SPOTLIGHT: WPP's Group Chief Counsel Andrea Harris

Contributed by
Female lawyer
21 Oct 2019

Andrea Harris is Group Chief Counsel and Head of Sustainability at WPP PLC. WPP were a signatory to the open letter from European General Counsel which called on law firms to become more diverse. This letter was a counterpart to the earlier USA letter spearheaded by Turo’s Michelle Fang. For Andrea, the letter was wholly in line with WPP’s group values.

“I was very happy to sign,” Andrea says. “However I was keen that it wasn’t just limited to law firms. There is a wider issue, and we have to insist on diversity in barristers’ chambers, in-house, in the totality of the legal profession.”

Nor is concern about diversity limited to the subject of gender diversity. “We want to see diversity in all its forms in all of those legal environments. It’s close to our hearts here at WPP as we are sitting in a corporate environment which has diversity at its core.”

She sees diversity as critical to WPP’s commercial success. “We’re very alive to ensuring that we have the best talent and also how this talent takes this into the work that they produce.”

Female lawyer

Unfortunately, though, she doesn’t see the same commitment from some of the legal sector with which she works. “I do get the sense that law firms lag a bit behind, because of the partnership structure. Female associates I work with do struggle to progress in partnership structures.” This was one reason for her agreeing to sign the letter.

She takes other, more practical, action too. She sometimes goes to talk to firms about how she works in terms of flexible or what she calls “agile” working, in order to accommodate the different needs of the talent she wishes to retain.

In starker terms, she thinks that clients can drive change in the sector through who they choose to instruct or not instruct. “You have buying power. When you look at your law firm roster you decide who to instruct partly on diversity statistics.”

It’s also a supply chain issue. “Our clients look to us to fit the cultural requirements of their businesses. They ask for diversity statistics and gender gap reporting when instructing us, and I do the same when instructing law firms. It’s also part of our pitch to WPP’s clients, that the law firms and other suppliers we use will sign up to their code of conduct.”

She does see gaps, though, in the way diversity data is reported, and again this is due to the partnership structure. “A lot of firms publish diversity data, but partners not being ’employees’ do not fall within the dataset and whilst they may volunteer the information it’s a bit uncertain.”

It’s not enough just to rely upon the diversity data provided by firms. It’s important for Andrea to see diversity at the coalface. “I like to see diversity in the team that’s working for me, although of course they still have to be good lawyers.” She has been known to say, “No, I don’t want that team, I want another!”

Andrea keeps an eye on any good female lawyers who have worked with her and will query a failure to make partnership if she thinks the person merits it. This is partly because if they don’t make partner she might lose them, and she actually might follow them to another firm. “I have changed firms to follow a good female lawyer who has moved – and I even on one occasion hired a female lawyer who didn’t make partner to work at WPP! She works for me now.” This is one way in which she sees in-house lawyers who instruct law firms as able to make a real difference. “The real work is challenging why someone hasn’t made partnership and supporting the careers of talented juniors and making sure the law firms you work with share your values.” She wants to meet the whole team she instructs and to see the people actually doing the work, not just the team sent to pitch, and to make sure that the diversity she wants is represented.

She has experienced bad behaviour, but her buying power means she doesn’t have to put up with it. “I was looking for a firm to do a specific piece of work, and when the firm I initially asked put up an all-male team and I got talked over on the call I de-instructed as soon as the call was finished.”

The other firm she approached gave her a team of one male and one female. “A partner from the initial firm who had listened in to the call came to talk to me afterwards – he knew me and had been horrified at what he had overheard – and brought with him some more diverse lawyers, to show that he ‘gets it’”.

She does think the law firm model stymies female careers. “There is also often one chance only to make partner and it’s often when women might be about to have a family and not in a position to practically kill themselves to make partner.” This is one reason, she feels, why so many women end up “of counsel” or go in-house. She thinks that law firms need to take a step back and look at their partner selection processes. “They need to be free of politics, and on merit. There also needs to be more than one shot at partnership as people who don’t make partner often leave and become partners elsewhere, or ‘of counsel’.” However, “there has been enough time for firms to have done something about this given that women have made up 50% or more of trainees for years and if partnerships are languishing at 80–20 then there’s something wrong.” In her view, firms need to be more determined to make these changes, and clients – such as WPP – need to be insistent that they do so.

Having said that, she does see positives, and thinks huge strides have been made, not least through #metoo. “It was a sea change moment. Senior male partners are now exited from law firms for bad behaviour in ways that would never have happened before. Now, even rainmakers are subject to zero tolerance, and reputationally clients won’t work with them.”

Moving on to her own group and what WPP have done internally to promote diversity, she says that whilst they still have more work to do, they have made strides in allowing flexible working. “Technology helps, and also approaches to maternity and paternity leave. We have a focus on preventing presenteeism. Some agencies in WPP already have shared parental leave, and they are working on extending it – and to employees generally as it’s not just about childcare.“

One of their prime focuses is to move the dial on disability. They are signed up the Valuable 500 which is a commitment to doing something substantive that will actually change how an organisation looks at disability, with the ultimate aim of having more people who are disabled working in the business. To implement this, WPP have launched an inclusion practice.

For example, WPP have worked on a collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger to design a range of clothing easier for disabled people to put on without help.

There are other strands of diversity which are now starting to be looked at. One which is now attracting more attention is socioeconomic diversity. Andrea says that some firms have started to offer remote internships. This is because internships tend to be in London and that makes it too difficult or expensive for many people to do them. At WPP, they also try to ensure that they take equal numbers of interns from more socially mobile backgrounds, if they take the child of a client – she calls it “matching” – and now all internships at WPP are paid. She is firmly in favour of more firms taking these actions, as long as they ensure that any “remote” internships are not seen as inferior to those conducted in person.

Going back to the sector as a whole, and to her overarching theme, Andrea finishes by reiterating that change to the sector really has to be client-driven:

“Some of the issues here are so fundamental to the way that law firms are set up that even such a call to arms as this isn’t enough. Companies have to use their buying power to force it. If you are going to force change you have to decide ‘are you going to work with law firms that don’t have that diversity?’ This means diversity at all levels and of all types.”

As an example of how “corporate activism” can force law firms into changing, Andrea gave the example of a large pharmacy chain in America that won’t sell tobacco and also won’t instruct law firms which work with the tobacco industry. This forced the law firms to choose which they wanted to work with. She is firmly in favour of forcing change on law firms over diversity by the simple means of refusing to instruct them if they don’t change, and this pressure is coming not only from her and people like her, but from her clients further down the supply chain.