Looking for the Gems: Overcoming Bias in Law Firm Recruitment

In early January, London-based global mega-firm Clifford Chance LLP made headlines when The Independent reported that the firm had “quietly introduced a ‘CV blind policy’ for final interviews with all would-be recruits.” According to the report, “staff conducting the interviews are no longer given any information about which university candidates attended, or whether they come from state or independent schools.” The reported aim of the change in practice was to “neutralize” bias towards candidates from elite English universities like Oxford and Cambridge. An anonymous senior employee was quoted in The Independent’s story, saying, “We’re looking for the gems and they’re not all in the jeweller’s shop.”

The article in The Independent suggests that the policy change has been remarkably successful in its first year of operation: the firm saw a 30% increase in the number of educational institutions from which its recruits hailed. An editorial in The Independent lauded the policy as a move “in the right direction” for “greater social mobility.” The website Lawyer2B has credited the “CV blind policy”, along with other changes to Clifford Chance’s recruitment process, with tripling the firm’s intake of black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi candidates in two years.

At first blush, this story might seem to bear little relevance to entry-level hiring among Canadian law firms. The controversial history of elitism with “Oxbridge” admissions doesn’t find an easy comparator among Canadian universities. As a general matter, large Canadian law firms appear to draw from a diversity of Canadian law schools when it comes to staffing their (often multi-provincial) offices.

The broader issue of hiring bias and what to do about it is, however, something that the Canadian legal profession ought to take seriously. The October 2012 Final Report of the LSUC Articling Taskforce received “numerous submissions” from equality-seeking groups who, among other things, expressed concerns that their members may be disproportionately represented among those unable to find articling positions and proportionately less represented among those who obtain articling positions in large firms. The same year, the Law Society of British Columbia’s report, Towards a More Representative Legal Profession: Better practices, better workplaces, better results, highlighted the chronic underrepresentation of Aboriginal and visible minority lawyers in that province’s legal profession.

Although many Canadian law firms have begun to tackle issues of workplace diversity and hiring bias, one wonders if enough is being done to tackle this problem. Indeed, it is difficult to know exactly what is being done. Beyond largely promotional materials on firm websites, there doesn’t seem to be much detailed or candid information about what concrete steps Canadian law firms are taking to address the potential role of bias (both conscious and unconscious) in hiring decisions.

Engaging in fair and equitable hiring practices is an essential part of a law firm’s ethical infrastructure, just like conflict check systems and appropriate accounting policies. The types of measures that might be effective in tackling bias in hiring, however, are much less obvious to most lawyers than the tools to ensure meaningful conflicts or accounting systems. This makes it important for firms that have taken steps to reform hiring practices to share information about what they are doing and to report on what has and has not worked in combating bias in hiring. One might imagine a clearinghouse of best practices that could be developed. Small to medium size firms, who are unlikely to have the same resources as larger law firms to conduct research or hire consultants to assist with recruitment, especially stand to benefit from such a resource.

The “quiet introduction” of Clifford Chance’s new policy suggests that law firms are shy to share information about innovations in recruitment processes. The reports from Ontario and British Columbia mentioned above, however, suggest that timidity is no longer a defensible option. We appear to have significant problem. We need all hands on deck working to fix it.

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