- 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 didn’t really have a set perception if I am honest, which probably put me at a disadvantage. I knew I was probably going to be the only Black person where I was working, but I didn’t really have an understanding of what that would be like. Being a lawyer was just something that I always wanted to do since I was a little girl.
Ultimately my perception has changed as I’ve been in the legal industry for 10 years. It’s a bit of a difficult one as sometimes it’s hard to be conscious about things which make up the everyday environment that you work in and become used to.
I don’t think diversity has improved in terms of structural barriers. There may be more Black associates and some more Black partners but there are still structural barriers. Starting a new job in the legal industry you would still expect to be the only Black person, that perception hasn’t changed.
- 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?
Yes, I knew that because I am Black it will be harder for me, that goes without saying. I can’t speak for all ethnic minorities, but specifically for Black people themes include the negative stereotypes surrounding what is expected of you and people’s beliefs as to what a ‘lawyer’ is supposed to look like. Stereotypes around intelligence, and being held to higher standards that your counterparts, for example being punished more harshly for mistakes than your White counterparts.
It’s these typical themes, which still shock some people to hear about even though they are commonplace experiences for Black people in the workplace. I often hear about these experiences affecting junior Black lawyers especially around qualification time. There seems to be an issue around Black lawyers not being kept on at qualification. It’s something that nobody really discusses when having conversations around retention rates.
People blame ‘unconscious bias’ but I don’t believe this bias is unconscious, it’s conscious. It’s the bias that leads to a certain type of person not being the ‘preferred’ or ‘chosen’ person.
- What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?
It depends on the area of law that you are working in. If you work for example in project finance, I don’t think being a black person is going to hinder you as much as if you are working in tax, which isn’t an area that has as many Black lawyers. If you work in an Africa team for example it’s not going to be as much of an issue for you as if you work in a more traditional area that isn’t Africa facing, or working for clients that are under pressure to instruct a diverse team of lawyers. I think as things change and more law firm clients require more diverse external counsel things will improve. However, I think we are far away from ethnicity being any kind of benefit to you unless it is specifically relevant to the area that you want to work in.
If you are a Black Nigerian and you want to work in project finance and your team predominantly works on projects for clients in Nigeria then ultimately that connection may help you in that respect. If you are a litigation lawyer instructed by investment banks in the City it may help you if they have good diversity policies and they require the lawyers they instruct to be diverse. But I don’t think ethnicity helps you in terms of progression in the legal industry.
- What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?
Racism is the main challenge. It’s important that we don’t deflect from this by calling it ‘unconscious bias’ because by terming it that it abdicates personal responsibility. It suggests people cannot use their agency to be part of the solution and that is not true.
Many law firms still struggle with the idea of collecting data to track what is happening over time ethnic minority talent attrition. I feel like the focus is misplaced on trainees. You need to retain the lawyers you have. It’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it.
- Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?
The biggest shift has been towards graduate recruitment. There has been a real push to make sure that more ethnic minority trainees are hired. However, we are yet to see that follow through to retention and progression past the 5PQE mark. Whilst there is more discussion and most firms now have an employee resource group I am interested to see how much it all will counts for in terms of change.
The firms that have a strong US client base will likely have to fall in line a lot faster, as American companies are more proactive about the diversity of their lawyers. Whereas UK PLCs / European companies don’t seem to be as pressed on the whole. It would still be surprising to see a European company object to instructing a law firm because they are not diverse enough.
Any change in the legal industry is going to be client driven.
- In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?
The biggest issue is work allocation. Until you have a transparent work allocation system that prevents favouritism and prevents people getting stuck on work that is not highly rated, then we are always going to be in a situation where a 2-tier system exists. In this system, those in the ‘in group’ are more favoured for the best work, which also assists their development and lends itself to client relationships with the most important clients. This has an avalanche effect, which ultimately puts those in the ‘in group’ in a good position to be made partner. They are being groomed throughout their career for that progression.
However, for someone not in the ‘in group’ because they don’t look like what the firm consider to fit the bill or look like what the supervising lawyers believe lawyers should look like, you are effectively second tier. Without intervention there will always be people that no matter how hard they try are not favoured, irrespective of their talent.
Personally I have experienced this and I’ve had to push harder to work on well—rated work, because if you don’t you are at a big disadvantage. Not everyone wants to have to constantly fight like that and often their career suffers as a result.
- Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?
I have drawn career inspiration from other Black women who are much more senior than me, so like one person in particular who stands out is Paulette Mastin at Linklaters. She has done so much for the Black Solicitors Network, frequently sacrificing her own time to invest in the next generation and educate us to know and do better. Also, Kizzy Augustin at Russell Cooke, she has been another good example for me too.
It is helpful to be able to speak to people who have been through similar processes to you. There are a lot of other Black partners who have been really proactive in supporting Black senior associates and this makes a huge difference. Creating a network that provides support is important, I try to help other people who are not at my stage yet.
- If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?
I feel like when you are applying for TC it is important to thoroughly diligence the experience of others who trained there and ascertain if it is the right place for you to train. I also think to myself if I had more exposure and more people willing to have transparent conversation with me about what it was really like working in the legal industry as a Black female then I would have had a better perception and been more equipped to deal with the challenges that I would go on to face.
Many of the challenges specific to Black lawyers can have an impact on your mental health, on top of an already stressful job itself. It is understandable why many ethnic minorities leave private practice to go in-house, with the view that an in-house work environment may be better for their mental health. It’s sad to me that you would have to leave a job you have worked so hard to get in order to prioritise your mental health as a Black lawyer.