

While cultural diversity has been the subject of discussion over the years, there is still more work to be done to promote culturally diverse participation in the legal workplace.

According to the most recent Law Society data, the number of practising NSW solicitors who were born overseas has increased from 22.5% in 2001 to 28% in 2020. This is lower than the general NSW population with the 2016 Australian census showing that 35% of all people living in NSW were born overseas.

As a response to ensure cultural diversity in the legal workplace, in 2017 the Law Society published Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession: The Business Case. It explained that having a diverse and inclusive workplace makes good business sense in terms of attracting the highest calibre candidates and improving the overall performance of an organisation.

The Cultural Diversity Guidance

Fast forward to October 2021, the Law Society launched its first Cultural Diversity Guidance (‘Guidance’). The Guidance outlines a range of measures legal practices can take to become more culturally diverse and inclusive. These include:

  • Commit to cultural diversity
  • Measure cultural diversity
  • Recruit widely and reduce barriers to entry
  • Brief widely and look for opportunities to support cultural diversity in the wider community
  • Develop an inclusive culture
  • Evaluate measures.

These measures aim to ensure that commitment to cultural diversity forms part of the fabric of legal workplaces –  from its strategies, policies and employment procedures to the inclusiveness of its culture.

The Guidance emphasises the importance of measuring diversity and staying accountable. This can be achieved by a legal practice collecting information on an employee’s cultural background/s, language/s spoken at home, religion, country of birth etc. In this respect, it cites the latest reports and best practice recommendations from publications such as Counting Culture: Towards a Standardised Approach to Measuring and Reporting on Workforce Cultural Diversity in Australia (2021) by the Diversity Council of Australia, and the Australian Human Right Commission’s Workplace Cultural Diversity Tool. Both tools can be used to measure the diversity and inclusiveness of a workplace and lay the groundwork for promotion of a culturally diverse workforce.

A legal practice with a culturally diverse DNA not only seeks to attract and promote a diverse workforce but commits to briefing culturally diverse barristers and engaging with external organisations that also value cultural diversity. Such practices are beneficial to both the legal practice and its clients, who rely on innovative solutions that often require a cross-cultural perspective.

Cultural diversity in a post-COVID world

COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for legal practices to think differently about the ways in which they engage with their workforce. Remote working enhances the prospects of legal practices recruitment through accessing a wider pool of talent that is not confined to candidates who live near the office location. In tapping into a more diverse and remotely working workforce, legal practices must find ways to build a strong bond of trust with their employees regardless of where they are based.

Gone are the days when behaviours, good or bad, were observable within an office environment. It has become increasingly important to identify and address behaviours in a remote work setting that may lead to employees feeling marginalised or unsupported. It is equally important to foster and celebrate desired behaviours that promote an inclusive work environment when the workforce becomes more geographically dispersed.

The Guidance will hopefully act as a prompt to legal workplaces as to how they can take steps to implement cultural diversity. Such a commitment is not simply an ‘optional extra’ but part of engaging meaningfully with clients and the wider Australian and international communities whom lawyers serve.

Iona Luke is Deputy Chair of the Law Society of NSW Diversity & Inclusion Committee.