“It’s not enough to be invited to the party – you need to be asked to dance too!” Perspectives on Black History Month

To celebrate Black History Month in the UK, Chambers Diversity spoke with three diversity champions to hear about their eye-opening experiences as BAME lawyers working in the legal profession. I found out what Black History Month means to them, their experiences working in law, and their view of what the profession can be doing to tackle inequality going forward. Funke Abimbola, Tunde Okewale MBE and Leslie Thomas QC share their thoughts.

Funke Abimbola, General Counsel and Head of Financial Compliance, Roche UK

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Funke Abimbola: Black History Month means a lot to me because it is important for the community to not only tell its stories but to also celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of those within the community. All too often, our community is not driving the narrative about its past, present and future. Instead, the media chooses to focus on negative news stories. This has a detrimental impact all round but is especially not good for young people who are so easily influenced by what they actually see. Positive role models are incredibly important and I believe very strongly that those role models should be as visible and accessible as possible. To me, BHM is absolutely key to showcasing black excellence to the younger generation.

Leslie Thomas QC: Black History Month is significant to me.  It means recognition of an alternative but nevertheless real history of people who look like me.  When I was growing up in school, that was at a time when history was literally ‘whitewashed’.  I had no idea about the achievements or discoveries of great African thinkers, philosophers, scientists and architects, or of the social planning that took place on that continent. I was led to be believe that such feats were only European in origin.

Tunde Okewale: Black History Month should be a month of awareness that has a long-term objective of ultimately becoming redundant. The promotion of Black History Month should be on the basis that Black history is everyone’s history. For me the objective of Black History Month should be to facilitate the integration of Black history into general world history. We need to ensure that when we celebrate Black history it draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this world.

Who have been the most important influences in your life?

LT: Nelson Mandela has to be one of the most influential people in my life.  Firstly, he was a lawyer who was committed to his people and fighting for the rights of the ordinary person who wanted to take on the injustice of the mighty state. Despite the great personal hardship and self-sacrifice he endured having spent many years locked up, when he was eventually released, he had no time of bitterness or anger, but still decided to dedicate his life to making his country an even better place.  Whilst many may have thought they had ‘done enough’ he did not sit back and take it easy, but committed himself to leading his country through a difficult transition period.  His grace, compassion and energy and good humour are second to none.

What are the key challenges facing black lawyers, and black aspiring lawyers, today?

Tunde Okewale MBE, Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers

FA: I have experienced both racial and gender-based discrimination in my career. On trying to enter the legal profession almost 20 years ago, I faced what would now be described as unconscious cultural bias which is, in fact, a form of racism. My name is obviously African and this proved to be a real barrier in trying to gain an entry-level position before qualifying as a corporate solicitor. I had to literally pick up the phone and make over 150 phone calls to secure my first role.

The biggest issue I see in relation to race diversity today is that people feel very uncomfortable talking about race. This leads to a plethora of issues ranging from complete denial about the race issues to the other extreme where race campaigners are accused of ‘making everything about race.’ Because gender diversity has been the focus of attention for several years, this has been at the cost of advancing the race agenda. This now means that race diversity is 20 years behind gender diversity.

Another frustration is the trend for there to be lots of reviews surrounding racial discrimination – the Parker Review on ethnic diversity on boards, David Lammy’s review on the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system (the latter to which I contributed) and so many others. All the data points to the same core issues yet little (if any) action follows. The consistent theme is that negative assumptions are more likely to be made about you at every stage of your life if you are from a BAME background, the cumulative effect being that the odds of you maximising your potential are severely reduced without targeted interventions and support.

TO: Over the years, I have seen an incremental increase in the opportunities made available for BME practitioners but fundamentally for future BME practitioners. Law firms and chambers are very alive to the fact that diversity amongst their workforce is poor and can’t be sustained in an increasingly globalized business where your clients are literally on the other side of the planet. They want and expect the people working on their deals and cases to, speak their language and, failing that, to understand their cultural mindset when it comes to conducting business. I think it’s for this reason that we have seen incentives from firms to recruit and retain BME talent, a good example is the Eversheds ‘Steven Lawrence Scholarship’ aimed specifically at aspiring Black British lawyers.

However, the attrition levels as BAME lawyers move up the professional ladder is a cause for real concern; the issues of retention and promotion continue to present more of an obstinate challenge for the profession. There remains an issue in relation to the progression of BME practitioners at the Bar, with only 6% of QCs declaring that they are BME (compared with 12% of the practising Bar) and 90% declaring that they are white. These figures are the same as they were in 2014.

LT: I will talk about the Bar, which is where I practice and what I know. There are far fewer places at the Bar, for younger barristers wishing to enter the profession. It is a fact that less chambers are recruiting or offering pupillages than when I entered the profession in the late 80s, and even if you are lucky enough to get a pupillage, there are today fewer tenancies being offered.  The bar is shrinking and becoming more specialised.  This means that fewer places means that competition is tighter than it was in the past.  In the past, if you were a young person from a disadvantaged background, there was more of an opportunity for you to be taken on and prove yourself after a couple of years – but now many Chambers are not even taking that chance.  Many young people of colour from working class backgrounds do not have the same opportunities at an early stage in life, and may just need a little bit of time to catch up.  I know, this because I am one of those people.  I know if I was starting out today, I would be overlooked because the boundaries have changed, and not to the advantage of those from poorer backgrounds. This, I believe, has disproportionately affected black people.

What steps should the profession take to tackle these issues?

Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court Chambers

FA: The profession needs to commit to focused, targeted interventions with measurable outcomes. What doesn’t get measured simply doesn’t get done.

I firmly believe that these interventions need to start as early as possible, ideally from school age. Bright students need to be identified early and supported through a range of interventions including  bursary schemes, early outreach programmes, mentoring and work experience opportunities.

The profession also needs to look at broadening the range of universities they go to for talent. There was a time when the talent pool consisted almost exclusively of Russell Group graduates but this is slowly changing, leading to a more diverse talent pool. Several organisations also now support apprenticeships, doing away with the need to go to university altogether, another great leap forwards.

As well as diversity, inclusion needs to be worked on. It is not enough to be invited to the party, you need to be asked to dance too! My fundamental belief is that embracing our differences to increase diversity of thoughts is essential to gaining and maintaining the competitive edge. There is ample data to support the fact that the more diverse an organisation is, the better the decision-making and profitability of that organisation. I have seen tangible changes and shifts in organisational culture through senior sponsor-led employee networks, mentoring programmes (including reverse mentoring) and sponsorship of diverse talent. None of this happens by chance so targeted and focused interventions are key.

TO: In order to facilitate change and improve the retention and progression of candidates from diverse backgrounds the focus needs to be on inclusion. Firms and chambers should adopt a different focus to their retention and promotion strategies aimed at women and those from minority ethnic backgrounds. They need to help their BME employees be empowered by their backstories and their differences.

LT: At Garden Court we have started an initiative whereby we take on 6 young people who express an interest in the law from year 10 in Secondary School, and we have a mentorship program in chambers.  The schools we take these children from are in less well-off areas.  We target kids from poorer backgrounds and try to target girls and children of colour in an attempt to redress the lack of diversity and discrimination at the Bar.  This mentorship is not for a week or two.  We have decided to make this a long term commitment and the barrister who is assigned to the student will mentor that student throughout their school years from year 10 all the way through university.  It is hoped that the student will therefore know what it is like to come to this strange world known as the Bar, and most importantly, have the confidence to apply for places early and not be put off or frightened by the process.  I believe more Chambers and firms of solicitors need to be doing something similar if we are serious about trying to tackle the lack of diversity in our profession.  It is a small step that we at Garden Court have taken, but it is a step in the right direction, and now we hope that by leading by example others may follow.


Interviewee Bios

Funke Abimbola is the general counsel and head of financial compliance for Roche UK, the world’s largest biotech company, overseeing legal and financial risk for the pharmaceutical business. Currently the most senior black lawyer in her field, she is ranked as being a top 15 BAME leader globally (Financial Times), one of the 100 most influential leaders of African/Afro-Caribbean heritage in the UK (The Powerlist) and a top influencer within the UK’s legal sector (Debretts 500 list). A popular public speaker and recognised diversity campaigner, Funke was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 91st birthday honours list in June 2017 for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.

Tunde Okewale is an award winning international barrister working at Doughty Street Chambers. Tunde is a Registered Lawyer under The FA Football Agents Regulations. Licenced under the Direct Access scheme, Tunde regularly provides companies and individuals with compliance and pre-charge advice. Tunde was listed in The Sunday Times inaugural “Alternative Rich list” in May 2017 , the ‘Alternative Rich List’, celebrates people identified as having enriched the lives of others and who therefore represent the most inspiring side of humanity. Tunde was awarded an MBE in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours list for “services to the community and disadvantaged young people”

Dr Leslie Thomas QC is a human rights/civil liberties barrister of Garden Court Chambers. For more than 25 years Leslie has represented the victims and families of those who have suffered or died in state custody. He has defended the rights of those who have been beaten, denied their liberty, discriminated and abused by state agents, and he has fought fearlessly for the little person taking on the might and power of the state. In 2012 he was awarded Legal Aid Barrister of the Year LALY, and in 2013 Kingston University awarded him Honorary Doctorate for services for civil rights. In 2014 he was awarded Queen’s Counsel, and received The Lawyer Hot 100 Award in the field of campaigners. In 2016 he received a second LALY award for his work on Hillsborough, the following year becoming Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers.

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