Representation or Appropriation: are Equality Initiatives Economically or Morally motivated?

Diversity and Inclusion are now considered key principles woven into the fabric of the ‘public good’. In the wake of the new civil rights movement, COVID-19, and Brexit, pre-existing wealth, health and racial inequalities have been exacerbated. Consequently, socially responsible practice has been cemented as a board-level issue for businesses, including law firms. But with all eyes on these large companies (including those of investors and clients), are their diversity initiatives morally or economically motivated?

The SRA’s 2018 publication titled ‘The business case for Diversity’ demonstrates the issue at hand. The publication highlights the clear value of having diverse foundations within the legal profession; the law cannot effectively serve the wider community if the wider community has not been reflected within the legal profession. Although underrepresented groups should not be considered a single-minded monolith, it seems fair to say that a person within an underrepresented group will have more understanding of the needs of that group, than those that lay outside of it. This is the importance of having a diverse and inclusive legal profession.

The publication also highlights the economic benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce: ‘a more diverse business is a more successful business. Diversity can ... support innovation and improve profitability.... many firms recognise that improving diversity gives them a real competitive advantage. And there is no doubt that more and more clients expect to see genuinely diverse teams supporting their needs’.

However, the economic benefits are not exclusively motivated by ‘diversity-of-thought’ arguments. We’ve all heard case upon case, business upon business, who have appropriated the LGBTQIA+ flag, who have recited civil rights ideas during business campaigns, yet who have failed to make substantial changes within their business operations. This ultimately oppressive appropriation can have a detrimental and delegitimising effect by reducing the impact of these progressive statements and ideas and is fundamentally disrespectful.

So why would law firms be economically motivated to adopt diversity initiatives? Well, as the business world has started to reflect the increased diversity and active inclusion of marginalised communities in (some) societies, clients of firms are more likely to be LGBTQIA+ or BAME people than ever before. The expectation from such clients is likely to be that the firm hired reflects who they are to some degree. Alternatively, as “External investment is increasingly common in the legal sector, and for all sizes of firm,” investors may expect something similar. With a rise in impact investment (which straddles the line between philanthropy, and traditional profit-driven investment) investors are thinking less about the bottom line, and more about the social ramifications of investing in particular businesses.

However, the presence of economic motivators for implementing diversity initiatives does not make those initiatives morally bankrupt. Firms that are making progressive changes, and can demonstrate a genuine operational commitment to D&I, rather than a façade to attract clients and investors, are serving marginalised groups as they should be. However, appreciating the economic benefits does not entail that moral motivations for an increase in D&I are not primary considerations. Perhaps a more measured understanding of diversity initiatives would suggest that you cannot separate the two. In the world of commercial law, economic considerations enter all avenues, however, this is not to say that economic considerations are mutually exclusive to moral considerations. It is when D&I is used to morally leverage clients and investors, through the appropriation of symbolism or narratives from marginalised groups without making operational changes, that we should show great concern. For nothing is more discriminatory than pretending not to be.

By Sonal Master

Director of Written Content.

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