We spoke with Whitney Joseph, one of our social mobility ambassadors and associate in the banking and finance practice of Mayer Brown, about her role as an ambassador and the bias, challenges and positives of social mobility.
What interested you in becoming a social mobility ambassador for the Law Society? Would you recommend other solicitors apply to the initiative?
In the past, I was often discouraged from considering a career in law on the grounds that the profession wasn’t open to candidates from a non-traditional background like mine.
That fostered a fear within me that I didn't fit into the 'right' boxes.
It was an incredibly intimidating and daunting feeling, but I am extremely thankful that I didn't let that fear stop me.
For me, becoming a social mobility ambassador represents an opportunity to encourage others not to be deterred from entering the profession because of the similar challenges or obstacles that I once faced.
It is also an opportunity for me to highlight why the profession should be open to individuals of all backgrounds.
Equally as important, the social mobility ambassadors help to encourage and promote conversations regarding diversity amongst law firms.
We reinforce the fact that choosing candidates should ultimately be a matter of choosing talent over race, gender, sexuality, disability or socio-economic background.
You mention in your social mobility ambassador profile that have been diagnosed with sickle cell disease. How has this impacted your career?
Sickle cell is a particularly unpredictable condition by nature, which means there have been times when I have felt as though things have gone horribly wrong beyond my control – most commonly ending up in hospital when I least expect it!
During my time in school and university my greatest difficulty was managing hospital treatments and unplanned admissions against trying to achieve the grades needed to secure a training contract.
Unfortunately, my sickle cell did impact my grades and my general ability to secure work experience or internship opportunities, but thankfully it didn't prevent me from securing a training contract.
Over time I have learnt how to cope much better and my sickle cell now has less of an impact on my career day-to-day.
Having sickle cell helped me to develop a good work ethic, as I often had to work twice as hard to compensate for the occasions when I was absent and unwell.
Another advantage is that the unpredictable nature of my condition has taught me always to expect the best but prepare for the worst, in other words be organised and always have a plan B.
How do you think bias around social mobility affect people from entering the legal profession?
I think often there are a lot of unfair assumptions made about social mobility and what it actually is.
There is also sometimes a negative stigma surrounding social mobility and the concept of ‘positive discrimination’.
From a recruiting perspective, a lack of understanding and unconscious bias can sometimes make the recruitment process more difficult for certain candidates.
Despite many attempts by firms to combat this, there can still be an underlying stigma, for example, that entry into the profession with the support of a social mobility initiative is somehow less credible than entry via a more ‘traditional’ route, or that individuals are selected merely as a ‘token diversity candidate’.
All of these attitudes and biases can negatively influence people's decisions to enter, or not to enter, the profession.
I think there is still some way to go in addressing the understanding that social mobility is simply about creating equal access and equal opportunities to all candidates, with each person being fairly and equally considered on merits, rather than being ruled out because of their background.
Social mobility is often perceived as a barrier, do you think there are positives to coming from a non-traditional background as a solicitor?
It would be misleading to saying that there are no negatives to coming from a non-traditional background as a solicitor, but there are undoubtedly positives too.
In my experience, my non-traditional background has often helped me to stand out, particularly during the training contract application and interview process.
My work experience and life experience was typically different to other peoples, which allowed me to develop a different set of skills and qualities, as well as the ability to approach problems from a different perspective.
The value of these skills and qualities shouldn't be underestimated.
I was able to use all of this to my advantage and I would encourage others to do the same.
What advice would you give to those that want a career in law but feels like it’s out of reach?
My key piece of advice is to be persistent and do not be discouraged by setbacks or intimidated by potential challenges.
Also, be open minded about your career plans, particularly in the early stages.
Do not be afraid to consider alternative options even if it involves a longer or less straight forward process to get to the same result.
Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help as there is usually someone who has been through the same or a similar situation in the past and may be able to help.
The easiest way to do this is by finding a mentor (whether formally or informally) by networking and reaching out to people who can offer advice.
Having someone who is willing to share their experiences or simply be a sounding board and source of support and encouragement can be a great way of eliminating any doubts you may have.
Applications for our 2019 cohort of social mobility ambassadors will open in September 2019