Cognitive Diversity, by Tunde Okewale

Tunde Okewale, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, founder of Urban Lawyers and dedicated diversity champion, blogs for Chambers Diversity as we continue our celebration of Black History Month.

There is a growing movement in the legal profession to create a more diverse workforce. This has led to a large number of diversity projects and access schemes (including my organization, Urban Lawyers) designed to ensure that every member of society knows that law is a possible career option. But what exactly is the legal profession looking for, or speaking about, when it is championing diversity?

urbanlawyersThe journalist James Surowiecki espouses an interesting point about diversity in his book, The Wisdom of the Crowds, claiming that what we are really looking for is ‘cognitive diversity’, or the different ways people think.

He explains that if you have a homogeneous group and you add an additional member to the mix, the individuals will bond quickly because they are alike, but the incremental creativity between them is slight. If you add a member of a heterogeneous group to the homogeneous one, they do not bond quickly because they are not alike, but the incremental creativity is much greater when each group reaches its full potential.

The legal profession, particularly chambers, are ultimately looking for increased creativity and productivity, better ideas and multiple perspectives, so it is clear that they will, in fact, benefit from diversity. However, what we are seeing is that achieving this takes much more effort than merely assembling a workplace that looks diverse.

One of biggest hurdles to achieving truly diverse and inclusive workplaces has been getting people to realize that creating a diverse legal profession is, in effect, all about change. This is inherently difficult to grasp particularly in a profession that has been built on tradition and custom. Historically, there has been more resistance than acceptance to these changes. This has resulted in the creation of a number of associations, groups and committees.

My view, which is shared by many academics, commentators and practitioners is that social economics, especially class, has been the biggest barrier to producing a diverse legal industry. Social economics and class encapsulates a number of factors including cultural, racial and religious characteristics. This exclusion of certain sects of society from the profession led to the Denman Inquiry of 2001 labeling the Criminal Prosecution Service as ‘institutionally racist’[1]. It was following the Inquiries recommendation to employ a more diverse workforce that the employment of BMEs in the CPS incrementally rose from 8.8% in 1999[2] to 12% in 2006 and 15.6% in 2014. The impact of a diverse profession has had a ripple effect and its effect on every aspect of the justice system must not be lost.

The legal profession has always been perceived as naturally elitist, as are most industries with high earning potential. Historically, students were predominantly recruited from Oxford of Cambridge, with a nominal number of others selected from Russell Group universities. It is no surprise that those who attended such institutions tended to come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds. It is unfortunate that class so often determines perceptions of who you are and what you are capable of achieving; this is exacerbated in a profession that still abides by the same customs it set for itself centuries ago (ceremonial robes, anyone?). Consider that, although 32% of law students across the UK are BMEs, only 13%[3] are successful in their pursuit of practicing law.Tunde Okewale

This unconscious bias appears to be more prevalent in the private sectors of the profession than those that are publicly funded. That the publicly funded sectors of law tend to be more diverse seems to support the premise that an unconscious bias based on class still exists. In my experience of interviewing candidates for pupillage and supporting students who wish to pursue a career in law, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more inclined to join the publicly funded bar because of the perception that it is less elitist. Indeed, there is an unacknowledged professional snobbery towards those who undertake publicly funded work.

There is a paradox at play in the recruitment of diverse candidates in the legal profession. While some Chambers and firms would be perfectly happy to recruit a diverse candidate over an equally qualified traditional candidate, this is only the first step in overhauling the process. The lack of thought and provision for diverse employees, who may already feel excluded from the mainstream, stumps the growth of the legal profession and causes capable, bright and enthusiastic professionals to leave.

Cognitive diversity not only focuses on visual representation of diversity but the culture, thinking and practices governing organizations working practices. The focus is a holistic one, which looks at entry, retention and career progression. This change will only come about when we change the way we think about and accommodate diversity and, hopefully, there will come a point that it will be so embedded that we won’t have to think about it all.

In order to facilitate change and improve the retention and progression of candidates from diverse backgrounds the focus needs to be on inclusion. The big question is: are we trying to assimilate people from diverse backgrounds into the established norms of the profession or are we trying to change the culture of profession?


Tunde will be joining Chambers Diversity as a panelist at the Chambers European Leadership and Diversity Summit, taking place 15th October, in Dublin.

For full details, and to register free of charge for in-house counsel, please click here.


[1] We’re racist, admits prosecution service chief”

[2] Michael Rowe, Race & Crime –

[3] When will minority ethnic lawyers get the top jobs?

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