On 22 July 2020 Russell-Cooke hosted an online event for aspiring solicitors from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. The event was due to be held in person in March but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Titled "Navigating the barriers: is it game on for aspiring BAME lawyers?" the panel discussion featured prominent external speakers I. Stephanie Boyce, current deputy Vice-President of the Law Society, Paulette Mastin, Counsel at Linklaters and President of the Black Solicitors Network and Isaac Eloi, trainee at Freeths and co-founder of the Black Men in Law network.
The event was chaired by Russell-Cooke partner and Precious Award winner Kizzy Augustin and introduced by Gareth Ledsham, Equality Diversity and Inclusion lead at the firm. Also on the panel to discuss their experiences were partner Shabnam Ali-Khan and associate Rebecca Olaniyan.
All speakers were asked about the specific challenges they had faced in their careers to date. There were many common themes. Although it was acknowledged that the term BAME may be convenient, it groups together a hugely diverse range of individuals who face very different issues. The panel referred to the divergent experiences of black men and women, Asians being grouped under a single umbrella, East Asians being hidden completely and the terminology failing to recognise further complexities resulting from intersectionality. Equally law firms were able to hide behind the term BAME which may be inflated by the relatively high numbers of Asian women in the profession, whilst covering poor or no representation amongst other groups.
As Isaac Eloi said: "Race is much deeper than colour," referencing many complex identities, such as his own within both black and LGBT communities. "I found it very difficult to find black men as mentors – black men’s experience is very specifically gendered and racialized." He called on law firms to focus on the reasons for very high attrition rates and helping young black lawyers to understand what they have to do to progress within law firms.
Paulette Mastin gave advice to aspiring solicitors from these communities: "A strong work ethic is good but it’s not enough. You need to take responsibility for your own career development. It takes hard (technical) skills to land the job but you need soft skills to progress your career – seek out stretch assignments, do business development, network and build your profile both internally and externally."
I. Stephanie Boyce highlighted the need for aspiring solicitors to show self-belief, resilience and determination. She said: "See your setbacks not as the end but as opportunities. It’s not a case of how many times did I get knocked down, but how many times did I get up again?"
But all focused on the reality that genuine diversity in the legal profession was dependent on the actions of employers and training providers. They called upon law firms to measure genuine stats at all stages, to investigate why BAME talent leaves the profession at a higher rate than non-BAME talent, and to test whether opportunities within the firm are genuinely free of bias.
In terms of the actions of aspiring lawyers the tone was positive and inspirational. It was generally recognised that a moment has come where law firms are asking what they can do to help, how they can make things easier, and are sponsoring and running initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion. All of this has to be good for new entrants and junior lawyers and perhaps the time has come for them to celebrate their differences and using their diversity to their advantage by taking every opportunity that is available.
EDI partner Gareth Ledsham summarised: "We felt it was important to hold this event back in March when it was first planned. The impact of the coronavirus on minority ethnic communities and the global outcry following events in the USA in late May made it imperative that we see and hear the stories of non-white professionals and aspiring professionals. Our panel members were totally open about both the challenges they all faced in their careers and also what the profession, and law firms in particular, could and should be doing to help aspiring solicitors from non-white or minority backgrounds. I was there to hear their testimony and bring it back to the firm to make sure we are not inadvertently enabling inequality and we are finding ways to tackle barriers where they exist. We believe at Russell-Cooke we have a working environment within which we celebrate the diversity that our people bring, and people can bring their authentic selves to work. However, we also acknowledge that we can do better in attracting a more diverse pool of talent to the firm and ensuring they are given an equal opportunity from the outset."
Russell-Cooke will be hosting an in person networking follow-up event when Government guidelines allow.