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Retention and progress key areas for diversity and inclusion improvement – DIFF

  • 18/06/2024
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Retention and progress key areas for diversity and inclusion improvement – DIFF
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives to get diverse talent in at the early stage have been “fantastic”, but more work needs to be done on retention and progression, an expert has said.

Speaking at an event as part of the Diversity and Inclusivity Finance Forum (DIFF), Julian Richard, managing director of Extense – a legal sector specialist in inclusion consultancy, D&I training and headhunting – said: “There’s been some fantastic work being put forth at the early talent stage to diversify the early talent pipeline in professional services and financial services. But actually, the retention and progression to senior levels is where perhaps the work that needs to be done is most pressing.”

He said that he recognised that D&I fatigue stemmed from the “sometimes glacial pace of change” and “not everybody is as engaged as they were a few years ago”.

Richard said that the way it approached D&I with law firms was to recognise that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) was a “performance prerogative”.

“When I’m saying performance prerogative, I’m talking about effective diversity, effective equity, effective inclusion – to me, [that] means value creation, and applied correctly, certainly law firms we work with, that means leveraging the people impact on revenue for your organisation.

“Essentially talking about getting the best talent, best people, accessing the brilliance of difference, not lowering the bar, but actually widening the gates, ensuring that you’re making the most of the talent that we are bringing to our organisation,” he added.

Richard said that the “mere presence of diversity doesn’t automatically lead to improved organisational performance”.

He explained: “That sort of ‘add diversity and stir’ is a bit of an oversimplification. We know that diverse teams that are not led and managed well and inclusively, they underperform even the worst performing homogenous teams.”

Line managers need training to manage diverse and inclusive teams

Richard also co-authored the 1% study, which collated the experiences of partners at legal firms in the UK who are black. Figures estimate of the 13,404 partners in the UK, only 90 are black.

Key findings and actions from the report include supervisor-focused training, equitable support, work allocation bias intervention, formal sponsorship programme and DE&I accountability.

On the training side, he said that the “black talent flight-risk” was disproportionately related to line managers, and supervisor training on managing diverse teams would improve retention.

This kind of D&I training would cover cultural intelligence, cross-cultural sensitivity and vigilance to racial inequities, as well as viewing people’s differences as a “business benefit” as opposed to a “social inconvenience”.

He also noted that the “tone from the top” must be “owned by the middle”, so middle managers were integral to ensuring diverse teams are retained and thrive.

“You really have to help your life managers. You have to think about those who are senior managers or junior partners, they have largely gone through the ranks line managing quite homogenous groups of people, so to suddenly expect them to have that confidence… is quite a lot.”


Support and sponsorship key in D&I success

He added that equitable support was crucial for D&I, as intersectionality meant characteristics “combine and compound”.

Richard said that the 90 black partners had “exceptional brilliance and abnormal resilience” and that will not necessarily help the wider community. He added that “tailored, programmatic support” was essential.

Richard noted that Linklaters, which put in a target of 10% for training contracts accepted by black students in 2019/20, found that black students accepting training contracts went from 3% in 2018/19 to 7% in 2019/20 and to 11% in 2020/21.

Regarding formal sponsorship, he said that overcoming “affinity bias” and the “proximity gap” was key.

“Black talent in most major law firms find it more challenging to build strategic relationships through informal means with sponsors, so people who’ve got the highest amount of political capital within the organisation.”

He said that this created an “opportunity cycle” where black colleagues and other minority groups were less likely to make “authentic connections” and then get better work opportunities than their white counterparts, and this cycle repeated.

“We need to go beyond reverse mentoring and reciprocal mentoring programmes and actually have an accountability link to those in a practice group and underrepresented talent who enter these practice groups and say, ‘Look, we’re going to be assigned as part of your role as a senior to ensure the success of this individual’”, Richard said.

Richard said that before formal sponsorship was introduced at Cadwalader in 2013, only 6% of internal partner promotions between 2009 and 2012 were from “underrepresented talent”. From 2016, this has jumped to 51%.

He said that work allocation bias intervention was crucial, which is when work was being allocated more widely.

He explained that which cases and clients people got to work with was one of the “biggest and most important determinants of progression within that organisation”.

“Equality of access to the most important matters, the most high-profile matters, the most revenue-generated matters, that was distorted. That is access to a consistent flow of high-quality work, high-profile market client work, stretch assignments like secondments and learning development.”

“Non-promotable work” like writing notes from meetings, onboarding employees and so on fell disproportionately on representative talent, which also was a contributing factor in a lack of progression.

This has a “cyclical compounding effect”, even when they have left the organisation, Richard said.

As an example, a major law firm whose ethnic minority associates worked on key clients’ files had a 6.4% attrition rate over three years. Those who did not have this access had a 14.8% attrition rate.

Finally, he said making D&I accountable within the firm as sometimes it can come down to a “perceived lack of personal benefit” or “time constraints”.

Richard said it was crucial that executives be able to answer three questions about: “Why is it important to you? Why is it important to your business unit and your function? Why is it important to your organisation?

“That’s absolutely critical, because if someone can crystallise, then you don’t need to motivate them. They’ve already established what’s in it for them,” he noted.


The DIFF is a network that aims to discuss and promote key ideas and activities to create a more balanced and fair mortgage industry.


If you would like to become a member, please get in touch with for more details.

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