Keri Watkins_ Stephanie Samuell_ Joanna Matthews-Taylor_Laya Aoun-Hani

Baker McKenzie on Empowering Diversity in the Legal Sphere

With Suzan Taha

Abu Dhabi emerged as the focal point for The Inclusion Summit 2023, positioning itself as the hub for diversity and inclusion discussions during the MENA region’s largest cross-industry event.

Organized by the DEI impact company, Aurora50, the two-day summit highlighted pivotal issues within the region’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) agenda. Key areas of focus included gender balance, youth inclusion, the inclusion of People of Determination, and nationalization efforts, such as Emiratisation.

Reflecting on the event and its impact on fostering diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, Keri Watkins, Partner & Co-Chair of the Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Committee at Baker McKenzie MENA, a sponsor of the event, expressed, “Our firm’s sponsorship of the summit played an important role in recognizing the progress that has been made, but also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done in promoting and ensuring diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. Our decision to participate underscores Baker McKenzie’s commitment to advancing these principles and creating a lasting impact for our people, clients, and industry. Inclusion, diversity, and equity underpin our firm’s culture and values, and are critical to our strategy. The event provided a platform for meaningful discussions, insights, and connections, with the ultimate aim of fostering a more inclusive environment within the legal profession.”

The event hosted various panels, including the Baker McKenzie discussion focusing on navigating the path to success and empowering diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Joanna Matthews-Taylor, Partner & Head of Employment Practice in Dubai, a speaker at the event, shared insights, stating, “We explored topics relevant to in-house legal teams and private practice, delving into the role a general counsel can play in advancing gender diversity within legal teams. Additionally, we discussed policies, programs, and initiatives that businesses have in place to support the objectives of achieving gender equity and equality.” Matthews-Taylor continued, “I was privileged to join the panel and share programs that Baker McKenzie runs to support our people, with a focus on achieving the gender targets set by the firm in 2019, to be achieved by July 2025.”

Another speaker, Stephanie Samuell, Partner Corporate Practice Group, highlighted the role of such conversations in dismantling barriers within the legal profession, stating, “The work of our firm’s ID&E committee perfectly aligns with the Inclusion Summit’s focus on meaningful conversations. Our committee encourages an open dialogue among employees to address implicit biases, promote understanding, foster a more equitable and diverse work environment, and drive initiatives that actively support inclusivity and equality. It plays a crucial role in creating spaces where diverse perspectives are acknowledged and heard, advancing the firm’s policies and procedures within our local markets.”

Considering her role as Co-Chair and her specialization in commercial real estate matters, Watkins commented on how the Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Committee contributes to fostering diversity in the intricacies of real estate transactions and negotiations, stating: “Our ID&E committee constantly fosters collaboration among colleagues to enrich perspectives, creativity, knowledge, and innovation. This collective effort enhances the effectiveness of our diverse team, enabling us to better address the diverse needs of our global clientele, including our real estate and hospitality practices.”

The Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Committee leads various projects and initiatives exemplifying the positive impact of diversity on legal practices in Baker McKenzie MENA, as highlighted by Samuell, who said, “In 2019, the UAE offices launched BakerWomen Middle East, the flagship inclusion and diversity program in the region aiming to help the advancement of female professionals in the workplace and foster a strong sense of community to share and exchange common experiences. We have since expanded our reach and launched in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and are now looking to launch in Egypt. Our unwavering efforts and commitment to ID&E in the region have been recognized, winning numerous awards.”

Baker McKenzie MENA, through the Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Committee, actively contributes to promoting diversity and inclusion within its organizational structure and in the legal community at large, as mentioned by Matthews-Taylor, who said: “The world is changing, and ID&E has become a key business measure, no longer a nice-to-have. Baker McKenzie firmly believes that women must participate and be leaders at all levels of our organization. Our ambition is to champion female talent and to build a gender-balanced pipeline and leadership in all our senior roles globally. On July 1, 2023, a total of 46% of promotions were women, up from 37% in the previous financial year, demonstrating the firm’s ongoing progress in building a more gender-equitable workplace. In MENA, 2 out of the 3 promoted lawyers were women.”

“We also want to help advance diverse leadership and excellence among our clients and people, the legal industry, and our communities. We are doing this through mentor exchange programs where we partner with clients for joint mentoring at both of our organizations, joint I&D continuing education programs where we co-host education programs on specific I&D topics, and pro bono partnerships to build partnerships with local agencies to promote social inclusion,” she continued.

Diversity and inclusion play an important role in shaping the dynamics of the legal landscape, particularly in this region, Watkins commented: “A diverse and inclusive legal landscape contributes to robust decision-making processes, enriched by a variety of perspectives and experiences. It promotes an innovative, dynamic and responsive legal framework that aligns with the region’s unique cultural and social contexts and reflects the diverse needs and values of the MENA region.”

Inclusivity, as championed by the Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Committee, positively influences the dynamics of specific sectors within the Middle East, like the real estate and hospitality sector, Watkins continued: “Promoting inclusivity in such sectors can bring about a range of positive outcomes, from enhancing global perception to driving innovation and ensuring sustainable, community-focused development.” She continued, “Moreover, an inclusive approach in these sectors can contribute to the creation of welcoming and culturally open spaces, aligning with the diverse demographics in the Middle East.”

Looking ahead, various initiatives or strategies could be considered essential for further advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, both regionally and globally. Laya Aoun-Hani, Counsel & senior member of the EMEA Baker McKenzie International Commercial & Trade Practice Group, commented: “First, we will continue to prioritize our education and awareness programs to foster a deeper understanding of diversity issues and further promote inclusivity. The committee also aims to collaborate with external organizations, industry forums, and legal associations to leverage collective efforts in driving change. Lastly, regular assessments and adjustments to policies will ensure a sustained commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive legal environment, nurturing a culture that embraces and celebrates differences.”

The Inclusion Summit 2023 in Abu Dhabi has significantly advanced conversations on diversity and inclusion in the MENA region. Baker McKenzie MENA’s Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Committee’s active role exemplifies a commitment to creating a more dynamic and fair professional landscape. As the legal sphere progresses, these initiatives illuminate a path towards a future where diversity is celebrated, shaping a legal profession that resonates with the vibrant cultural tapestry of the Middle East. The committee stands as a beacon, inspiring a more inclusive legal community globally.