#IPInclusive Week: The Many Colours of the Rainbow of Inclusivity
#IPInclusive Week 2019
[POST ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 15TH NOVEMBER 2019]
This year the 11th-17th of November marks #IPInclusive week – a yearly time of celebration and reflection on diversity within the field of IP.
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is something that Virtuoso Legal hold to be key to the unique capabilities and positive culture of the firm.
Whilst progress is being made year on year, the legal profession has a reputation for outdated attitudes and practices toward inclusivity.
Such attitudes do not reflect the world as it is today and are demonstrated to have an negative impact on the bottom line of any business.
Virtuoso Legal’s Colours
Virtuoso Legal was established by Liz Ward in 2007 and was initially an entirely female-led firm. This was at a time when female led-representation within the industry was entirely uncommon.
Whilst working at some of the bigger firms during my legal career it not only became abundantly clear that IP was not a priority – but more so that the legal profession at a senior level was not reflective of any level of equality or diversity and had failed to embrace everything that this offered.
To genuinely have the same values and outlook you need to look like the clients you serve. Anything else is simply sticking your head in the sand in relation to the world we’re living in today.
The way that I set up the firm was a reaction to this – and how we have sought to progress the firm since then follows this spirit. For that purpose, our ongoing aim is to be the most welcoming and reflective law firm in IP. Anything else is simply not good enough.”– Liz Ward, Principal
“It really was a remarkable undertaking at the time for Liz to break out on her own and establish Virtuoso Legal. But it was also a mission which I ‘got’ from day one and an opportunity to be involved in something special that I was not going to pass up.
The state of law at the time was simply not in any way reflective of the businesses and clients who needed help, and the veneer was definitely cracking on the idea that there was one way to do things and that lawyers only look and sound a certain way.
Whilst identifying this was initially commercially savvy, it quickly became clear that it was deeply important for IP law to get with the times. Across the sector we’re now seeing a lot of the fruits of this thinking – but there’s a lot more that can be done.”– Kirsten Toft, Vice Principal
From these principled origins, Virtuoso Legal has gone from strength to strength with the objective of bucking the trend and reflecting the modern world, firmly in mind. In today’s incarnation, this means LGBTQ+ representation at the very highest level within the firm, with director Philip Partington heading up our award-winning London Team.
“Things which aren’t obvious to others in the legal profession are abundantly clear to us at Virtuoso Legal – and have been for some time. Law is the great equaliser so it stands to reason that it should be even handed in how people of minority status are placed within the field.
As someone belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, navigating a lot of the antiquated thinking in the field can be a bit tiring… Simply put, for many; inclusion, equality and diversity is something that comes as a bit of a superficial effort and is not part of the DNA of the firm.
When Liz approached me to work at Virtuoso Legal in 2015 I was delighted to see an opportunity at a firm that did not view these issues in a cynical “lip-service” manner – but rather one that was built authentically to challenge and disrupt old ways of thinking that frankly do not serve anyone in 2019.
I delighted now to be in a position of responsibility within the firm where I am able to drive initiatives such as those that led me to call Virtuoso Legal my home, forward.”– Philip Partington, Director
Breaking Down Barriers
The effect of the top-down outlook has a material effect, in removing real barriers for the firm’s employees. It is one of industry’s worst kept secrets that upon graduating access to training contracts can be difficult. However, some experience greater difficulty than others, insofar as those from outside the EU also require Visa sponsorship in order to work for firms. Anecdotally, and commonly such a requirement can be seen to increase the difficulty international graduates experience when entering the field.
Now a senior solicitor with the firm, Lakmal Walawage works alongside Philip Partington in London.
“When I first began working at Virtuoso Legal, I had just applied to work at around 100 law firms, many of whom were (supposedly) committed to diversity and inclusion.
I was finding it difficult to lock down a training contract despite good interviews (I could not apply for paralegal positions due to immigration rules) and I soon realised that the odds were stacked up against me. Not only did I belong to the BAME community (which in 2015 had 11% representation in the solicitors’ profession), but I was also an immigrant who would need to be sponsored under a system that later generally came to be known as the “hostile environment” policy.
So, when I was given the chance by an organisation that was truly committed to levelling the playing field by recruiting purely on the basis of meritocracy, talent and attitude (regardless of immigration status) – I was shocked and pleased at the same time. That is what Virtuoso is, and this has given me the hope that we will see real diversity and inclusiveness in the profession and society. I am grateful to the firm for providing me with an equal opportunity, but that should be the standard for all in the industry.
I do not wish to underscore the socio-economic factors that have a bearing on representation within the industry, but perhaps these too are in improvement. The numbers are improving – in 2017 the SRA reported a drastic increase in BAME solicitors to around 20%. However, there is still progress to be made, as these numbers rarely translate to partnership level, where the real decision-making in the industry happens.
From a personal level, in the back of my mind I still often notice being the only person of colour in a meeting room or court room – but even here I am seeing progress. We still have some way to go to ensure true equality and celebration of diversity in society – but if more law firms can follow the example that Virtuoso has set from my experience so far, we are not too far away.”– Lakmal Walawage, Senior Solicitor
Looking Forward, Not Backward
Whilst progressive EDI can be seen to be woven into the DNA of Virtuoso Legal from the outset, it remains important to the firm to continue to seek improvement wherever possible, as it grows.
Such issues are rightly at the forefront of priorities within the emerging generations of talent that Virtuoso Legal are lucky to have amongst the team.
“The legal world has a reputation for being dominated by men. Indeed, this year marks 100 years since women were first permitted to practice law and the sector still has yet to see gender equality – for example only around 32% of judges in the courts are women.
On top of this, intellectual property is often linked to STEM and businesses where women are also statistically underrepresented. In the face of this, I am proud to be part of a firm and a wider IP community which promote inclusivity. At Virtuoso Legal, our policy on equality and diversity means that our differences, be they in terms of gender identity, nationality, race, age, ability, sexuality… are not just tolerated but celebrated.
There is always more we could do to make the field more inclusive. Remote and flexible working can be a useful strategy to maintain excellent work while upholding the well-being of the team and being supportive of our individual needs and priorities, and the firm embraces this.
Unconscious bias is a real challenge to overcome – part of being proactive about inclusivity means acknowledging that it can have real effects and taking steps to eliminate it.”– Ellie Wilson, Trainee Solicitor
#IPInclusive Week 2019
Looking to the past and, indeed. the future, it is clear that EDI is something that is of tremendous importance and that continued reform within the field of law can only be of benefit to all concerned.
The team at Virtuoso Legal implore those who have the capability to make such changes to commit to the same, as we ourselves look to continue to learn, understand and put into action meaningful policies.
As such, Virtuoso Legal are delighted to become signatories of the #IPInclusive charter, and commit to continuing to press EDI issues as we continue to grow.