Blaze your own trail
To mark Black History Month 2021, Julie Condliffe discusses representation across the profession, the disparity between different organisations, and the importance of embedded, genuine inclusion alongside better diversity.
As an aspiring lawyer, the allure of City law firm magic was more than compelling. As it is for most people like me, I knew the chances of entering this magic circle were infinitely remote.
It was not just the competition that I had to brace myself for; it was the unconscious bias, cultural differences and preconceptions that stood right at the door.
Even before I got close to the door of this opportunity, my legal prowess on paper had long since been influenced by my background and the university I attended.
Once I got in, things were divorced from what I had envisioned. I remember being taught how to pronounce my surname to make it sound ‘proper’.
I almost lost myself. I would look around me and not see anyone like me – no one spoke like me, no one looked like me. It did not take long for me to begin mirroring.
It was then that I knew things had to change.
I could patiently wait for the slow grind of the diversity wheels of change or bite the bullet and blaze my own trail.
I opted for the latter: that is why I now run my law firm, Creative Legal Solutions Solicitors t/a Creative Legals.
Despite diversity becoming a major talking point for businesses over the last few years, there remains a large gap between talking about the issue and getting things done to improve representation.
There is still limited diversity in many business sectors, and the legal profession is one of the most badly affected.
In City firms, you’ll find a significant lack of diversity, often leading to myopic ways of thinking and doing business.
A failure to prioritise a more diverse workforce is damaging in other ways, too.
It can negatively affect the career trajectories of talented professionals, who have a lot to contribute but find barriers in their way, time and again, caused solely by being excluded from the traditional routes to success within the legal profession.
Exploring the ethnicity pay gap
You may have heard the pay gap discussed before, but how about in the context of race?
The pay gap for Black lawyers is real and can prove extremely damaging.
Many different factors can cause this gap.
Many Black and ethnic minority people work at junior levels within the legal system, but what happens when they want to get ahead?
There is limited representation at higher levels in many of the biggest and best law firms, which often draws Black lawyers away from a traditional path – and a bigger salary.
Barriers to career progression
Being tactically excluded from attaining high-level roles in law will inevitably hit Black, Asian and ethnic minority lawyers and their earning potential over the years.
Even when we do gain these positions, there is often a gap of some years before it’s possible to ‘catch up’ with your less diverse peers who have already made further strides in their careers.
The reasons for this exclusion (and its effect on career progression) are manifold:
- unconscious bias may prevent those making hiring decisions from choosing you, which can significantly influence the route your career takes as the years go by. Failure to attain important roles early on has a knock-on effect later and hinders career progression
- after years of struggling that bit harder than everyone else, how can anyone be expected to keep the same pace long-term? If we feel that we are being excluded, then it becomes a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the motivation to get ahead begins to wane which unfairly makes our productivity suffer
Unfortunately, these issues, and the many others that exist, affect even the most dedicated of Black legal professionals, who often feel they struggle to be taken seriously.
Many even face barriers to getting the legal education and early experience needed to succeed and excel.
Why representation matters
I have seen for myself how important it is to feel you are represented within your chosen profession.
A lack of diversity is something I have witnessed, and experienced, whilst building my career.
While I would consider myself to be successful professionally, many of the obstacles I have faced made the journey more difficult than it should have been.
As a social mobility ambassador, I believe passionately in supporting people from diverse backgrounds as they carve a path for themselves in the legal profession. It has been one of the great honours of my career to be able to champion this cause.
This includes letting other Black professionals know that while the picture may seem bleak, we’re more than equipped with the tools we need to build our careers into the successful enterprises we always dreamed they would be.
You could establish your own firm that flourishes or succeed at your choice of law firm.
Wherever you choose to set your sights, blaze your own trail. By so doing, you’re setting an example for others.
What we can do
Ultimately, it falls to Black and ethnic minority lawyers to understand we must be our own saviours instead of waiting for initiatives and law practices to fall in line.
This does not mean accepting the status quo: far from it.
Instead, it means understanding that change is slow right now, but can be sped up if we actively work to address the obstacles in our path.
Be vocal in verbalising injustice when you see or experience it.
Do not be afraid to bring up the reasons you feel your career has been affected, or to curb any such obstacles before they have a chance to do so.
Let us go beyond superficial quantitative questions and answers.
Let’s dig into what our differences are and how we can see other perspectives. This will encourage a true sense of community and ownership, and support diversity in our cherished legal industry.