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Black History Month 2018: celebrating diversity in our profession

01 October 2018

This year marks the 9th year in which the Law Society is celebrating Black History Month. It's particularly heartening to see the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) solicitors has continued to increase.

Black History Month speakers

As of 2017 the number of Black and Minority Ethnic solicitors is 19,674, 16.5 per cent of the profession who hold a practising certificate.

There is a lot that has happened for the BAME community in and out of law and I felt that it would be appropriate to focus on two things that I feel have had a major impact, the Windrush Scandal and mental health.

Windrush 70th year

This year marks 70 years since the first of the Windrush Generation arrived in the UK – with the lure of greater job opportunities and a better life. The influx of Caribbean immigrants played a large part in underpinning and supporting the NHS and the public transport service.

Fast forward 70 years and it is ironic that a community who contributed much to the country have become victims of the Windrush scandal that engulfed the government earlier in the year. The scandal saw former Home Secretary Amber Rudd depart the Home Office and Sajid Javid enter as the first Ethnic Minority to hold a major office of state. The way that the scandal was dealt with left a massive feeling of resentment in the community towards the government as well as having huge ramifications on the families and their mental well-being.

The Windrush Generation brought about a positive change to society. There are still issues that people face and it is only by working together that society can become more inclusive.

Mental health

Looking at the NHS figures from 2016/2017, published in October 2017, amongst the five broad ethnic groups, known rates of detention for the 'Black or Black British' group (272.1 detentions per 100,000 population) were over four times those of the White group (67.0 per 100,000 population).

We need to address the reasons as to why we see more and more BAME individuals ending up in hospital under Section of the Mental Health Act, and in relation to support provided to those detained in hospital once they are back in the community. Within the BAME community itself we need to discuss and break down the stigma about suffering with a mental illness. Raising awareness, more joined up working public sector agencies, education, targeted resources and interventions will all have a positive impact in reducing mental health issues in BAME communities.

I know it's especially pertinent within the legal profession because of the pressures BAME members often face because they know it is not a level playing field with their white counterparts. Additionally BAME members are over represented in the small firm sector. One in 5 sole practitioners are BAME. They practise in areas of law which are not well renumerated, are reliant on dwindling legal aid and disproportionately threatened by regulatory intervention

Not being 'too ethnic'

I often hear stories and shared experiences from BAME members who will speak about having to change who they are to fit in with where they work. This has a negative impact on their mental health because of the difficult balancing act of 'not being too ethnic' for fear of losing out on positions in their firm.

An example: changing their appearance e.g. a black woman who prefers to have natural hair, having to have weave / relaxed hair to match their white counterparts for acceptance. Muslim women who are marginalised and excluded because they do not participate in the firm's drinking culture.

For black men I often hear that people try not to talk too street for fear of being viewed as a thug or street person trying to pretend to be a lawyer. Another example is not speaking out too much or passionately even if they are feeling wronged in their work place for fear of being seen as an Angry Black Man / Woman.

A final example is changing their name or using their European name on CVs to even get their foot in the door because of perceived discrimination on their name alone.

BAME staff networks

Many firms have internal BAME staff networks which provide a support resource for BAME staff and act as a strategic interface to raise Race issues at senior level.

Firms need to step up to increase awareness and celebrate the diversity that is present in many firms up and down the country. People who find themselves questioning their ethnicity should not be asking those questions at all and in fact should be embracing and celebrating it. There are examples of firms who are championing BAME diversity with the winner of the D&I category 2017 Excellence awards, magic circle firm Slaughter & May. Diversity and inclusion is an integral part of their firm and runs through everything they do. They foster an open minded and inclusive workplace and have focused on enhancing BAME inclusion with high impact results by focusing on their talent pipeline.

Black History Month 2018

The Law Society in partnership with the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division (EMLD) committee is championing those who are trying to enter the profession, and not trying to downplay their heritage just to fit in.

In 2018 for Black History Month let's celebrate the diversity in our profession and thank those who have paved the way for us to join this profession. Above all key stakeholders – such as the Law Society working with BAME lawyers and allies to continue to break down the doors, smash the walls in and be at the seats and tables of decision-making and power.  This will ensure that the struggles, sacrifices, discrimination, blood, sweat and tears of the Windrush generation and the immigrants who followed have created opportunities for future generations that can be cherished, celebrated and appreciated.

 Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

Join us for our Black History Month Inspiration evening Friday 5 October 18:30 to 22:00 profiling and celebrating lawyers who have faced and overcame obstacles on their professional journey

Law students, come along for Preparing students for the legal profession & networking Thursday 11 October 16:00 to 21:00

See all our Black History Month events

Follow our diversity and inclusion team on Twitter

Join our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division, it's free

Find out about the Diversity and Inclusion Charter established in 2009 by us, BT and the Society of Asian Lawyers

Tags: diversity and inclusion

About the author

Umar Kankiya is a solicitor and head of the mental health department at Sternberg Reed. He is a committee member of the Law Society's Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division and a commissioner for the Centre for Mental Health's Equality Commission.

Follow Umar on Twitter

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