Shani Gunawardana – DLA Piper | Diversity in Law

Shani Gunawardana
  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?

    My mother was a lawyer in Sri Lanka and there is truth in the saying that ‘lawyers breed lawyers’. I grew up with that influence and therefore it felt natural for me to also progress into the legal industry.

    Growing up in the 90’s you were very much taught that you could do anything, and change the world. The legal industry seemed like a good avenue to pursue that goal – whether it was realistic or not. When I was younger I was convinced that I was going to be a lawyer that fought for animal rights.

    The perceptions that I had of the legal industry were quite inaccurate and limited to  what you saw in movies and on TV. I thought that a lawyer was somebody who went to court and argued a case.  In reality, the profession encompasses much more than this and in reality, only a very small fraction of what a lawyer does is actually going to court and arguing a case. Especially now I think client expectations have developed and they expect their legal advisors to provide holistic commercial strategies as opposed to advice on black letter law.
  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 grew up in New Zealand and we immigrated there when I was still quite young. I was fortunate in the sense that I could quite easily assimilate to the culture and society we had immigrated to. I, from a young age, identified as a New Zealander as well as a Sri Lankan, therefore it never occurred to me to consider my experience through an ethnic lens. Realistically, I become more aware of my own ethnicity when I entered the legal profession as I began to recognise that, more often than not, I was the only ethnic person in the room. Unfortunately the legal industry tends to be quite a homogenised group and you are a stark contrast to that. Luckily this is changing.

    I don’t feel that I can speak for other people, but in terms of the experiences I have had I imagine people from diverse backgrounds have a similar rhetoric – ‘I am the only ethnic person in this room, or on this phone call’. Realistically, you are going to have experiences based your ethnicity that other people may not potentially be able to relate to. This is in turn can cause feelings of isolation or feeling misunderstood.
  1. What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?

    In term of helping, now there is this real focus on diversity and inclusion, and it is a topic that the legal industry are cognisant off. We are seeing a real positive shift in the industry which is actively moving towards ethnic diversity and awareness.

    I think the many industries recognises that it order to provide the best service to clients and customers they need to reflect society more accurately. We are seeing programmes that focus on that, groups being set up within firms to engage with these themes and  the allocation of resources for the same.

    Firms are making commitments to ensuring that diversity is brought up through the ranks; from entering into the profession to allowing for career progression. There more opportunities than there ever has been historically for people of with an ethnic background to enter and progress in the legal profession.  

    In terms of hinderance, its translating that awareness and discussion into actual change as opposed to utilising the movement for PR purposes. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to fight against unconscious bias and prejudice. Everyone and every institution suffers from this to an extent which is a product of centuries of injustice and prejudice. These prejudices are intrinsic in the system and people that will still act to hinder progress towards a more diverse profession.
  1. What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?

    I don’t think it is necessarily people working within the legal sector, it is actually getting into the legal profession and into law schools in the first place. As a complete generalisation, if you come from a diverse background, where you have potentially not been exposed to privileges and opportunities available to others then there is an increased risk that you will get into the right school, get offered the training contract, or the pupillage. You may not have had the same resources as someone who didn’t go through those struggles and came from a different background. You start from a different start line from everyone else and you see that reflected in the diversity statistics at universities and law schools. This is then reflected in the candidates that are offered training contracts/pupillages.

    You need so much in terms of guidance and resources to create a successful child, a successful young and ultimately a successful adult. If certain key resources are absent, such as financially or a loving safe home,  that is going to corelate to anyone’s ability to pursue a challenging university degree, obtain a  competitive training contract and get a role in a challenging industry.
  1. Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?

    There has been a shift to proactively addressing diversity and inclusion which is great. As I mentioned before you see lots of working groups dedicated to these ideals.  I haven’t seen a corporate value slogan that hasn’t included ‘inclusion, diversity and collaboration’ for a while.

    People now recognise that this is an issue that we have to proactively challenge and working towards in organisations. Even small gestures like seeing a ‘Happy Diwali’ circulated within a firm it lovely –  its lovely to recognise the important events for different ethnic groups that represent a sector of your company and clients.

    Awareness about what is appropriate and what is not has changed dramatically. I remember when I started at my very first law firm in New Zealand as a very young, very bright eyed lawyer ready to take on the world and my partner said to me whilst we were having a coffee ‘’have you ever thought about becoming a judge?’’ and I said, ‘’I’ve barely become a lawyer so how am I going to be a judge?’’. He said ‘’well you’re brown and a women so you would be a foot in’’. He was the loveliest man and he wasn’t saying it in an offensive way, he seriously thought I should think about it because the court system is actively looking to diversify in New Zealand. That was 6 or 7 years ago and the attitude has changed dramatically. I don’t think anybody would say that to me now as it would be considered so politically incorrect.
  1. In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?

    Like I previously mentioned, there is a lot being done to bring awareness to these issues. However, the only way you can work towards real change is by seeing diversity reflected within your company itself. I think that mentoring and other training programmes would be a key part of this – focusing on providing young people from diverse backgrounds access to resources and guidance.  

    My firm, for example run  pro-bono programme where you can mentor immigrant women, who may have relevant experience but don’t have the confidence to go into the UK market and and interview for a role. You help them to prepare for interviews and mentor them thought that. This is an example of proactive action firm can take.

    For there to be true change, it needs to be reflected in the people in that firm. No homogenised group can accurately understand or provide for the needs of another.
  1. Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?

    My mother, she was an immigrant woman, she was the first female in the Sri Lankan Navy, she raised two kids in a foreign country and could take on the world as far as I am concerned. I think any single mother is a great source of inspiration.

    I recently read Michelle Obama’s ‘becoming’ and one thing I found really inspiring about her journey was that although she did’t necessarily enjoy being a lawyer, nor did she consider being First Lady her life’s purpose,  she always worked incredibly hard and gave it her all. That is an amazing quality to have – regardless of what you are doing and you should be consistently trying your best.

    In contrast to that I read Ruth Bader-Ginsburg biography. Her passion for her work resonates in everything she does, which is again, something you should bringto your career and work.

    Those seem like two very good traits to live by, find your passion but if you don’t or you’re not there yet – still give it your all.
  1. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?

    It would probably be to relax a little bit, to just take things as they come. All the things that you think are incredibly important are not.