As diversity becomes a cornerstone of successful organisations, the narrative of choosing between business success and inclusivity is rapidly fading into irrelevance. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Felix Hebblethwaite, Group HR Director at Foot Anstey, who is leading the charge to make his firm one of the most progressive in the legal field.
Chris Mansfield met with Felix to discuss issues ranging from the importance of building a successful firm culture to the commercial value of diversity and inclusion initiatives.
I’m the Group HR Director at Foot Anstey. We’re a law firm with historic roots in the South West of England with national ambitions. Foot Anstey Group is made up of two businesses: Foot Anstey LLP, a full-service law firm; and Enable Law, which focuses on clinical negligence. Together, those two enterprises make up Foot Anstey Group, of which I am the Group HR Director.
After I left university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to get into something people-focused. My first job was working with refugees to help get them into employment. I really enjoyed it, and it gave me a sense of working with jobs and careers. That sparked a feeling that I should get involved in HR. At the same time, I was involved in negotiations around contracts in my office. So my supervisor offered me to come into HR, and I went on to study at night school for my Masters in Human Resources.
I had a fantastic career at my previous firm. I was fortunate enough to join at a time when the firm was growing and it provided me with huge opportunities in terms of career progression and international experience. I had some amazing experiences and had the chance to spend lots of time overseas on assignments. That gave me the opportunity to be broad in my experience, and there were two things which were incredibly helpful in my development. The first was being part of a fast-growing firm, which gave me the capacity to work at speed in a high-pressure environment. The second was an unwavering focus on quality, a value that is reflected here at Foot Anstey. Our ambition is to grow and scale our business without compromising on delivering quality to our clients.
We have made a deliberate decision to remove any rules about when our people need to be in the office. I don’t think a rules-based approach is conducive to creating a culture where people want to engage with the firm. Spending time with colleagues in the office should be seen as productive: it needs to be something people want to do instead of something they are required to do. We’re also focusing on the experience of our employees in the office. We’re consulting with an architectural firm to come up with a design brief to improve the look and feel of our locations. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we are striving to build places that accommodate different working styles.
Much of it is down to setting the tone from the top. So when it comes to our partners and leaders within the business, we try to make sure everyone is comfortable talking about our collective goals and ambitions. We also try to be open in what we’re looking for regarding people’s contribution to the business, as well as encouraging the building of sustainable relationships with colleagues, clients, and the community. This work is never finished, but we’re certainly moving in the right direction.
I actually think the debate around the commercial benefits of diversity and inclusion has already been settled. There’s a lot of evidence showing that it attracts talent, boosts the value of a business, and allows leaders to make more effective decisions. So instead of opening that debate back up, I would instead like to focus on the tangible efforts we are making to move the dial. We need to ask how the people within our organisation can reflect broader diversity, whether it’s from the perspective of gender, ethnicity, LGBT+, or social mobility. I’ve been quite critical of the HR profession’s tendency to focus on superficial measures. At my previous firm, I had some excellent results, and I’m looking to replicate that here at Foot Anstey.
There are lots of law firms, but you need to find one that’s right for you. One thing that will help you build a career is a firm with a progressive, modern, and inclusive culture. Make sure you do your research before you commit. Go and meet with people already working at the firm so you can find out what that culture looks and feels like in practice.