“I’ve been mistaken for other Black people who look and sound nothing like me”
I knew a career in law was what I wanted by the time I sat my GCSEs. I enjoyed English and history at school, so I knew I wanted a career that was cerebral, honed my writing skills and allowed me to gather information to form reasoned arguments. While studying for my A-levels, I read Eve Was Framed by Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, which also influenced my decision to become a lawyer.
I was fortunate to see people like me in the legal profession growing up. I have family members who are lawyers. They instilled in me the belief that any career is possible with the right work ethic, attitude and support.
I’ve been mistaken for other Black people who look and sound nothing like me. I have worked at three different law firms, and over the years, I’ve been told more times than I care to remember that I “speak very well for a Black person”. Or “You don’t act like a Black person”. Black people are not a monolith. Dealing with microaggressions has been a challenge – their impact is far from ‘micro’. I remember an incident years ago, when I was listening to music while working, and a colleague asked if I was listening to “hip-hop Christmas carols”.
There has been progress during the last decade. I think people have become better at having hard conversations. I’m hopeful that as more Black people enter the profession, and there are more Black people at senior levels, things will improve further. Representation matters, but the key is having diversity within that representative group.
I don’t carry my differences as a burden. My experiences have made me determined, dynamic and resilient. I’m very lucky to have a strong sense of self. My parents instilled in me a sense of pride, which has been invaluable in terms of responding to racism and microaggressions calmly, and not internalising ignorant or misguided assumptions.
Firms must appreciate that there is no quick fix for meaningful inclusion. It takes time to foster a culture that is genuinely inclusive, and it’s on everyone to ensure this. Invest in data – statistics don’t lie – and drill down into the experiences of Black lawyers. I am very fortunate that Hogan Lovells has the REAHL network (Race & Ethnicity at Hogan Lovells) who work passionately and tirelessly to ensure that Hogan Lovells is a diverse, inclusive and supportive workplace.
An intersectional approach is needed. Statistics show that a disproportionately high number of Black female lawyers leave their firms within three years of qualification. Some common reasons cited for this include workplace culture, microaggressions, tokenism, a lack of career progression and a lack of senior lawyers who are willing to engage with their concerns in a meaningful way. Most firms have one approach for combating race inequality; and then another for targeting gender inequality. Nevertheless, an approach that recognises that people can exist at multiple intersections is key to ensuring real inclusivity.
Reverse mentoring can be extremely effective. During my training contract, I had the chance to reverse mentor, and be mentored by, the firm’s managing partner. When it comes to issues such as race, people can be afraid about saying the wrong thing or causing offence – once a rapport has been built these inhibitions are reduced. What typically follows are illuminating and insightful conversations. Significantly, these conversations should be continued all year round, not just during Black History Month; after all, when the clock strikes midnight on 1 November, I’ll still be Black.
Look to those who have come before for inspiration. That’s my advice for anyone who wants to pursue a career in law. People like I. Stephanie Boyce, who became the first person of colour to be president of the Law Society. I’d also say: speak out, be bold, surround yourself with cheerleaders and don’t shrink yourself to make others comfortable.