Black History Month: BAME students have the power to change the legal industry

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Lorna NsoatabeProgress with respect to ethnic diversity within the legal industry is happening. Some 22.7 per cent of trainees entering the legal profession in the UK are of BAME background according to 2017 Diversity Tables from the Black Solicitors Network.

However, in certain segments and at the top of the industry, it is not happening fast enough.

Is the way we report and talk about ethnic diversity hindering progress?

In my experience – first as a BAME student and then as a legal professional meeting students – the predominant concern for people from BAME backgrounds, whether it be about studying law at university or entering the legal profession, is that they will not fit in.  When asked why, the response is nearly always two-fold: one, there is limited BAME – specifically black – representation (particularly at the top); and two, they have been told that the law, and specifically City law, is not for them.

The former cannot be resolved without the active involvement of people from BAME backgrounds. There are many factors limiting BAME representation at the top, but if we also self-select out, progress will not be possible.

The latter depends on the former. People from BAME backgrounds are more likely to self-select out, if they are constantly being fed a rhetoric that the legal industry does not want them. This self-selection may manifest itself in the choices made at the start of their career or when considering promotion possibilities. We should collect statistics and challenge firms but we should also take a step back and ask – who is listening to this and is this going to help make a change?

The chicken and the egg

Progress is being made with respect to recruitment but the industry is struggling to retain and promote diverse talent.  Does the issue then shift from diversity to inclusion?  No – in a question of which comes first, the answer must be diversity.

Verna Myers, the VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, said that diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance. But what if you would rather sit and listen to the music (assuming your music preferences have been taken into account), or want to dance before being asked or when you do dance, you do not dance like everyone else? True inclusion is being at the party, dancing or not dancing however you like and feeling comfortable doing so – not waiting to be asked to dance to someone else’s music. For the vast majority of people from BAME backgrounds, this will only happen in a diverse space.  No matter how inclusive or friendly an environment, if you are always the exception, it is hard to feel truly included.

Next steps

My experience is mine.  We cannot have someone else’s experience – but we can listen.  The first step has to be continued conversation with different people from BAME backgrounds to understand their choices and experience.

As a second step however, we need to stop telling people from BAME backgrounds that they either will not feel included, or, for those already in the industry, that they are not included.  No matter how many initiatives are introduced to generate an inclusive environment, if the conversation is always that we are not included, it is difficult to think otherwise.

The narrative must shift – people from BAME backgrounds are the key to an inclusive environment. BAME students and graduates have the power to change the legal industry.  Their presence alone will impact inclusivity. The priority must be to get people in the door and get them to stay.

I am not suggesting the industry should not be held to a standard. Nor am I suggesting that we should stop criticising where criticism is due.  But we must question what any criticism hopes to achieve and, if possible, track the consequence of the criticism.  Where it achieves change and progress – great.  But where it does not, we should think about the harm that lazy criticism might be doing?

We need to spend more time inspiring and celebrating – rather than highlighting flaws, we should identify where firms have found solutions.  Contextualised recruitment, increased mentoring and sponsorship and unconscious bias training, are making a difference.

While certain criticism is warranted, sometimes it serves only to dissuade capable candidates from aiming high.  There is a balance that needs to be found between highlighting a concern and scaring people off.  If we accept the importance of BAME representation, we have to find the balance.

An example: representation at Oxbridge is an example where the media appear to have lost focus of the purpose of their criticism.

The recent spate of media attention surrounding black representation at Oxbridge has included headlines from respected news sources such as “Love Island statistically admits higher proportion of black people than Oxbridge”. Even ignoring the many variables and assuming those statistics are accurate, who are these headlines benefitting?  Should black people give up on applying to Oxbridge and instead all apply to go on Love Island?  No – but this is the message we are sending.

Responsible reporting, whether it be about Oxbridge or the legal industry, needs to consider its purpose. If we want to increase BAME representation at the top of the legal industry, we have to encourage people from BAME backgrounds to both enter the industry and stick with it. There are clearly other factors hindering progress, but thinking about how we advertise the legal industry has the potential to make a difference.

Our priority is ensuring that people from BAME backgrounds get the same opportunities as their non-BAME peers. Any action that convinces them not to try must at least be discussed.

Lorna Nsoatabe is an associate at Slaughter and May

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