19:22, February 22 731 0

2017-02-22 19:22:14
Law firms off the hook for now amid Aviva diversity campaign

Aviva attracted national attention last weekend when it revealed it had threatened to terminate contracts with suppliers that fail to promote women to senior roles.

Sarah Morris, chief people officer at the insurer, told the Sunday Times that publicly backing women’s initiatives would give the company a “competitive edge”.

The warning contained in the letter – sent to a number of subcontractors including recruitment firms, catering suppliers and specialist suppliers of insurance services – was aimed at companies that have failed to sign up to gender equality initiatives such as the 30% Club and the Women in Finance charter, which was drawn up by Virgin Money boss Jayne-Anne Gadhia.

But Aviva is not taking its law firms to task on the issue. When asked by The Lawyer if Aviva’s new, stronger stance on gender diversity could impact Aviva’s relationship with its panel firms – many of which fall far short of general diversity targets in the City – a spokesperson said it would not.

The spokesperson said there will be “no impact to legal firms”.

But Aviva UK Life general counsel and company secretary Monica Risam has spoken out repeatedly about the issue of diversity in law, and claimed Aviva has considered diversity as a key issue during panel reviews.

“When we go to external firms we want to work with partners who reflect our values. When we looked at our panel in 2013, one of the things we looked at was the statistics around diversity and inclusion,” Risam told The Lawyer.

“We had a transaction that we considering sending out to one of two firms, both of which were excellent magic circle firms, and quite competitive in terms of price with the right level of expertise.

“The one differentiating factor for us was that one team provided a more diverse deal group than the other firm.”

During her early career as an associate at Weil Gotshal & Manges, Risam says that gender diversity was not discussed and debated with anywhere near the same “progressive approach” seen among law firms today.

“Ultimately the most important thing is to be excellent at what you do and be a great lawyer, but the reality is that diversity and the perspectives that different people bring can make you richer as a result,” Risam said.

Risam cites Sarah Day’s election to UK head of corporate at DLA Piper as a good example of “senior women taking senior leadership positions”.

But when it comes to Aviva’s own relationship with panel firms, Risam says “we don’t apply quotas because ultimately we pick firms that are the best suited to our needs”, although she adds: “But we always do consider diversity and inclusion prioritisation in that process”.

“I see a lot of firms being progressive about flexible working and all the things that are helpful to allow very talented people to stay in the workforce,” she says. “But I also hear stories from friends of mine who say it is still the same old establishment culture behind the scenes.”

Risam uses an example of a lawyer friend who faces criticism for working from home two days a week.

“The partners tend to think if she’s not in the office then she’s not really working, which is quite horrifying.”

When asked about Aviva’s future panel decisions, Risam said she’s positive about the company’s current choice in relation to diversity.

“We are happy with our panel and it was really pleasing to see all of our panel firms were on the Stonewall legal sector index,” she added.

The core firms on Aviva’s panel are DLA Piper, Allen & Overy, Linklaters, Latham & Watkins and Slaughter and May for London, European and Asia work, while Pinsent Masons advises on UK regional work.

Its an unescapable fact that those firms still have relatively low gender diversity scores compared to other businesses in the City.

Only one of the six firms on the panel has a partnership greater than 20 per cent female. Pinsent Masons has 21 per cent female partners, while Linklaters has 17 per cent. Latham and Watkins has 19 per cent female partners.

Each of these firms is understood to have committed to the 30% Club campaign ambition of a 30 per cent female partnership by 2030, although it is still not certain that all will achieve it.

Berwin Leighton Paisner managing partner Lisa Mayhew outlined how her firm is implementing its 2018 diversity strategy last year.

Since setting the target, BLP’s female partner contingent has climbed from 22 per cent to 25.8 per cent – well above the figures achieved by Aviva’s panel.

“Law firms have moved on a long way and there are some very positive role models coming up through the ranks, who will hopefully create a culture where things like diversity and flexible working are valued,” Rissam says.

But law firms that want to attract the best future talent will need to continue pushing towards those diversity targets and thinking carefully about their approaches to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Aviva may have taken the spotlight off law firms for now, but with a host of other UK businesses set to join Aviva’s position on diversity, firms cannot dawdle for long.