Interview with Koser Shaheen, chair of the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division

Koser ShaheenKoser Shaheen is chair of the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division (EMLD), Law Society Council member for the Ethnic Minority constituency, and one of our social mobility ambassadors.

Koser has had a very unconventional journey into law. She was taken out of school aged 11 and had an arranged marriage aged 18.

She worked as a mushroom picker, cleaner and clothes packer before winning a place at university as a 32-year-old single mother without GCSEs or A-levels.

Koser went on to gain a first class law degree and a training contract at a magic circle law firm.

Successfully overcoming the countless barriers and challenges in her journey into law, she joined the EMLD to inspire and encourage others in similar circumstances.

We asked Koser about the EMLD and its aims and objectives and her perspective on issues pertaining to black and minority ethnic professionals within the legal sector.

What are the biggest benefits of being a part of the EMLD?

The Law Society, as our professional body, is at the forefront of supporting a more diverse membership.

Significant progress has been made; however, obstacles continue to act as barriers for black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent, both in terms of access to and progression within the profession.

I and the EMLD leadership team – vice chair Evelyn Ofori-Koree and diversity and inclusion adviser Jerry Garvey – have aligned our strategy to empower BAME lawyers across England and Wales to overcome structural, procedural and attitudinal barriers within the profession.

The EMLD provides many benefits to its members. Some of these benefits include:

  • providing support, guidance, engagement and networking opportunities for BAME lawyers who face geographical/workplace isolation and challenges within the profession
  • organising BAME roundtables around England and Wales to promote dialogue between existing and aspiring BAME lawyers and local law societies, local law firms, and law schools.
  • delivering student roadshows which provide law students with the opportunity to meet with role models and understand the various traditional and non-traditional routes to qualification and the legal practice arena
  • providing online resources in the form of podcasts delivered by our EMLD committee
  • leading the BAME judicial strategy by running BAME ‘Becoming a Judge’ workshops
  • marking and delivering a BAME calendar of events, such as Black History Month, highlighting the incredible and positive contribution made by BAME lawyers

Why do you think there is an issue with BAME lawyers progressing within the legal profession?

The BAME roundtables we have conducted so far have enabled the EMLD to identify common challenges faced by our members.

These challenges fall broadly within access to the profession, retention and progression.

Access to the profession

Social class and BAME are inextricably linked, with BAME candidates predominantly drawn from non-traditional backgrounds.

To date, candidates from BAME backgrounds have been less likely to have the right information at the right time.

Being privately educated, having family legal connections, access to extracurricular opportunities and substantive work experience still heavily influence access to information and recruitment to legal practice.

The actual and perceived gold standard of Oxbridge and Russell Group remains unquestioned and perhaps wrongly reinforced by the legal profession.

Invariably, the BAME talent outside these elite universities do not see the benefits of targeted legal career information and work placement opportunities.

Retention and progression

The culture within a firm determines a need for employees to ‘fit in’ with the ethos, aesthetic and cultural ‘behaviours’ of the firm, through looking ‘right’, acting ‘right’ and having the ‘right’ social and educational background.

To this end, immutable characteristics such as a person’s race and other characteristics such as religion, cultural beliefs, dress sense, the social and educational background could all factor in recruitment decisions.

However, corporate cultures are constantly self-renewing, and the legal profession is no different.

We are seeing concerted efforts by the leaders in the legal profession who are, beyond the predictable lip-service gestures, are positively promoting an integrated culture framework within their organisation.

Are there any obvious trends when looking at the career paths and progression of ethnic minority lawyers? Has there been any improvement or change in recent years?

BAME solicitors now make up 16.5% of the profession, a considerable increase from 1987, when BAME solicitors comprised less than 2%.

Further, figures for BAME trainee intake varies from firm to firm and there is evidence that more firms are widening their pool and recruiting candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.

However, there is much more to be done on the BAME talent question. The increase in BAME representation is not evenly distributed across the profession.

BAME members continue to be overrepresented in smaller firms and sole practices, with one in 10 BAME solicitors operating as a sole practice in 2017 and underrepresented at senior or partner level, if at all.

Of the 28,125 individuals at partner level in 2017, only 2,400 partners were identified as BAME.

BAME members often have intersectionality with other D&I characteristics. They have shared challenges with the majority group, but they can also have individual experiences.

This was evident from the targeted BAME women roundtables where BAME women talked candidly about the unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias they experienced particularly, in the recruitment process.

To better support the needs of BAME members there is a need to understand the role of intersectionality and its impact.

LGBT+ members are generalised as one homogenous group, and little has been done to understand BAME LGBT+ solicitors who, because of their multiple identities, will have different insights/experiences that have not been articulated or captured.

Beyond understanding the reality and implications, more needs to be done to support BAME members who are overpopulated in the small firms or under-represented within larger ones.

BAME members are overrepresented in the small firm sector making up 34.2% of the profession in two-to-four partner firms.

They remain more vulnerable to, or in situations without adequate support to address, mental health, stress and well-being concerns.

Financial worries, isolation, and threat of regulatory intervention are just some of the pressures that solicitors in small firms and sole practices face.

How would you suggest firms and organisations become more inclusive? Do you think celebrating the diversity calendar can have a positive impact?

Our engagement with law firms through regional BAME roundtables has confirmed that, beyond gender, attracting, recruiting and retaining BAME talent remain key concerns.

Whilst hosting celebratory events does have its own benefits, law firms must consider adopting more substantive D&I programmes to address the BAME talent lacuna.

Some of the initiatives the EMLD have helped form and deliver so far include:

  • data collection, analysis and action planning through facilitation and chairing of meetings with local BAME lawyers
  • securing senior level buy-in and commitment by exploring the financial benefits of a diverse workforce
  • engaging with law schools and university students
  • identifying, appointing and promoting D&I champions and visible BAME role models
  • assisting in creating D&I internal networks
  • recruiting and retaining BAME talent through minor modifications to external branding (for example, changes to firms’ website)

BAME candidates will continue to face perceived and/or actual barriers at each stage of their legal journey.

From getting the right help at the right time to access to the profession through to recruitment, retention, development and progression.

It is, and continues to be, an honour for me to be part of a Law Society leadership team which is committed to dispelling these perceptions and identifying ways to proactively and practically challenge barriers where they arise.

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