Diversity in IP law

hug a lawyerAsk the public whether they like and trust lawyers in general, and the answer may be distressingly negative. Ask them about a lawyer they have used, and the answer tends to be more favourable.

The same contrast is found in other areas. The current debate in the UK about ‘Brexit’ has a strong focus on immigration. Ask (some) people about immigration in general, and the answer may be very negative. Ask them about the Romanian tradesmen who did an excellent job tiling their bathroom recently, and the answer may be much more positive.

Since he became the chairman of a Law Society committee, IP Draughts has become more conscious of the Society’s approach to diversity. It is difficult to object to the general principle that the legal professions should encourage diversity in their membership and leadership. This theme resonates with the principles of fairness and meritocracy that our profession is likely to support.

And to the extent we are concerned with trends at the macro-level, such as the recruitment practices of major firms that employ thousands of people, we can encourage more diversity and learn from the statistics whether this encouragement is bearing fruit. In IP Draughts’ view, the efforts of the Law Society and of CIPA in this area should be commended.

At the personal level, though, the merits of a strong focus on diversity are not always so obvious. English firms of solicitors are required to report their diversity data to their regulator, and publish the results. For instance, Anderson Law LLP’s most recent data can be found on our website here. It so happens that we have people from a variety of backgrounds. But some might say that in a firm as small as ours, the data is not useful. It is affected too much by who were the candidates for employment in a particular year, and who met our requirements. In even smaller firms (and much of the English solicitors’ profession is made up of small firms) this is true with knobs on.

whiskasSimilar thoughts were prompted by our recent recruitment exercise for new members of the IP Law Committee of the Law Society. Following open advertising of the vacancies, we received 6 applications. IP Draughts has no official data on the candidates’ backgrounds, but the vast majority were male, and the vast majority would probably classify themselves as White British. How far should a diversity agenda influence the Law Society’s choice? How far can it, when the candidates mostly come from particular categories? Should the questions asked of interviewees be designed to bring out their attitudes to diversity, as a substitute for actual diversity, or is this a ridiculous way of selecting people for a committee of technical experts?

Sometimes, it seems that the diversity agenda has so much momentum in organisations that to question its relevance to a situation is to put oneself beyond the pale (and no, that is not a reference to skin colour).

Gender and race are, in some respects, easier to determine than other, well-known diversity categories. Educational background is a particularly knotty one. Some would say that the virtual extinction of selective grammar schools in the UK a generation or two ago, done in the name of equality, has resulted in the legal profession becoming less diverse in recent years.

One aspect of diversity that we are required to report on is whether our lawyers were the first generation in their families to go to university. But what of the lawyers who tick this box but (as in the case of IP Draughts) their parents saw fit to save hard-earned money to send them to a fee-paying school to improve their chances in life? Are they good or bad from a diversity perspective?

numbersIf we focus resources on the extreme cases – the bright kid with hopeless parents who needs a huge amount of help – we may end up achieving less in the name of diversity than if we make incremental improvements that benefit those who are a few rungs higher up the ladder of opportunity and whose families support them. Or is that taking too quantitative an approach, despite the diversity industry’s apparent interest in statistics?

Yes, the legal professions, and the IP professions, need to keep improving on diversity. But we also need to be brave enough to object when a heavy, bureacratic approach is taken that focuses on process and being seen to do the right thing, rather than gently encouraging best practice.







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