“The court usher asked me if I was lost”

Meet Susanta Banerjee, managing director of SKB Legal and a member of our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division. He talks about inspiration from a long-gone relative, discrimination in the legal profession and the mindset needed to succeed in the legal industry – whoever you are.
Susanta Banerjee (right) shakes hands with a representative of the Law Society at his admission ceremony. Susanta is a man of South Asian heritage with short black hair. He is smiling and wears a black graduation robes over a grey suit, white shirt and silver tie.
Photograph: Susanta Banerjee

I’m inspired by stories from 100 years ago. I’ve followed in the footsteps of my grandfather – who worked in the legal industry as a high court advocate in India. He died when my mother was barely two years old and has only ever existed in my mind. He was born in the 1890s and travelled to the UK in the 1920s from India, before returning there to practise law. His story has been handed down throughout the generations of my family.

My grandfather faced a lot of discrimination. At times, he ended up doing a great deal of pro bono work which was thrust on him. He often took on cases without much of a chance of getting paid. A lot of people back then would have thought that arguing for the rights of tenants against landlords, for example, was a poisoned chalice. But he would still fight his clients’ corner. That has always stayed with me and I adopted it as the foundation of the mantra for my business 100 years later.

The first time I stepped into court the usher asked me if I was lost. Back then everyone was just so used to seeing white barristers and judges. Discrimination still exists but things are continuing to change for the better.

I qualified and trained with a firm run by two black partners. My mentors were great people to learn from. There were few ethnic minority firms then and they had to work 10 times harder than their counterparts in the industry.

My mentors were also hard taskmasters. They had high expectations of themselves and that really influenced everyone who worked for them. They had a real determination to get to the top and that was reflected in the firm’s culture – we were taught the importance of preparation, to play to our strengths and think on our feet – so we could all stand confidently next to the competition. They gave me the solid foundations to grow as a solicitor, the confidence to be ready to fight and not give up, and ultimately to start my own firm.

My advice to people starting out is: listen to and experience as many parts of the law as possible. Approach both large and small firms to learn about the profession. Go to meetings, attend webinars. Small firms can offer you a good grasp of what this world and profession looks like. Experience will show you the best path for you.

Adopt the right mindset and you’ll go far. Experience is one thing, but remember that in this industry – particularly if you’re a member of an ethnic minority group – you need the right mindset. You need to be bullish about your prospects. Pushing and pushing is totally worth it. Develop that trait. Once that’s in your psychology, it will help a lot.

There is inspiration out there. I look at people who are leading by example, like I. Stephanie Boyce, the first black president of the Law Society, and Lubna Shuja, who will take over as president in October. Success like this speaks volumes to me. It shows me what can be achieved if you have the right mindset.

If Stephanie or Lubna can do it, then we can all do it. If you do meet discrimination, please don’t stop. It’s pointless saying I haven’t made it just because of my demographic. We now have an increasing number of role models that show the roadmap isn’t impossible to get through.

Remember: it will happen for you. Not in the timeframe you first thought, maybe. But when you do make the grade in your own mind, you realise all the blood, sweat and tears are worth it.

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