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Five minutes with… John Watkins, employability director at The University of Law

John Watkins, employability director at The University of Law, shares his thoughts on the importance of diversity in the modern legal workplace.

How do you define diversity?

From an employability perspective, it is recognition that we are all different and that a variety of perspectives tends to be healthier and more productive than similar sets of views. It is clear, though, that employers have a wide variety of definitions to fit with their firm, agenda and needs so it is important to listen carefully to understand their particular angle. It is not simply about ethnicity, gender, disability and social background, but also a more stark assessment of the make-up of the workforce – including incorporating non-graduates into the resourcing mix in apprenticeship roles.

Why is diversity so important for the legal workplace?

There is a perception that the legal workplace isn’t diverse and therefore this needs to be addressed. In proclaiming a more positive message, the challenge is then to live up to this ambition and realise it.

Corporate brand is important and thus it is critical that firms/chambers respond to the challenges of taking their professions forward in a changing cultural environment with social, economic and political factors adding to the complexity.

At a more cynical level, the requirement to report on performance has elevated diversity to the top table. However, I think that there is an increasing acceptance that diversity in its broadest sense is not simply something that should be embraced but that by doing so there will be a greater degree of success.

What are the challenges facing employers to encourage diversity in their workforce?

It is not something that can be forced. Ultimately candidates and employees have choices and they will make decisions based on a variety of relevant factors. The focus on particular groups can sometimes isolate them rather than incorporate them into the mainstream.

It is a complex people management situation – one person regards ‘reaching the top’ as success, another values the ability to combine work with a role as parent/carer as more important. No amount of encouragement to push for promotion or to increase professional ambition will work for such a person but statistics may suggest that the employer is ‘failing’.

How is diversity currently being encouraged at law firms? What strategies are you seeing put in place to respond to diversity challenges?

Initially there were a spate of ‘access’ schemes which targeted those who might be considered as under-represented or less likely to succeed. These are gradually being subsumed into more mainstream recruitment processes to achieve the desired balance through a single mechanism. Some changes to the way in which recruitment campaigns have been run and then followed through have facilitated this – contextual recruitment is increasingly common.

I have been impressed with firms who have established groups to consider a multitude of current and future workplace challenges – the impact of SQE, resilience, mental health, diversity, sustainability – with recognition that it will take a diverse mix of people to respond effectively.

John Watkins is employability director at The University of Law.

Please note this is not TARGETjobs content and written by the employer.

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