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From the president: Diversity in practice

From the president: Diversity in practice

By Sam Pandya

Diversity Professional Reputation 

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Collecting data is a crucial first step in understanding what the profession looks like.

We all know that diversity in the legal profession is a good thing. Every reputable workplace study shows that a more diverse workforce increases productivity, improves staff morale and (if you are more commercially focused) boosts the bottom line. Having people from diverse backgrounds within an organisation creates diversity of thinking and views and leads to better decision-making. It sounds simple – for instance, businesses with Asian clients will be more attuned to the needs of their clients, more responsive and therefore more profitable if they have a culturally diverse workforce with lawyers from those ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

So why isn’t the legal profession more diverse? Well, some would argue it already is – we now have more women than men in the profession, we appear to have an abundance of law graduates and junior lawyers from culturally diverse backgrounds, and as one practitioner put it to me recently, his firm has more staff from culturally diverse backgrounds than not.

So what’s the problem? Why do we keep talking about this? Because the diversity tends to be predominantly at the lower levels: the trainees, junior lawyers and employees, often not at partner level or in leadership roles in firms or the profession. It is diversity at the partner and leadership level that brings substantial impacts and measurable benefits of diversity of thinking, innovation, creativity and higher quality decision-making, the kind of embedded cultural diversity that has the most positive impact on business, our profession and our community and taps into endless opportunities for the profession both domestically, across our region and globally.

The Victorian community is richly diverse. We should be proud of our vibrant multicultural society and all that comes with it (not just the food culture, but the rich cultural histories and insights, traditions and ways of living), and should ensure it is reflected in the legal profession at all levels. The 2016 census showed more than 28 per cent of Victorians were born overseas, with one of the fastest-growing cultural groups being people with Indian heritage, followed by those with Chinese heritage. For the community to have confidence in our profession and legal system more broadly, it should reflect the community in which we live. My sense from conversations with a cross-section of the profession is that we are generally supportive of diversity as an aspiration, and we want to see change, but we are not sure how to achieve it.

An important aspect of achieving change is to first understand the current cultural and ethnic composition of our profession. You would expect that there must be some baseline data collected over years to give us an idea of the cultural or ethnic makeup of practising lawyers in Victoria. Unfortunately, there is little to none. Currently, there is no uniform data either at state level or nationally that provides this information about the legal profession. This has led me on a journey over the last two years to work with the Law Council of Australia (LCA) through its Equal Opportunity Committee, to introduce national initiatives to collect cultural diversity data, so watch this space on this initiative. Collecting data is a crucial first step in understanding what our profession looks like so that we can provide opportunities for all lawyers to achieve their full potential and for our profession and the community to truly benefit from the positive impacts and untapped opportunities of cultural and ethnic diversity in the 21st century.

My recent attendance at the state memorial service of the late state Premier and former LIV president John Cain made me reflect on his significant work in the area of diversity. Under his stewardship, he abolished the line for women at Flemington racecourse and other sports clubs. He saw to it that women were admitted as full members of the Melbourne Cricket Club. More women were appointed to Cabinet, anti-discrimination legislation was introduced and the Victorian Women’s Trust was established. These are important achievements in the advancement of diversity. As Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said, John Cain blazed a trail in achieving full equality of women in Victorian society that was rare for the time and continues today. We continue his work towards equality and diversity in this great state of Victoria. ■

Sam Pandya

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