EDI ‘priority’ for business, firm culture, says Norton Rose Fulbright’s global chair

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (November 14, 2022, 2:07 PM EST) -- For Norton Rose Fulbright’s global chair, Farmida Bi, advancing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the legal profession is not only important from a business perspective; it mirrors what inspired her to become a lawyer in the first place: a passion for fairness.

“Fundamentally, it’s about fairness. I mean, that’s what it boils down to. That’s why I feel so passionate about it,” she told The Lawyer’s Daily.

Bi, who became global chair in January 2022 and has been leading the firm’s EDI mandate ever since, said “it seems entirely wrong” that “we go out, we recruit people who have all the qualities that we’re looking for: they have great academic backgrounds, they have the right experience, they jump through the endless hoops that you put in place for recruitment at a law firm. And then they arrive, and they find that it’s not a culture that supports them.”

That fairness is “the heart” of why Bi wants to address EDI, but she also noted there are the “straightforward, practical economic issues” as well.

Farmida Bi, Norton Rose Fulbright global chair

Farmida Bi, Norton Rose Fulbright global chair

“It takes a lot of effort on behalf of the firm to bring people in. If we can’t retain them, there’s an economic and cultural loss there,” she explained, noting that “more recently,” the firm has been “getting a lot of pressure” from clients who “want us to produce diverse teams.”

Clients, she said, “properly feel that diverse teams allow them to get a broader set of advice. That they get all that diverse thinking, which means that the advice they get, the service they receive, is more comprehensive and addresses their needs. So, there’s a client driven need. There’s a cultural need, but fundamentally, this is about treating everybody fairly, giving everybody a level playing field.”

Bi noted that Norton Rose Fulbright has “metrics around which types of equality” it wants to “measure within the firm.”

Broadly speaking, she said, “we look at gender, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ+,” whether the firm is “family friendly,” “social mobility” and how “various forms of disabilities” are accommodated.

Bi stressed that there is a “range of different strands to equality” that the firm reviews and sets targets around. As an example, she noted, the firm’s target around gender is 40/40/20.

“We model that to our senior management by having more than 40 per cent women in executive committee and our global supervisory board, that tends to be reflected in our regional executive committees and partnership committees. And we keep a very close eye on promotions and lateral recruitments to try and make sure that we achieve our ambition of 40/40/20,” she said, noting, however, “we’re not there yet.”

The firm, Bi explained, tries to “support women internally through focused programs,” such as a “career strategy program,” which has been “extremely successful.”

“Each of the teams highlights the women that they think have a high potential,” she said, noting the firm puts them into a program where they’re “taught about how the firm operates, what it’s looking for in successful potential partners, [and] how they can develop themselves.”

“They get a coach, and they form a cohort and support each other,” she added, noting the “women going through that process have a very high success rate in terms of becoming partners.”

The firm started up a similar program for lawyers of a non-white background just before the pandemic, Bi said, setting up strategies for people to reach success.

“Most firms like ours are very good at recruiting people at the junior level; we’re not so good at retaining people and helping them to progress at different levels of seniority,” Bi said, noting that “focus on retention has become really important to us.”

“There are lots of reasons for why people leave, and we want to understand them,” Bi added, noting that there are “some common themes that run through this, with retaining women, retaining people of different ethnicities, retaining people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, that sense of fitting into the general culture, that sense of feeling like you’re a part of the broader culture.”

“We want the firm to be welcoming to everybody,” she stressed, noting that when the firm is making decisions around pay raises or bonuses, it looks at “initial outcomes” and then it puts “various lenses on that: is this fair from a gender perspective? Is this fair from a race perspective? And so on.”

Bi also noted that “affinity networks are very powerful in the firm, in terms of making people have a group where they can share their thinking, where they can let management know that there are changes that need to be made …”

With regards to the EDI mandate, Bi stressed, “what’s really important is doing the work, trying to see the change that can be made as a result and making it very clear across the firm — this is a priority for us. This is important.”

Bi, who is based in the U.K. and became a solicitor in 1992, raised the retention of women as a red flag. She noted there are “very few firms where 50 per cent” of the partners are women.

“You have to ask, what happened in the interim? Are people just making life choices? Are we doing enough to make sure these very clever, very capable, very ambitious women who start with us are given enough support to allow them to accommodate some of those life choices and have the career that they plan to have when they first joined us?” she asked.

Over her career, Bi has seen over 50 per cent of women “coming through and not being reflected at the most senior levels of our firm,” which “suggests that there is an issue with the profession and how it has been run.”

She noted that the legal profession “has been run in a particular way for hundreds of years” and “that’s worked perfectly well for some people.”

“I’m a woman of colour and I see similar patterns with people of different ethnicities coming into our profession. They arrive full of enthusiasm and optimism, and they get worn down and a lot of them make the decision to leave. But we have to ask why that is,” she explained, noting firms, as businesses, “need to find ways to make sure we give people a chance.”

Bi was inspired to become a lawyer in her early teens as she saw the “law as a way of bringing justice into the world.”

“For me, it’s about fairness. It’s about representing what’s right, and it’s a tool for balancing people’s rights. I was very idealistic when I decided at the age of 14 to be a lawyer and, in many ways, I still am idealistic,” she said, noting she believes “corporate law can be a force for good; it can make a difference.”

Bi is enthused about the “increasing focus on social obligations” that law firms have adopted over the last five years, noting she’s “really pleased that we, as a firm, are focused on” that issue. She’s “even more delighted” that the law, as an industry, believe that social obligations are “important” and that it’s become a client focus as well.

According to Norton Rose Fulbright’s website, the global chair was recognized in the “ ‘Hall of Fame’ for Islamic finance and as a ’leading individual’ for debt capital markets in The Legal 500 UK 2020.” The firm also notes that Bi was “recognized for her services to the law and to charity” by Queen Elizabeth II in the “2020 Birthday Honours” by being made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Debt capital markets and Islamic finance are of particular interest to Bi, reflecting her belief that corporate law can be a “force for good.”

She explained that Islamic finance is a “system of religious based finance, which says that finance is supposed to be about social good.” It, therefore, “prohibits the charging of interest.”

“That ethical basis of Islamic finance, which is something that I've worked in for about 20 years now, has of late, really interacted with the drivers around ESG [environmental, social and governance],” she said, observing that “over the last 10 years” there’s been a “growth in green bonds,” which are used to make an environmental impact.

“One of the impacts of COVID,” she also noted, was a “huge growth in social bonds being issued.”

With these impacts, as well as the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27) being held in predominantly Muslim countries over the next two years, Bi emphasized this is a “really important” time for Islamic finance.

“At the moment, I think Islamic finance has entered this really interesting point, a crossover between its inherent purpose [and] where the funds are in the market,” she said, noting that an “extraordinary number” of investors have ESG as “one of the areas in which they want to invest.”

“Islamic finance can tap into those new types of investors who look to invest in ESG and draw a much wider base than the traditional Sharia compliant investor based in,” places such as “Southeast Asia,” she said.

While the world has experienced significant change since Bi became global chair, she noted that she feels like “the law is getting to where I wanted it to be so many years ago, when I decided to be a lawyer.”

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact Amanda Jerome at Amanda.Jerome@lexisnexis.ca or 416-524-2152.