Making the Case for Diversity & Inclusion

As the line between social and business lives often blur for lawyers in Hong Kong, Justin D’Agostino, the Global Head of Practice, Dispute Resolution, and Managing Partner for Asia and Australia at Herbert Smith Freehills, explains why open, inclusive and diverse workplaces not only make good business sense, but are also crucial to succeed in Asia.

Imagine you are a senior partner at a networking dinner with your colleagues. Over a glass of sauvignon blanc, your client starts rattling off all the extra-curricular activities he and his wife have enrolled their daughter in for the next school term. “We have to make sure she maintains a competitive edge,” he says while playfully prodding your colleague. “So, do you have kids?,” he turns and asks, trying to bring you into the conversation.

Interactions like these are without a doubt the social glue that help us forge close relationships in the business world. We share stories to get to know one another and form bonds outside of work – disclosing titbits about the real human stuff that comprise our lives.

While this question can prove uncomfortable for a variety of lawyers for a variety of reasons, imagine for a moment that you are a closeted lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (“LGBT”) lawyer who is fielding this question: someone who is wary of being discriminated against.

Under those circumstances, “Do you have kids?” becomes much more complicated to answer, as your response can lead to a deluge of other questions about your personal life.

While such a lawyer might want to open up about the trials and tribulations he and his partner have faced when juggling their son’s busy schedule, he likely won’t. Rather, he will likely offer a simple response, keeping any evidence of who he really is hidden away.

LGBT-Inclusive Law Firms

Eliminating this type of stressful situation in which one’s social and work lives collide is exactly what LGBT-inclusive law firms and businesses across Hong Kong are taking on, explains Justin D’Agostino, Global Head of Practice, Dispute Resolution and Managing Partner for Asia and Australia, at Herbert Smith Freehills*. “Our firm is very sensitive to local cultural norms, and as an employer, we are also very clear that we stand proudly for diversity and inclusion (or D&I). We have created an inclusive environment where people are welcomed, valued and rewarded on the basis of their talents and skills, without reference to their gender, culture, family status or sexual orientation,” he said. “It’s in our firm’s DNA and highly appropriate for the complex environment that is the typical Asian workplace.”

Walking the Walk

For a decade, Herbert Smith Freehills has been a pioneer on the diversity front. “In 2007, it was the first major international law firm to set up an LGBT network in London. At that time, I was a newly promoted partner,” Mr. D’Agostino recalled. “The firm had recently decided to spearhead diversity initiatives, so there was a lot of support from senior management and leaders in the firm. I saw getting involved as very important for me personally and for my colleagues – I have been openly gay since I joined the firm and have felt fully supported throughout my career. I also saw it as an opportunity to make a difference and a real change. Although it feels like so much has happened in the last 10 years, it really was not that long ago that firms avoided talking about diversity or LGBT issues. There also were not very many role models in senior positions or partners who were openly gay. It feels like a long way away from where we are now, as a society and as a firm.”

When Mr. D’Agostino relocated to Hong Kong in 2009, he helped the firm launch its LGBT network in Asia. Similarly, when Herbert Smith went through its big merger with Freehills in 2012, he supported the launch of its LGBT network in Australia. More recently, he was involved with rebranding and launching the LGBT network globally under the new name IRIS, which stands for Inclusion, Respecting Identity and Sexuality. The firm launched the IRIS network in Asia this February.

The IRIS network was established to complement regional LGBT efforts by connecting people across the firm, to make firm-wide communications easier and enable consultation on issues of global significance. Across the global network, Herbert Smith Freehills hopes to grow membership, including allies, and share best practices across different regions. Mr. D’Agostino also noted that the network’s name reflects its strong connection with the heart of the firm’s brand, elaborating that Herbert Smith Freehills uses an iris in its logo to reflect the firm’s curiosity, insight and openness. “Iris” also happens to be the Greek goddess of the rainbow, he added with a grin.

Diversity & Inclusion: Facts & Figures

In making his case for diversity, Mr. D’Agostino marshals facts and figures to show open, inclusive and diverse workplaces are better for a company’s bottom line.

“If you can create an inclusive workplace, you can attract and retain the best talent in the market,” he said. “If you do not get this right, that talent will go elsewhere or they will not join your firm in the first place. This goes to the heart of the business case for diversity.”

Another element of the business case is that clients in Asia expect firms to field a diverse team, he continued. When you pitch for work or when a client asks you to help them with an issue, this is the baseline expectation, he explained.

It is clear that when you have a diverse group of people sitting around the table, challenging each other, you get a better outcome, he added. “Each person is thinking about the issue differently and approaching the problem from a different angle, which strengthens your ideas and solutions. Diversity of thought is what diversity is all about. This is certainly necessary to be successful in Hong Kong, which is a fabulous international and cosmopolitan city with a huge amount of diversity. If your team only represents one part of the community, you will be at a distinct disadvantage.”

As for figures of interest, a report recently released by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Sexualities Research Programme found “about three-quarters of the Hong Kong public surveyed hold neutral or positive attitudes towards an LGB-friendly business [organisation]; only about one-quarter of the Hong Kong public surveyed see the LGB-friendly business [organisation] negatively.”1

Making It Work

For D&I initiatives to succeed, it is important to adopt a multi-level approach. “These initiatives have to be driven from the top and supported from the bottom,” Mr. D’Agostino said.

However, garnering multi-level support and creating diverse teams, is not the end of the story, he continued. “In some ways, it is easy to create a diverse team. The hard bit is to make that diversity work every day – that’s the “I” or inclusion bit of D&I. This means ensuring diversity in the decision-making process and not marginalising people who might not “look” like you. This is something that I think we all need to get much better at – I am very focussed on this – making the diverse teams we have created feel included every day and making diversity the norm, ultimately, to become business as usual.”

When you create an inclusive environment, you get so much more out of people and they get so much more out of their work, he added. “This is not just an LGBT issue. Our approach to D&I is about creating the right environment for people from different cultural backgrounds, creating the right platform for women, and creating an environment that is welcoming to those with disabilities. It all comes back to good business sense.”

Herbert Smith Freehills also works with a number of organisations, such as Community Business in Hong Kong and Stonewall globally, which provide best practice and benchmarking standards against which to measure ourselves, Mr. D’Agostino noted. “There are so many fantastic organisations out there that are equipped to help you become an employer of choice in this space.”

Challenges Ahead

While firms that support D&I initiatives have made significant headway in Hong Kong, Mr. D’Agostino acknowledges that many challenges lie ahead for businesses and people who value diversity – from lobbying for legislative reforms and constantly challenging unconscious bias to continuing to make the business case for D&I.

“I think there is a positive obligation on employers – whether you are a large international player or a smaller organisation – to support your people. With access to so many different market sectors and industries, the legal profession is in a unique position to spearhead best-practice initiatives and promote the business case for D&I. We still have a long way to go, but we plan to keep at it,” he said.

* Mr. D’Agostino was named one of the world’s leading OUTstanding Executives in the Financial Times’ 2016 Global List of LGBT and Ally Ambassadors.

1 Suen, Y.T., Wong, M.Y., Chan, R.C.H., Yeung, G.K.W. (2016) Study on Hong Kong Public and LGB People’s Attitudes towards LGB-friendly Business Organisations (Nov 2016).


Editor, Hong Kong Lawyer
Legal Media Group
Thomson Reuters