- 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?
My initial motivation for pursuing a career in law was simply that at school I liked subjects such as English and History and people suggested to me that these subjects might have transferable skills for a career in law, so I decided to study law at university and really enjoyed it. Whilst I was at university, I began to think more seriously about a career in law and what that would look like. In my second year I did a vacation scheme at Linklaters and really enjoyed that and was delighted to be offered a training contract.
In terms of my perception of the industry before I entered the profession, I thought of it as an elite and highly-regarded profession. I still do think a legal career is a highly-regarded profession, but I think it’s becoming more and more accessible and less elite, which is a great thing. Firms are starting to recognise that grades are not always reflective of how good a lawyer someone might be, and this opens up opportunities to more diverse groups of applicants.
- At the start of your career, did you have any awareness of the impact ethnicity could have on your career progression?
At the start of my career this wasn’t something that I thought about very much. I think this was partly because I was a little bit naive and partly because I just wasn’t as alive to the discussion around diversity and inclusion as perhaps, I am now. However, reflecting today I can recall that when I carried out work experience prior to starting my career, the people that I met during those placements were not ethnically diverse at all and in fact, I cannot think of a single person that I met during those experiences that was from an ethnically diverse background.
- What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?
There has been a lot of evidence indicating that the more diverse a workplace is, the more successful it is, too. Ethnic diversity also means diversity of ideas and experiences. Unique perspectives undoubtedly lead to increased innovation and subsequently, efficiency.
Moreover, the client base of the legal profession is diverse and so, to have lawyers that are also diverse, and can approach and relate to the different backgrounds of our clients can only really be a benefit. There is not just one type of client that we are looking to work for or impress and it is important that the profession reflects wider society. For example, on my podcast (All rise? – Ethnic minorities in law), one of the guests I interviewed, Lubna Shuja, alongside a host of roles and responsibilities, including being Vice President of the Law Society, acts as a mediator. She mentioned that, in that role, she has found that being from an Asian background has almost become a ‘USP’ for her, as there are not many Asian mediators who speak the languages and possess the cultural understanding valued by an Asian client base.
In term of hinderance, I think that unfortunately, someone’s ethnicity could still be a hinderance where they are working amongst a team of people where they are in the minority, especially if that team is not engaged in the conversation around diversity and inclusion.
I do think the profession has seen a lot of progress – today many workplaces have initiatives such as unconscious bias training, which are really important in helping to increase awareness. However, factors such as ‘fit’ and ‘chemistry’ with a pre-existing team, are still words that I hear a lot during hiring and appointment processes, but what do they even mean? Is someone from the same ethnic or social background as you: more likely to share your sense of humour? More likely to communicate and work in a similar way to you? More likely to have shared experiences and similar interests to you? Yes. So, if these are the things that ‘fit’ and ‘chemistry’ encompass, then it is clear to me that these terms should be out of date in a profession that is truly looking to achieve diversity.
- What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?
Currently, if you look at the statistics, diversity at the entry level of the legal profession has improved substantially, which is great. However, I think the main challenge lies within retaining and promoting talented lawyers from ethnic minority backgrounds; those improved figures at entry level do not seem to be translating higher up the ladder and that is concerning.
Diversity and inclusion have become more serious considerations in many workplaces in last few years, but this is a conversation that has been going on much, much longer than that and yet still, despite most organisations having had diversity promises and commitments on their websites for many years now, we are not seeing enough people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the top positions. There are still hardly any black Partners at law firms in the City and even the number of black Senior Associates is very low, for example, and this is disappointing.
- Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?
My career in practice has been around 4 and half years so far, but there have been changes in that time.
Over the last year or so in particular, firms seem to be taking diversity a lot more seriously and instead of just saying things, are now considering what tangible actions can be taken to achieve goals or targets. I also think that today people are a lot more willing to have conversations around topics such as race. The subject is not always an easy or comfortable thing for everyone to talk about, but I think that is OK. Engaging in difficult conversations and listening to new perspectives are some of the best ways to learn. In my experience, today people are more willing and open to this and therefore, challenging their own pre-existing views and biases, than they would have been even two or three years ago.
- In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?
First, I would encourage all law firms to look at their statistics more critically and analytically. Look at what your website says in terms of D&I and then look at your stats in reality. How many of your trainees or associates from ethnically diverse backgrounds have been retained / promoted in the last year? What are their appraisal grades comparatively to their white and not so ethnically diverse counterparts? How is work allocated and who is consistently getting the chance to do the work they would prefer? Is there an ethnicity pay gap? If any themes emerge, steps should immediately be taken to address them. For example, perhaps the inclusivity of internal appraisal processes could be improved through ensuring that someone from an ethnic minority background is always part of the appraising panel and party to discussions around grading and bonus decisions.
Some firms operate mentoring or reverse mentoring programmes aimed specifically at individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds. I think this is an example of good practice. Scheduling informal and formal discussion groups and panels to check in with those from ethnic minority backgrounds on a regular basis is also helpful.
- Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?
If I could give my younger self some advice it would be to be as proactive as possible and to tell people what you want to do and what you want to achieve, because I think that generally people want to help you and the opportunities that arise as a result can be surprising. I also think that saying ‘yes’ to opportunities and being open to different possibilities during the early stages of a career can only be helpful, as you don’t know where things might lead.