Leah Brown – Trussle | Diversity in Law

Leah Brown
  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?

    In truth, I wanted to be a diplomat but as a multi-national individual, I could not choose which foreign service to apply for! I was attracted to a job with intellectual rigour, problem-solving and which would allow me to make an impact. My perception of the legal industry was that it presented a variety of opportunity – I completed work experience in wills, trusts and estates, as well as international private client, family law and mediation, before working in-house for a commercial food group after completing my Graduate Diploma in Law exams. I was aware of the range of issues lawyers are asked to opine on, all of which presented their own challenges.
  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 knew early on that the legal profession has a reputation for being biased – lots of my contemporaries on the BPTC were going into immigration, crime and family. I wanted to secure pupillage at commercial and chancery sets, something I did not manage. Whilst studying I was asked by a Head of Chambers whether my CV was really my CV!  

    My career hasn’t been without opposition either – as a trainee, I was assigned other people’s work because they couldn’t tell the difference between the black women in the team; I was told that I wouldn’t fit in at a hedge fund because I’m not white or male. Many people would argue that my career has not been impacted by my ethnicity because I have done so well, but I disagree. I have had to learn to express myself differently, to present myself in a way that compensates for other peoples’ feelings. I have to be excellent all the time, and to be extremely careful in how I communicate anger. I have to prove that I am someone worth trusting, someone worth being paid properly, and I have to work harder than my peers for the same recognition.
  1. What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?

    It is hard to get through selection processes and there is nothing worse than feeling like you were chosen to satisfy a quota. Ethnic minorities usually have non-traditional surnames or were educated abroad, and these act as unnecessary barriers to the interview room. The legal industry is a very judgmental place and people rely on stereotypes when determining whether they want to see a candidate or not. They also consider how they feel about that candidate personally when deciding whether to hire them or not in a professional capacity.
  1. What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?

    Access remains the greatest difficulty for people of colour in the legal sector – old prejudices are shifting, but by and large they remain. People tend to be suspicious of people that are different than them, but there are a huge number of studies that show that the greater the diversity in a team, the better performance of that team. Another challenge is stickability.

    Lawyers recruit people like them – similar universities, firms, backgrounds. It is hard to picture yourself in a workplace when no one else like you is at the table. Moreover, it is harder to stay in an environment that does not welcome your diversity.
  1. Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?

    Diversity and inclusion remains a hot topic, gaining more focus for businesses with 250+ employees, but also for regulated firms. There have been a lot more roundtables, and calls for employer action from employees. But it is hard to find people in SMEs / small firms to run these initiatives and ensure they get sufficient attention from senior leadership. Also, logic does not change perceptions. Perceptions are only altered over long periods of time, and usually on a case by case basis. Impactful D&I takes time, and firms with high attrition will see that it takes longer to change perceptions and culture.
  1. In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?

    Blind recruitment processes, recruiting for values and drive rather than experience and exposure, offering work experience, challenging leadership and becoming a part of the solution.
  1. Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?

    I’m really grateful for various networking groups I am a part of including Black Women in Asset Management, and the partners I work closely with at GlobalMindED. It is easy to feel isolated as an ethnic minority female, but we are all over the place, responsible for our own patches, and it is great when we come together to share our experiences and propel one another on to keep mentoring others and driving change in the industry.
  1. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?

    Know your own value and own it. Don’t let anyone make you feel less than you are, and believe that the sky is the limit.