General Counsel Open Letter to Firms – a GC view from Pearson

Contributed by
Pearson's team Bjarne Tellmann
27 Nov 2019

Bjarne Tellmann is General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer at Pearson. He was a signatory to the European General Counsel letter 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.

Bjarne starts by saying that although he doesn’t yet know of any measurable effects, the letter has:

“generated buzz, awareness and conversations with law firm partners and within the GC community.”

He feels that GCs are now mentioning it in the gatherings they have. This is an important start, as the issue is one which needs awareness, and beyond that action. He says that the law firms he has spoken to are willing to have the conversation.

Pearson has approached it as a conversation rather than wielding a big stick.

“There is complexity here and you have to bear that in mind. There are complicating factors and conversations have to be had about how to deal with those challenges. It’s easier said than done to both attract and retain the diverse talent. It’s the same for law firms as it is for companies.”

In respect of what these challenges are, Bjarne says that there is a respectable gender balance in many organisations, and indeed sometimes as many or even more females than males at entry levels but that this tends to fade away as you look at the upper reaches of the hierarchy. “How do we shatter that glass ceiling? How is the family work/life balance respected whilst also allowing women to continue to climb the corporate ladder?” He says that it requires understanding from the law firm perspective and gives an example: “For instance, hospitals are able to staff emergency rooms for 24 hours whilst still allowing female doctors to continue working there, and if they can do that then surely a large law firm can also do this, run an ‘emergency service’ with allowing some colleagues to work differently.”

He appreciates the efforts made by some law firms on diversity issues, but he also wants them to look at diversity more widely. In particular, he mentions cognitive diversity – by this, he means people from different backgrounds.

He finds an element of what he calls “grit” useful in a candidate, and he says, “I think it’s an important attribute of a good lawyer. It will add to the palette of your law firm, an element of diversity. People with different backgrounds bring different perspectives and that diversity of thought is helpful when dealing with a case or with due diligence or whatever.”

He goes on to say that part of the discussions in law firms and in the GC community have been around “how do we find those people and how do we attract them? But it’s not just about attracting them, it’s about retaining them.”

Slightly surprisingly, he avers that contrary to what is commonly believed, diverse candidates have many opportunities once qualified and working in a top law firm and therefore it can be problematic trying to retain them:

“It’s hard to retain diverse candidates because they have a lot of opportunities. A lot of them want to go in-house. I see today a huge demand on the law firm side for in-house roles. This could be because it could be perceived that there is a better work/life balance in those roles, but it isn’t just that as there’s also a perception that there’s a lot of really interesting work on the in-house level. Some people are therefore choosing to go as they find those roles more attractive. When you’re in-house you tend to get a better overview of the context of what you’re working on. You’re closer to the business. There is more of a commercial angle and a lot of young people find this exciting.”

He says that Pearson are looking for diverse talent, and the pool of qualified diverse talent – those with law degrees and relevant experience – is still quite small and gravitates towards firms where they can see that diversity is appreciated. “When everyone is chasing that small pool of talent then those individuals have choices. It’s hard for many firms to attract them. That talent is going to go where there’s already a pipeline for diverse talent and where they will feel most welcome.”

Pearson's team Bjarne Tellmann

When asked about his company’s dealings with law firms and how it encourages the law firms it works with to encourage diversity, Bjarne says that Pearson’s approach is to say “let’s work on this together, let’s not be holier than thou” but that it’s also about holding law firms accountable. “We have baked diversity into our panel process, our selection process for which firms we choose to work for – we ask for diversity statistics and goals and want to know how they are progressing against those goals at their check-ins.”

He does sense that some of the GCs for the very largest companies are becoming frustrated. One told him that he has a “three strikes and you’re out policy” – if at the first check-in there is no progress against diversity goals it is flagged and if there is still none by the third then the firm gets removed from the company’s panel.

Bjarne Tellman

Pearson hasn’t been quite this harsh, but when they are selecting lawyers, they are very cognisant of who shows up. “If they’re all male white middle-aged lawyers we take note.” He mentions that one such firm was asked about their diversity initiatives and launched into a discussion of their pro bono initiatives, “which shocked me – they didn’t understand that charitable efforts and diversity issues were not the same.” The firm was not hired.

Another example he gives is that “a group of lawyers turned up for a panel selection and spent the whole time with their backs to the senior female lawyer in the room, but we [Pearson’s legal department] had actually delegated the decision-making power to her as she was the M&A decisionmaker in the room.” Again, naturally the firm was not hired.

In more general diversity terms, his sense is that gender and LGBT+ issues have had the biggest awareness and action. “There’s a big LGBT+ push in our law firm partners.” It is his view that there has been progress in these areas. Other strands of diversity, however, are “cinderellas”: “With disability, I don’t see the same progress.This is the largest minority in the world! There is very little accommodation for this.”

He does feel however that the conversation, certainly in the US, is beginning to happen around mental health at least, and that there is now a recognition that mental health is a problem for lawyers. “The rate of suicide among lawyers is high. The fear of being seen as weak has inhibited this conversation hitherto but it is now happening in the US and I think it will start coming to the UK as well. Law firms in the UK in particular are still a bit focused on the “conventional” diversity metrics and perhaps less aware of the broader spectrum of diversity, and while there is a need to focus on the more common metrics, there is also a need to better include some of the more marginalised groups.”

Turning to what Pearson are doing, he says they have launched an effort to “cross-mentor” with law firms in the UK. This is, for now, going to focus on potential top female talent. Pearson have agreed to mentor a couple of women from one of their law firm partners in the UK, and in exchange two of their top female talent will be mentored by partners in that law firm. “We generally try to take a collaborative approach – not just a stick, but a stick and carrot approach! We look for ways to help to move the needle on these issues.”

“The Pledge”

Internally, Pearson has launched many initiatives to improve diversity in their legal department. This is headlined by something they call “the Pledge”. As Bjarne says, “it wasn’t enough to ask our suppliers to do this, so we have decided to hold ourselves equally accountable.”

The Pledge covers things such as hiring. They focus on identifying diverse candidates and including diversity in the hiring process. It also includes things such as creating development plans for diverse talent, publicly advocating for diverse talent across the profession, and a mentoring programme for legal professionals with disabilities. Above all, Bjarne says, it means transparency. Pearson have pledged that they will would provide information about the state of diversity in their legal department. “It creates a better understanding of the challenges that law firms face. It’s easier said than done.” He would encourage all legal departments to sign a similar pledge. “It’s important that we walk the talk”. For Bjarne, this is important as it isn’t enough just to ask law firms to act if they, the big corporate clients, are not doing so themselves. For more about the Pledge, please see this article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/our-legal-departments-pledge-diversity-bjarne-philip-tellmann/

Moving on to advice for law firms on how to improve diversity, he says that he’d much rather firms started engaging with the issue proactively. “I wish they’d look at it rather than wait to be asked.” In terms of how to go about this, he thinks that they should reach out to clients and have conversations. In the same way as is committed to in Pearson’s “Pledge”, he thinks they should be transparent about the issue. “My advice would be proactive depth. Don’t wait to be asked. Have the conversations.”

Does he feel that the GC 100’s letter has moved the dial on the issue?

“It feels like we have some momentum about the topic. Whether the dial has moved in concrete terms it’s too soon to say. It’ll probably take many years, and it’s deeply frustrating.” He’d like to see more rapid change but draws comparisons with other social changes that have occurred. “Like any social campaign, it begins with awareness, it begins with a conversation. All social norms that have recently been busted began with a conversation. Something that was acceptable can suddenly become unacceptable. Dialogue and awareness can lead to a rapid shift. His final comment echoes that frustration: “We cannot continue to have this conversation year in and year out.”