Guest post by Rabina Ahmed, financial services disputes solicitor at law firm TLT, and Dr Tunde Okewale MBE, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers
Encouraging diversity is now almost a universal feature in law firm recruitment strategies, with public commitments, recruitment campaigns and a wide range of initiatives ongoing across the sector.
The industry clearly accepts and is increasingly experiencing the benefits of bringing a wide range of backgrounds and views to the table.
But, cutting through the noise, there is much work to do. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students are still woefully under-represented, which means there’s a raft of talent that firms aren’t yet tapping in to.
For someone from a BAME background standing outside looking in, that under-representation might seem at first like a barrier. Despite the positive noises, is law still a place where having the right background or education matters?
For anyone on the inside looking out, however, that is not the case: the accepted strategic imperative means the opposite is in fact increasingly true. Diversity of background and experience matters – and that’s across the sector, whether operating in private practice, within a business or in a barrister’s chamber.
Firms are working hard to address the barriers, broaden their networks and drive change. But BAME students shouldn’t be passive spectators. There is much that they can do to grab the opportunities to further their own careers, as well as playing a crucial role in building a more diverse sector.
That message came through loud and clear during TLT’s BAME student event series last year. A core theme centred around BAME students being more confident that the insight and experience they bring is an enormous benefit that they need to shout about rather than hide; also, that they have a role to play in transforming the sector.
Perceptions still linger that BAME candidates have to work harder to achieve equality – and this clearly is still a challenge.
It would be disingenuous to say the path to success is easy. Longstanding personal networks, familiarity with the opportunities that are available and how to access them, will be an advantage to some candidates. And a lack of that knowledge will be a potential barrier for others.
So, how to grab opportunities given that context is a question we often hear? Unfortunately, one of the biggest blockers is self-elimination. So, to start with, future lawyers should remember that if they are proactive and getting out there, opportunities are more likely to present themselves.
Speaking to lawyers, attending law firm events and seizing every opportunity to meet with and learn from those already in the sector is a great way to build knowledge and confidence.
Introduce yourself to people – you’ll be surprised at how many are willing to help and offer guidance and support.
Many firms also offer commercial awareness training and know-how sessions – so think about any knowledge gaps and identify seminars and courses that can help to fill them. There are also some great online resources where you can find out more information on opportunities, including the websites of commercial law firms and the Law Society.
Importantly, when you’re in the room, recognise that you have as much right to be there as the next person. Work hard to build your network and get the information you need. Ask questions, be interested.
Law is a challenging career and you need to go in with your eyes open and with commitment if you want to succeed.
As your career develops, networks will continue to be essential to your success and you should work hard to maintain them. You can also ‘pay it forward’ by using those networks to offer a helping hand to the next generation of lawyers, ensuring that the door is pushed wider for those following behind.
The abiding message for future lawyers is to seek opportunities and grab them with both hands as they arise. Law firms are changing, they want to reach out to you, so have the confidence and self-belief in what you can bring.
Together, we can move faster to change the legal industry for good.