We must start recognising the Black and Ethnic Minority Lawyers’ Struggle

A version of this article was published in Legal Week, 22 December 2020, here.

We must start recognising the Black and Ethnic Minority Lawyers’ Struggle. Only then can we properly reward it.

Touting a commitment to diversity has become an increasingly popular practice for law firms and never more so than in 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a massive catalyst for law firms to adopt a more meaningful approach to inclusivity and move away from the years of diversity tokenism.

International law firm Dentons has adopted the ‘Accelerating Race Strategy Action Plan’, Norton Rose Fulbright has adopted a reverse mentoring scheme, Linklaters has committed to ensuring that 35% of its trainee intake will be from BAME backgrounds by 2025 and several other major City law firms are following suit.

We have definitely reached a watershed moment and its high time that law firms and those recruiting for them truly understand the black and ethnic minority lawyers’ struggles and how those struggles have given them the grit, ingenuity and boldness to become some of the best in the game, and here is why:

  1. Work Ethic – statistically, we know that the majority of BAME lawyers come from economically challenged, typically modest financial backgrounds. Working one or more jobs whilst studying for their undergraduate degrees, the LPC/GDL and even whilst completing their training contract is not unusual. Law firms would do well to recognise this when considering NQ and training contract applications. Such candidates have superb work ethics; they are resilient, extremely hard working and always prepared to put in the extra shift because – very often – its all they have ever known.
  2. Working Under Pressure – BAME lawyers have proven themselves to be brilliant at working under pressurised conditions because all too often they have had to work incredibly hard – as the underdog – to prove themselves. They have balanced very difficult – often competing – demands simultaneously. For example, many BAME lawyers can only afford to fund the LPC/GDL if completed part time whilst working a 9-5 day job. Very often they also don’t have the luxury of funding from family or otherwise to support themselves and so sustain part time jobs whilst under intense exam stress and whilst managing a gruelling revision timetable.
  3. Ingenuity – for too long BAME lawyers have been the underdog often forced to find new and different ways of standing out for reasons other than their race or skin tone. Finding ways of making their differences work for them in an environment and industry that is not necessarily well adapted for it has not been easy. Unconscious bias, lazy assumptions, archaic recruitment criteria, irresponsible recruitment strategies and a lack of awareness has forced BAME lawyers to think differently. This determined and different way of thinking brings enormous benefits to legal teams and law firms in general.
  4. Relationship Building – most BAME lawyers tell us that it has never felt easy or natural building professional relationships with those that are from non-BAME backgrounds at law firms. Building rapport and making themselves relevant and visible has been essential to their career growth. Inclusion and accessibility – and a lack thereof – are lived experiences. BAME lawyers have had to find ways of making themselves heard without feeling like a nuisance, a whistleblower, or an anarchist.
  5. Intelligence – contextual recruitment is finally getting some (but not sufficient) air time thanks to the likes of Alan Milburn who in 2014 called on Britain’s institutions to make it a country where “success relies on aptitude and ability more than background or birth”. What continues to astonish us – as a recruitment and search firm – is how law firms and those recruiting for them/within them continue to ignore just how fiercely bright so many of these BAME lawyers are. How they have successfully competed as some of the highest performing lawyers despite the odds and without the same support network and educational opportunities has to stop going unnoticed.

Every law firm and individual or business involved with legal recruitment must recognise the importance of these factors and properly reward BAME lawyers with an equal and inclusive opportunity to compete without the structural inequalities that have for too long caused BAME lawyers to have to begin their careers so far behind the start line.

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