- 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 am afraid to say that there was no great inspirational motivation other than that I wanted to do something that I would enjoy doing. I didn’t consider whether the career would be viable, just what I thought would be give me personal and professional satisfaction.
I knew in 1989/90 that the profession was not diverse at all. Anyone around at the time knew that. Getting into law school itself was a hurdle. You had to compete for places and competition was not determined by ability – academic or otherwise or indeed by any known or published criteria.
Clearly much progress has been made. The statistics speak for themselves; there are more opportunities, there are more platforms to spring into the profession from. So yes, there has been some improvement in terms of access and opportunity. Of course, one must remember that the starting position was quite low. It could only get better.
- 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 aware that my background and my ethnicity presented substantial barriers. You only had to look at senior lawyers, academics, and judges. The environment was at best unfriendly and all of us took it as part of our existence but you were very aware.
There are so many colleagues who have done amazingly and blazed the trail.
- What are some examples of how someone’s ethnicity could help or hinder them as they navigate the legal profession?
The story of the black barrister who was often mistaken for the defendant caused such a stir. The outcry in some quarters is proof of change because that story is one which most black lawyers would have experienced. I have. We just sat through it silently. Many years ago, I was sitting at the bar in court representing a white claimant in an action against the police and my opponent was white. For some reason the judge decided that if I was the only black person in the court room and regardless of where I was sitting and how I was dressed, then I must be the litigant. This was in spite of the fact that I had been introduced by the usher and by my opponent whose application was before the court. I had also introduced my client who was sitting at the back of the court. This judge kept referring to me as the litigant even after my opponent corrected him twice.
In business, I have walked into meetings as the leader of the team and been regarded as admin support; One CEO even asked a former employer privately if they could have “someone else” only after he had seen me; yet this person had been speaking with me on the phone for several weeks and had no issue until he saw me.
In my professional life, I have seldom come cross senior lawyers in large corporates – they are simply not getting appointed in as great a number as we should.
I think you can look at the number of senior lawyers, those who occupy for example head of legal or GC roles and that will give an impression of where we are as a profession.
- What do you see as the main challenges facing ethnic minorities working in the legal sector?
Now this is tricky. I should say that unconscious bias is the biggest issue. Most people will argue that they are not racist or prejudiced or that our systems and institutions are not – I think that it is probably true that most of us are not but there is a lack of understanding of what unconscious bias is and how it manifests itself. What we need to do is not just acknowledge the issue and we must. But, we must also consciously address closing the gap and dealing with an unknown and/or the subconscious. Our assessments must be based on empirical evidence rather than some preconceived sentimental or emotional defensive response. For example, it is clear that access is now better. There are more minority students at law schools today than there ever were. There are more minority pupil Barristers and Trainee Solicitors now than there were when I qualified; there are more senior ethnic minority lawyers today. But there are issues of progression – a system in which minorities do not rise through the ranks in many sectors must not be defended. Opportunity, access and progression must be tackled with openness.
Another point to make is that if we are to tackle the issues with any honesty then it cannot be that the platform for tackling it excludes those who are the subjects of prejudice and discrimination. Plus, when we include minorities we must make sure that those who represent ethnic minority groups are selected on the basis of their competence rather than tokenism or their sympathy to desired outcomes. They must also be in positions where they can influence debate, dialogue and outcomes.
- Spanning your legal career, what changes have you seen in employer awareness and attitudes towards diversity and inclusion?
That we can have this sort of interview is progress. The demand for change and the visibility of ethnic minority senior lawyers whether as partners, QCs, General Counsel, Judges, academics etc is evidence of this change. But we must move beyond rhetoric. You can legislate against overt racist and prejudiced behaviour but you can’t legislate against innate, inherent racist and prejudicial beliefs. It is great for there to be recognition that prejudiced behaviour is unacceptable but we must tackle the irrationality of prejudice and racism and the discrimination that results from these beliefs.
Employers must be challenged not just to have processes, policies and systems that address discrimination but they should also be compelled to measure, identify, and tackle beliefs especially the unconscious bias that most of us are unaware that we habour and hold. When you read statistics that tell us that 40% of white professionals are unaware of how to get a promotion and yet are most likely to receive one against 42% of black professionals who do not receive any pay increase after negotiation, inherent bias and obstacles are clearly prevalent. Again, according to the Government’s Employment by Occupation data published in May last year just 5% of Black workers are in managerial/director/senior official roles against 11% of White workers. Areas of pay and reward and career progression still show some staggering differences in opportunities and outcomes.
Some employers (not all and not many actually) are talking about inclusion and that is good but the talk is still lagging behind and the action and enforcement are in an even worse place.
Before anyone asserts their opinion please just look at the data.
- In what ways can law firms or legal teams be more inclusive? Can you identify any examples of good practice within the profession?
I am not an enthusiast when it comes to positive discrimination but I must argue that compulsive action is required. Again, no one is asking for preferential treatment – what is required is that the barriers of entry and movement must be tackled directly. Systems that prevent an inherent and unconscious bias from emerging must be dismantled. So, there should be policies for example, insisting that suppliers have targets and policies that require them to actively tackle the issue. Some organisations are adopting approaches that require some positive action. We are not there yet on gender parity but we have seen good progress on that front through intentional and direct action and we need something similar for ethnic and race prejudice to be addressed. Firms especially those that are regulated must be required to report on race and ethnic equality measures and we know that some regulators especially in the financial services spaces are doing just that – it must be commended. Nikhil Rathi, CEO argued in March that diversity and inclusion are regulatory issues. Reporting on FCA’s ethnicity pay gap of 27% in January 2021, Georgina Philippou also insisted that it is of concern to the regulator that too many BAME colleagues are in junior roles and so the FCA has set targets to address this. They also state the desire to see regulators and industry working together to create a more ethnically diverse culture in financial services.
The point is whether we like it or not unless most firms and organisations are compelled and required to do so, they will do very little to directly tackle ethnic inequality issues and unconscious bias – many think there is no issue precisely because bias is unconscious. It is there but many don’t know what it is or looks like.
- Who or where have you drawn career inspiration from?
I won’t single out any individual but there are several colleagues who collectively we encouraged and supported each other’s’ careers when diversity and inclusion was not on the agenda. Many of these individuals have helped in no small measure to pave the way for access and opportunity, platforms that have been used ever so effectively by many others to make a difference. I’d say a big thank you to them. Many years ago, there were so few ethnic minority lawyers in the profession but it is so much better today.
- If you could give your younger self some advice, what would that advice be?
Enjoy the ride and be braver to challenge the status quo. I admire today’s generation and their bravery and tenacity.