- 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 stumbled into the legal profession. I had a passion for history and accepted an offer at the LSE. I then, somewhat randomly, thought I should do something vocational and decided to study law. I accepted an offer at Queen Mary College, University of London, and from that point it felt very much like jumping on to a conveyor belt into the legal profession.
My first contact with the legal profession was through editing a legal journal at university. We provided advertising space to law firms and spent a fair amount of time interviewing partners and barristers. That experience was very much like someone from Mars meeting someone from Venus! It was pretty foreign, but excellent exposure. Ambition got the better of feeling out of sorts, and I decided that the legal profession was for me.
Thirty years on, the legal profession has changed beyond recognition. It is less austere and much more focussed on nurturing and developing talent.
- 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 was very much aware of race, but to be honest, I just worked very hard. That is no guarantee to overcoming racism, but I was very tunnel visioned and became known for the right reasons – a young lawyer with great potential. Looking back at it, I was blessed in many ways.
- What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?
There are many ways in which your race can hinder you. I’m not sure that it often helps you, unless you are from a country in which your employer would like to grow a new practice area – and even then it’s like being paraded on a catwalk!
As far as hinderances are concerned, there are far too many and most of these are obvious, primarily covert in nature and holding you back at every step of the way: promotion into the Equity; membership of a firm committee; selection for a transfer to a foreign office; beating off competition for the most popular Trainee seat; being invited to client entertainment at Wimbledon or sharing common interests.
- What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?
There are lots, but one insidious challenge is the perception that clients want to see lawyers who look and sound like them. This was certainly the way it was when I was coming through and it often represented the first great hurdle at interview. As a generalisation, it’s obviously important to have a deep and strong connection with clients and presentation is extremely important, but it is too lazy and unimaginative to use subjective perception as an exclusionary tool to justify discrimination. I would hope that in this day and age, it is less of an issue and that young lawyers from Black and other ethnic backgrounds are being pushed to the front and given the same exposure as their peers from other backgrounds.
- Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?
If you exclude the recent BLM period, none!
- In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?
I don’t think lawyers from Black and other ethnic backgrounds are looking to be treated differently. Otherwise, you create division within the work-place.
As lawyers, most of us have studied equity. It seems to me that it is very much about remembering the underlying principles of equity and then applying them to the organisations we now manage.
There are lots of examples, but I would start by focussing on developing sophisticated models for monitoring and implementing inclusion; with monitoring and reporting undertaken in a very public way: law firm websites, the Legal 500, Chambers, etc.
Fundamentally, and this is relevant to many other issues, it is about separating the pack into those who are paying lip service to the issue and those who are serious: corporate social responsibility programs focussed on education being the most critical for the latter group. It is an area where law firms can proudly show off their commitment and reverse some of the stereotypes from which the profession suffers.
Ultimately, there needs to be more diversity in the Equity. The days of progress based on your school rather than talent needs to be consigned to its rightful place!
- Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?
- If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?
Are you really sure you want to enter the profession? If yes, then work extremely hard, be prepared to work abroad and be nice to everyone from the chairman down to the most junior support staff member.