- 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?
For me, it was a case of trying to choose a profession. I was fortunate to be at a good school, and went back and forth between medicine and law. I chose a lot of the sciences at A-levels in case I decided that I wanted to go on to study medicine, but law seemed to be the most interesting from an academic perspective. I hadn’t undertaken any legal work experience to get a solid idea or perception of the legal industry, nor did anyone in my family work within the industry, but I knew that you could go on to become a barrister or a solicitor.
I enjoy practising law a lot more than I did studying it at university. I ended up graduating with a 2:2 and had given up on applying for vacation schemes because I was being rejected. I ended up taking a year out and worked as a bartender while I considered my options. Ultimately, after having studied law for three years, I wanted to see it through: I got a loan and self-funded the Legal Practice Course, and worked on trying to line up a training contract while studying.
- 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 didn’t have any awareness of the impact my ethnicity would have on my career. I started my Training Contract in 2007 and there were no discussions around racial disparity or lack of representation within the industry. I went to a school where I was one of two black children and at university there were maybe two other black individuals in my halls. I was used to being one of a few, or the only black person, so starting my legal career didn’t feel any different to my time at school, university or law school. I didn’t consciously pick up on it, but we are in a minority, and even more so in the legal profession.
There is no doubt that social mobility is also a big problem for the profession, but issues seem more acute when you look different. Breaking through that boundary is a real challenge.
I trained with a lawyer called Chris White who has since gone on to found Aspiring Solicitors. I find it eye opening that before Aspiring Solicitors and RARE recruitment, there was no focus on diversity within the law. The lack of diversity in terms of ethnic minorities, and also women in the law, had almost been accepted as the norm. The fact that we are having these discussions now shows that this is on the agenda. Whether the murder of George Floyd in 2020 accelerated these discussions is another matter, and it is a tragedy that someone had to die like that for people to pay attention, but there is a feeling that people are finally waking up to this issue.
- What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?
I’ve touched on the challenges of being a black lawyer already. On the other side of the coin, I am proud of how my career has developed at Skadden. As I’ve become more senior, I have found my voice (so to speak) and I have been heavily involved in recruitment and attorney development. I think in both of those situations there can be advantages as a black person in being able to relate to a range of diverse candidates. There are also benefits on the client relationship front, for example by building connections with other diverse professionals.
- What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?
A career in law is hard, and it is even harder if you cannot get close to the bottom of the ladder. It is more noticeable with ethnic minorities, but anyone from a low-income household will likely struggle to make that start – which then perpetuates the cycle as it becomes difficult to convince individuals to pursue a career in the law if they cannot see similar representation within the profession. It makes such a difference to be able to see and talk to people who have some sort of similarity to you when you are trying to break into the profession. There is a lot of work to do there.
The great thing about being a lawyer is that it changes a lot, it is very dynamic and there is very little repetition, especially at a firm like Skadden. Dealing with work pressures, with the added weight of your skin colour, is challenging though.
- Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?
I think it has only really been in the last five years that there has been a focus on how interlinked diversity and inclusion is with developing the firm and the people within the firm. Skadden has a very proud history on the diversity front and has done a lot over that time. For example, at the 2015 Skadden Black Attorney conference in New York, Ray McGuire (former CEO of Citibank) opened the conference. Ray is a seriously impressive person, and to hear him speak and open that conference was probably the first time I acknowledged that people were actively trying to improve diversity and inclusion.
Recently RARE recruitment and Aspiring Solicitors have started to help with employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion, but the events of last year have really propelled it. It was as if a fire exploded.
- In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?
Law firms should encourage discussions around diversity and inclusion and lived experiences. Talk about it and do not be afraid to talk about it. I would also encourage frequent and brief discussions rather than long training sessions – it keeps it in people’s minds rather than turning it into a chore. Early in the pandemic, within the practice groups at Skadden we set up groups for people to talk about anti-racism. As a result, we got to (virtually) meet people we wouldn’t usually talk to because it was across the UK and the US, but it was also a great way to get different people’s insights and understandings. It increased and improved the dialogue we were having about anti-racism.
I have also heard very positive things about reverse mentoring – senior individuals within organisations who have been the recipients of reverse mentoring place a lot of value on it.
- Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?
I have been very fortunate in that I had very good training supervisors when I first started my career and picked up different elements from all of them. I worked closely with Stephen Sims, who was instrumental in bringing me to Skadden, and he has been a very significant part of my career path.
- If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?
This is perhaps advice for those who are at the start of their career rather than to my younger self, but I would always encourage people to do as much as you can, take whatever opportunities present themselves to you, and throw yourself into them.