Brian Boahene – DWF | Diversity in Law

  1. Please share your motivations for pursuing a career in law. What was your perception of the legal industry before you entered the profession? Has this changed?

    I can’t say I was inspired to get into the law by a deep routed sense of what is right and wrong. I sort of fell into the law almost by accident. When finishing my A Levels I had to pursue a more business oriented course but ended up in law. When I began to understand the different principles in commercial law it piqued my interest.  In my final year I took international trade and insurance as electives and found them fascinating and so I applied to firms specialising in this area as I was intrigued about applying the legal principles in these areas in practice. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t at that early stage factor in the other aspects of running a legal business such as wining and maintaining clients and time recording.

    My perception of the law before I entered the profession was that it was an industry that was competitive in terms of trying to get your foot in the door, walking through the door and staying there. I was only half right. As I look back now I was a little ignorant about how many people were in the profession, how many apply for training contracts, the number of people who drop out of private practice and the industry.  It was and is an industry where places are at a premium and where the competition is intense. How the profession changed? I don’t know. The battle to get into the industry seems as intense as it ever was. There are still many people practising law whether in private practice or in-house and so it remains just as popular or competitive, as it was when I started my career.
  1. At the start of your career, did you have any awareness of the impact ethnicity could have on your career progression? What key themes would you consider common to the lived experiences of ethnic minorities in the legal industry?

    I don’t think I gave my ethnicity a great deal of thought and probably not more thought than I gave my social background. So far as I can recall what my thinking was back then, it was that I had grasped that the law was a difficult gig and so I’d have to work pretty hard just to qualify as a solicitor. But that after I qualified, I’d likely go off and do something else a few years after qualification either because of burn out, competition, declining interest in the industry or a combination of all of these factors.

    Naturally there would be occasions where by ethnicity would come in to play. Perhaps walking into a meeting when others weren’t expecting to see someone of my background. Those types of encounters aside to the best of my recollection, I don’t believe I gave much thought about my ethnicity. What I did think about was whether I would be the right fit in terms of other aspects of my socio-economic background, which was different to those of my peers. In terms of key themes, there are many ethnic minorities in society and in the legal field. There are different experiences between ethnic minorities who grew up say in the UK and those who have emigrated to the UK. Amongst those who share the same ethnicity but whose socio-economic background may differ, the experiences will differ again. There are many unique experiences.

    In terms of some of the things that I came across, these were more issues – the social fit and assimilating. Being able to engage not necessarily professionally, but socially with others from different social backgrounds. A point made to me is that not seeing people who reflects a person’s identity, especially at senior levels, can create the perception that it will be difficult to progress to the senior levels within the firm or organisation. I recognise this as an issue. It’s all very well being self-confident but I can understand that for some, if they don’t see diversity at senior levels it can create doubt. In the same way that if there is diversity at senior levels that element of doubt is not there. Another interesting point that has been made to me is a perception or reality that a partner or client a has a specific archetype of a lawyer. This archetype has an image of excellence which amongst other things includes aspects of an individual’s family background, education, speech and mannerisms. This archetype can challenge the extent to which a person from an ethnic minority background can develop. Either because they do not fit the archetype or because they try to adopt it but struggle to do so effectively. Which then leads to challenges in assimilating or progressing. Ordinarily the expectation is that people will advance on the basis of their own ability however some say that the idea of a meritocracy, particularly in the field of law, is illusory. It is said with some justification, that if an individual did not go to a particular school or university, does not have the professional relationships in their wider family / friends circle, or does not fit other aspects of the ‘archetype’, they will struggle to enter and progress in the field of law. That is fair comment and whilst some of this touches on issues ethnicity and some of the challenges faced by minorities – they are not their exclusive domain – they extend much wider and into issues of social mobility more generally.
  1. What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?

    I mentioned above the differences in background, and how this can be a challenge in forming relationships both internally and externally. Although this is common to all those from different social backgrounds to the majority and is not peculiar to those from ethnic minority backgrounds only. I mentioned the archetype and the image of excellence. If that archetype is shared by others in the workplace will if affect an individual’s ability to form partner relationships, especially with those who might sponsor or mentor them. Will it affect a person’s ability to participate in client teams? There are instances where someone’s ethnicity can help – in bringing a different perspective to issues and in forming more diverse client teams.
  1. What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?

    See comments above.
  1. Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?

    The areas of gender, sexual orientation and mental health to name a few which have been at the forefront of many diversity and inclusion initiatives which has helped to bring a lot more awareness to the further work we all need to do in these areas. My sense is that across the industry there wasn’t a similar focus on issues race and ethnicity. The emphasis has changed in the last 12 months with issues of race and ethnicity, being discussed more openly within the industry. Additionally clients are asking more questions around what the industry is doing in the wider ESG front and this has resulted in a lot more spotlight and commentary on issues of race and ethnicity, than ever before. This is positive and there is a value to being able to have these conversations where they lead to productive and meaningful change.  We are also seeing more efforts towards increasing social mobility. Many firms are offering legal apprenticeships as an alternative to the university route. For instance The Prime programme involves outreach and work experience for students from a diverse social background allowing earlier contact between students from different socio-economic backgrounds and the legal community.
  1. In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?

    To create an inclusive environment where people feel comfortable being themselves whilst ensuring that the business remains productive is a challenge many are looking to master. One of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the increase in agile working. This provides a lot of flexibility to all including those who may childcare responsibilities, or for whom regular commuting creates challenges. We’ve seen many private practice firms review their agile working arrangements to allow those who wish to work from home to do so more easily and conversely to also allow those who wish to work in the office to do so. Many firms are also trying to deepen inclusion by promoting greater communication around issues that affect us as individuals on the basis that if people are comfortable in their working environment this will enhance the culture and help with retention.
  1. Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?

    I don’t think that I have necessarily looked to others for inspiration. There have certainly been many who have helped me during my career in sponsoring and mentoring me and to whom I am forever grateful. However in terms of inspiration I’ve mostly looked to myself.
  1. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?

    There’s so much that I would tell my younger self that I wouldn’t know where to start but to have worked harder to develop relationships particularly earlier on in my career is something that would have been of value to me.