Black History Month: A Conversation with Paul McFarlane

Paul McFarlane, Partner, Weightmans

What drew you to the law?

I never thought about being a lawyer when I was younger – I wanted to be a journalist or an economist. At A Level I studied Maths and Economics because I was interested, and someone suggested Law – so I gave it a go.

The teacher I had was very enthusiastic about the law and that inspired me. When I was looking at degrees, the first time round I applied for Economics but I had better results in Law, so I took it as a sign that it was the road I should go down.

My career isn’t really an example of how to do things. At law school, you were meant to sign up to do professional exams in the first few weeks. I didn’t really think I was going to be a lawyer, I just thought it would be good on the CV – so I didn’t apply and it pushed me back a year.

I did quite well in my degree; I got a 2:1 from Middlesex University and then had a year out at the Crown Prosecution Service, whilst waiting to do my professional exams.

From years 1990-93 I was trying to get a training contract but didn’t get anywhere, despite 400 applications for training contacts. I had interviews but no offers. It was an extremely depressing time. I went for a role at London Transport and it was the first time that I felt my interviewers actually gave me a chance to talk about myself and what I could do, and maybe I was savvier and that bit more mature.

What initiated the transition to private practice?

I enjoyed most of my time in house, I was part of a fantastic team of talented employment lawyers. However after six years I felt I was ready for a new challenge. It was a connection from this role that initiated the move to Weightmans. I’m very unusual for having moved from an in-house to a private practice role; most people move the other way, but it worked for me.

What does Black History Month mean to you and why is it important that it is recognised in the workplace – particularly in the legal profession?

It’s a month to celebrate Black achievement. There’s lots of negative press about the black community throughout the year, so this month is a chance to focus on black exceptionality instead.

I don’t think BHM is something actively pushed in the workplace, however, which is perhaps a fault of ours. I don’t hear much about it in the workplace or in the legal profession at large, so there is work to do there. I’m not absolving myself, I need to be part of the solution. Those in senior positions need to make more of a noise about it.

The events and discussions that we have around Black History Month need to be more inclusive, so they’re not perceived as being aimed at an exclusively black audience and everybody feels engaged. I’ve had conversations with white colleagues where I’ve invited them to BHM events and they think it isn’t for them. But it’s not just a black history issue, it’s a society issue. The more black people progress, the more we build society and don’t waste valuable resources. Breaking down these barriers is so important for growth. You see the similarities rather than the differences.

Which heroes inspired you and how do you actively serve as a role model to black lawyers of the future?

I had sporting heroes, so my hero was the cricketer, Sir Viv Richards. In terms of civil rights, Martin Luther King was my hero. In terms of trailblazers, three black MPs who got into parliament in 1987: Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz and Paul Boateng.  I was very interested in politics so it gave me a sense of empowerment – it coincided with my degree – and I felt we were moving in the right direction.

In the workplace, I like to teach and bring on young employment lawyers. I’ve tried to impart my experience to help them progress their careers. It’s actually been predominantly white lawyers, mainly female lawyers actually – I’ve given them my experience as a black man. There are similar issues in terms of the obstacles to progression that exist. I’ve also been involved in mentoring.

What have you observed, in terms of discrimination, as an employment lawyer.

About 75-80% of my work comprises representing employers. A lot of the issues surround poor communication on both sides. More generally, I think there’s an issue around progression, especially in law. When I started out, there were fewer black trainees – the event we went to the other day, you’d never have got a room full like that of young black trainees in the early 90’s. Recruitment is much better now than it was. I’m concerned about opportunities for young black lawyers to progress – moving up to associate and to partner remains a big challenge. A lot needs to be done in terms of coaching, mentoring and sponsoring to help move people up the ladder. Communication needs to be better. Also some employers  will duck a problem if there’s a black person involved and wait until it’s too late, which creates its own problems. If there is an issue, regardless of race, you need to tackle it – that doesn’t tend to happen so much for black people.

What has changed for black lawyers in the course of your career?

It’s a different world to the one we were in when I started out. There’s more opportunity at the early stages but also more competition. It’s hard to get a training contract – you really need to put in a lot of leg work. That’s not just having strong academics, but showing the employer that you have the desire to succeed in the profession and can apply the law practically.

You need to be resilient to progress. You will have knockbacks. Without resilience you won’t survive. You need to try and get feedback as to why you haven’t got the role, so you can learn from it. If you don’t know what errors you may or may not have made you can’t correct the problem. Also, don’t be shy – I always have been and it held me back in the early stages of my career – you have to go out there, talk to people and make your face and name known. You have to be your own advocate. You need to trumpet your cause.

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Paul is a Partner at Weightmans LLP and has over 20 years experience advising on all aspects of employment law. Prior to working at Weightmans LLP he worked in-house, firstly for London Transport and then Royal Mail. He regularly writes in the national and HR press on employment law issues. Paul chair’s the Employment Lawyers Association’s Legislative & Policy Committee which comments on proposals made for employment law reform by government etc. Paul is also a Board member of the Black Solicitors Network with responsibility for Careers and Development which involves him engaging with firms to try and promote better diversity and inclusion practices.

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