Black History Month: Proud to Be
To mark Black History Month, and to align with the theme, we have asked Black members of the profession to share their stories.
- I. Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, discusses the need for diversity and inclusion to be prioritised across the legal sector
- Whitney Joseph – associate at Mayer Brown and one of our social mobility ambassadors – talks about feeling like “an outsider”
- Uchechi Chima-Okereke – senior counsel at Google – explores how to achieve tangible change
- Olivia Wint – trainee at PwC and an awardee of our Diversity Access Scheme – shares her pride in being a Black woman
- Trevor Sterling talks us through his varied and esteemed career as a solicitor
- Karl Brown – partner at Clarke Willmott LLP – encourages the next generation of Black lawyers to “aim high”
“I am proud of, and proud to share, my experience.”
Our president, I. Stephanie Boyce, shared her Proud to Be story in the Law Society Gazette.
She describes her entry into the profession and her journey to her appointment as president of the Law Society of England and Wales.
She also discusses the imperative need for diversity and inclusion to be prioritised across the legal sector.
The first story of our Proud to Be campaign is from Whitney Joseph, an associate at Mayer Brown and one of our social mobility ambassadors.
Whitney explores the challenges she’s faced and feeling like “an outsider” in a profession that hasn’t always included or represented her. She shares her experience and identity, and calls for meaningful change to extend beyond the celebrations of Black History Month.
“A banking and finance associate in the London office of a global law firm. That is – put simply – who I am and what I do.
“My journey into law began when my three-year LLB law degree ended. It was after my degree that I began my search for a training contract.
"During that time, I was fortunate to be awarded a full-fee scholarship for my Legal Practice Course (LPC) via the Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme. I later secured a training contract offer from an international law firm.
"My journey to qualifying as a solicitor was – by most standards – very traditional. It ultimately consisted of a law degree, followed by the LPC and a two-year training contract.
"However, throughout that time I was constantly reminded that, although my route into the profession was typically traditional, my background was not.
“Before entering the legal profession my identity as a Black woman was something that I was inherently proud of. In the legal profession, however, I was often reminded that my identity made me different.
"In my home life I was just Whitney, another Black woman, but in my professional life I was a minority, and I felt like somewhat of an outsider.
“I was different and truthfully it was – and at times still is – very difficult. I found myself struggling to reconcile my background with my decision to enter a profession which wasn’t designed for 'people like me'. It was mentally conflicting.
"Cliché as it is, walking into an assessment centre or interview for a training contract and trying to demonstrate why I would make a great lawyer was incredibly difficult to do when I was so distracted by the fact that I looked and sounded so distinctly different from everyone else in the room.
"Even making small talk was difficult as I would struggle to find things in common with my interviewers.
“As far as statistics are concerned, as a Black, state-school educated, first-generation student, female with a lifelong health condition, I simply should not be where I am now. I’m incredibly proud that I stayed the course in spite of the challenges.
“By far, one of my biggest challenges is living with sickle cell – an inherited blood disorder which predominantly affects people of African and Caribbean heritage.
"Yet, it's by living with this condition that I developed the confidence that I needed to help me overcome the challenges I’ve faced so far.
“For a long time, I shied away from speaking about my condition and it made what can already be a lonely and isolating condition, even worse. Now I feel empowered by it. Knowing that I can overcome the hospital admissions and painful crises makes other obstacles seem small in comparison.
“Each year as Black History Month comes around I, like many others, am encouraged to think about what it means to me. My journey into what remains a predominantly White profession caused me to reflect on my own identity a lot.
"So, for me, this month provides the opportunity to reflect on my identity as someone who is both Black and British, something which doesn’t always feel entirely compatible.
“It's a chance to draw inspiration from the Black accomplishments of the past and it is a reminder to continue to confront issues of racial discrimination in the present.
“I am extremely proud of my Caribbean heritage and I am grateful to have been raised in an environment where my culture was embraced and celebrated. It's a great feeling when I see Black History Month highlighting the hard work and successes of other women like me, particularly at a senior level.
"What I would like to see more, however, is firms taking forward the issues highlighted in October and making meaningful changes long after the month draws to a close.
“Ultimately, the goal should be to make a lasting, impactful shift towards a profession which provides a space for Black men and women to be great lawyers.”
Uchechi is a senior counsel at Google. In his Proud to Be story, he takes us through his career journey, identity and aspirations for the profession in improving diversity and inclusion.
He explores how we can achieve tangible change in combatting the issues the legal sector faces with representation, retention and inclusion for Black and ethnic minority solicitors.
“I’m Uchechi Chima-Okereke, a senior counsel and team leader at Google. I’m Nigerian born and came to the UK when my family relocated in 1989.
"Since then, I’ve moved around quite a lot! I live in London with my wife and two children now, but spent most of my 20s studying and working in the midlands and lived in Hertfordshire during my formative teenage years.
“Careers rarely pan out exactly as we envisage and that’s true for my career journey too, which has taken unexpected (but generally very good) twists and turns.
"When doing the LPC at Nottingham Law School in 2006/07, I was gravitating towards becoming a corporate lawyer; however, the financial crisis of 2008 caused me to rethink that plan.
“I trained as a solicitor at what is now Shakespeare Martineau. Despite the financial crisis, I was fortunate enough to be retained on qualification and soon focused my practice on commercial IT law.
"Shortly after qualification I joined Wragge & Co. (now Gowlings WLG), which had a larger and leading commercial IT practice with an impressive client base, and which proved to be an excellent place to acquire the skills, experience and knowledge that have stood me in good stead to date.
“Although I wasn’t actively looking for a move at that time, in 2014 I was fortunate enough to be offered a role in Google’s legal team.
"Since joining Google, I have changed roles twice – taking up a global role as a legal product counsel in 2018 and becoming a manager this year – and have loved every minute of it.
“Naturally, my identity as a Black man is apparent wherever I go. In my day-to-day life it’s also clear – through what some people say or do – that many stereotypes and negative connotations are attached to that identity.
"Often this negativity manifests in microaggressions or non-inclusive behaviour, as opposed to overt hostility.
“The same can be true, and often is for many Black men I know, within the legal profession.
"The profession is now more aware than ever of its lack of representation and (I hope) the need to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive profession and the benefits that would bring. However, as we know, sometimes knowledge doesn’t lead to tangible change.
"I think it’s right for firms and organisations to put policies and practices in place in support of diversity, but real change is unlikely to be realised unless inclusion and representation become a metric against which leadership performance is assessed.
“On balance, I probably don’t speak too much about my identity but rather spend time and energy trying to foster inclusion and improve equity by doing what I can to create opportunities for those that find opportunities harder to come by.
"I’m fortunate that my employer actively (and genuinely) encourages these initiatives and that outside of my vocation the work done by City Gateway, for which I’m a trustee, makes a real difference to people’s lives.
“Black History Month is obviously an opportunity to celebrate Black history, and it’s fitting that we do that within the profession by recognising the achievements of Black lawyers that have gone before us.
"But I think it’s also an opportunity to get inspired about, and within our organisations make commitments to, enhancing representation and inclusion in the profession in genuine and tangible ways by making representation and inclusion a factor against which leaders are formally assessed by their peers and juniors.
“There has been a shift in the diversity and inclusion conversation, and I hope that more real change soon follows.
"The advice I would like to share with my Black peers and colleagues is to keep going. We have so much to offer to our organisations and to the junior and aspiring lawyers that need role models.”
Olivia is currently a trainee at PwC and an awardee of our Diversity Access Scheme. In her story, she shares her pride in being a Black woman and discusses how she found herself as the only Black person in a room, team and event as she made her way through her career.
She encourages fellow Black lawyers to appreciate the importance and impact of role models and explains how it’s helped her optimism and motivation to see Black women empowered and promoted to senior positions.
“I’m Olivia, a current trainee solicitor at PwC qualifying next March.
"My route into law wasn’t linear, I had a career in data protection compliance for many years before slightly changing trajectories to start my training contract.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work in various sectors from local authority to financial services in my career. Within my current role, I've been able to work with a wide range of professionals from cybersecurity specialists, actuaries and consultants, all of which have helped to mould me into a more well-rounded legal professional.
“Despite my varied career to date, what tends to be a recurring theme is that I am often the only Black person in these spaces. There have been many times where I have been the only Black person or Black female in a room, team and even at events.
“At first, this was something that I found to be quite daunting, I found myself over-engineering the simplest of interactions and I subconsciously constantly reminded myself that I was ‘different’ in these environments.
“Over time, I’ve learnt to embrace this and rather than viewing my ‘difference’ through a negative lens, viewing it as a positive.
"My background being different to most of my peers affords me with different perspectives, opinions and experiences which add value, especially at a time where innovation is actively encouraged.
"Diversity is important and is something that should be embraced in life generally, not only in the workplace. There is a lot of benefit in interacting and working with people that have a different background and life experience to yours.
“Black History Month (BHM) is monumental in giving a voice and increasing awareness of the achievements within the Black community which may otherwise be unrecognised.
"In the context of the legal profession, where only 3% of lawyers in England and Wales are Black, BHM creates a time where meaningful discussions about race in the workplace can take place which are able to feed into diversity initiatives.
“A piece of advice I would like to share with my Black colleagues is to not underestimate the importance of representation and how impactful role models can be, especially to those entering the profession.
"Having the first Black female as the head of legal at PwC and seeing other ‘first’ appointments throughout the sector is refreshing and gives hope and optimism to those of us in profession, such as myself, and also those aspiring to be a part of it.
“Whilst there is still progress to be made, these developments indicate the glass ceiling is slowly being broken and a changing of narrative as to what success in the legal profession can look like.
"I’m incredibly proud to be a Black, female first-generation lawyer, a lot of hard work – and caffeine – was needed to tread a path that is not well-trodden by those that look like myself, and my hope is that the prevalence of this only continues to increase in years to come.”
Trevor Sterling has had a varied and esteemed career as a solicitor. In his story, he talks us through his achievements, his notable moments and his pride in his successes and progression.
He tells aspiring Black solicitors to remain determined in the face of adversity and asks fellow Black colleagues in the profession to be visible and demonstrate what is possible.
“I was elected senior partner at Moore Barlow in May 2021, becoming the first Black senior partner of a top 100 UK law firm. I am also head of major trauma and partner sponsor for the Moore Barlow Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
“I have enjoyed a 37-year career within the legal profession, starting as an outdoor clerk at Rowley Ashworth in 1984.
"I qualified initially as a legal executive and then admitted as a solicitor in 1993. I was subsequently made a partner at Rowley Ashworth at the age of 28, becoming the firm’s youngest and first Black partner.
“I was schooled in south London and endured a difficult time at school due to issues of racism. I under achieved, leaving school with only four O-levels (GCSEs).
"On leaving school, my careers adviser offered me three job options. The first was a position as a warehouseman, the second was as a tennis racquet stringer and the third, was as an outdoor clerk for a trade union firm, namely Rowley Ashworth. Fortuitously I opted for the third option.
“After starting as an outdoor clerk, I developed a passion for law and a determination to qualify as a solicitor.
"At that time, I was the only Black employee; however, I developed a self-belief very early on that I could become a solicitor and began studying law initially through correspondence courses, evening classes and, for a period, I had half-day release for college – all whilst essentially working full time.
“My efforts paid off as I eventually qualified. I have been fortunate enough to have gone on to conduct some notable cases such as being co-lead in the Jimmy Savile child abuse actions, acting for a number of BP contracted employees taken hostage by Al Quaeda at the BP controlled gas facility in Amenas, Algeria and carrying out thalidomide investigations.
"I also acted in the Ladbroke Grove rail crash, Westminster terror attack and Croydon tram disaster.
"Most notably, I achieved success in the House of Lords, having conducted the landmark employers liability suicide case of Corr v IBC Vehicles Limited which was the first case of its type since 1957.
“In 2008, I received the Rising Star: Advocate in the Face of Adversity award from the Bar Counsel/Law Society.
"I was highly commended at the Law Society Excellence Awards 2019 in the Solicitor of the Year (private practice) category and again highly commended at the Law Society Excellence Awards 2021, in the Legal Personality of the Year category. I have also received national rehabilitation awards, namely the Rehabilitation First Rehabilitation Claimant’s Initiative award in 2012, 2013 and 2017.
“I have, through my career, faced many challenges within the legal profession, largely reflective of the challenges within society. Initially these manifested as overt racism but more latterly in my career they manifested through unconscious bias, exacerbated by my unconventional route into the profession.
"However, I have never allowed my difference to be a burden, I have always felt it was something to be proud of and celebrated.
“In the last few years, particularly since the tragic death of George Floyd, we have seen a huge cultural shift, resulting in the legal profession taking significant steps to 'level up' and to address issues in respect of the of lack of diversity within the profession, by also placing a greater emphasis on social mobility.
“I believe Black History Month represents an opportunity to not only raise cultural awareness but to celebrate Black culture and inspire inclusivity.
"During this month, I give many talks, sharing my journey in the hope that it will raise awareness, not only of some of the challenges which remain, but more importantly, to inspire young people to join our wonderful profession and to have self-belief in the knowledge that there have been many significant advances. This is clearly reflected in my appointment as senior partner at Moore Barlow, of which I am incredibly proud.
“The advice I would give to others from my background entering the law, is that whatever adversity you may have faced, you must use this to fuel your determination to succeed, develop your networks and, above all, remain your authentic self. There are many wonderful firms like mine, looking to lead the way to effect change.
“For my colleagues who have succeeded, my advice is that we share our stories so that those coming through can identify with leaders in our profession and be inspired. The more diverse our profession, the more we are able to serve our diverse society.
“The legal profession is undoubtedly a wonderful profession, I have always been proud to be able to call myself a solicitor and particularly proud that I am a Black solicitor.”
Karl Brown, partner at Clarke Willmott LLP, shares his Proud to Be story of navigating his career and realising that he offered the profession as much value as anyone else.
He talks us through his passion for diversity and offering access to opportunities to others and encourages the next generation of Black lawyers to “aim high”.
“I am a commercial property partner in the Bristol office of national law firm Clarke Willmott LLP.
"I am proud to not only be Bristol born and bred but also very proud of my Jamaican heritage. My parents came to the UK in the early 1960s from Jamaica and my dad was a plasterer and my mum was a nurse.
“The example of my parents gave me a good work ethic but also a desire to make positive change by boosting social mobility and diversity in our professions.
"I found it very difficult to get a training contract (and ended up making over 100 applications) but through a combination of determination and mentoring, I eventually managed to get a training contract.
“I qualified with a firm in Taunton and then spent just under two years with another firm in Somerset before moving back to Bristol and joining Clarke Willmott.
“I realised that in order to progress at my firm I would not only need the requisite legal and technical skills, but also the right soft skills to develop client relationships. I was fortunate to be introduced by a client to a local Bristol business organisation for young people called the Bristol Junior Chamber (BJC).
“As a BJC member, I not only widened my network of contacts but also developed my soft skills such as communication and leadership.
"Becoming the chair of BJC of Education and Skills had a huge positive impact on my day job as I was able to use these enhanced soft skills to develop client relationships and raise my profile, which absolutely contributed to my promotion to associate.
“When I first started attending networking events, I did have to build up my confidence, but I soon realised that my particular background, heritage and life experiences, allied with my legal technical skills, meant I could add as much value in the networking room as any other attendee.
“I continued to progress in the BJC and in 2014 became the first ever Black president of the BJC in its then 66-year history. My increasing profile and soft skills together with my increasingly strong client relationships helped me get promoted to senior associate. In 2020, I was promoted to be a partner.
“Giving back to young people from less-privileged backgrounds is important to me and is why I became a social mobility ambassador for the Law Society in 2016 and founded the Bristol Property Inclusion Charter in 2019 to boost diversity in the Bristol property industry. I chair the Bristol Property Inclusion Commission which oversees the running of the charter.
“Black History Month allows the wider population in the UK to celebrate and recognise the achievements and contributions of the Black community to the UK.
"It's also important in the legal profession that we acknowledge some of the great current positive role models of Black heritage such as Sandra Wallace, as well as previous historic examples such as Nelson Mandela or Thurgood Marshall who was the first ever Black US Supreme Court justice.
“My tips for the next generation of diverse lawyers are:
- ensure you develop your area of legal expertise
- network beyond your immediate circle of friends/co-workers
- aim high”