Blazing a path: solicitors with South Asian heritage significantly contribute to the profession and society
“My South Asian heritage is what’s given me the spark, drive and motivation to get ahead,” says Amandeep Khasriya, a senior associate at Moore Barlow LLP who specialises in major trauma injuries.
“I was taught to throw myself into education, do my best – for myself, my family and my community.”
Amandeep typifies the determination, enterprise and resourcefulness that has driven so many British South Asians to make successful careers in law.
She is one of over 10,000 solicitors practising in the UK who are of South Asian heritage, according to Law Society data.
This group makes up around 7% of the legal industry, meaning a higher proportion of those with South Asian heritage are in the profession than in the general UK population.
But why is this? First, there is a mindfulness of the experience of the first generation of South Asians who came to the UK decades ago, sometimes facing real struggles, including racism and hostility.
“My dad came to the United Kingdom at 13 and my mum at 20, with no relatives, not knowing much English, nor knowing how the country worked,” explains Amandeep. “Their sacrifice gives you a huge sense of responsibility.”
Balancing family, community and career
The nature of the profession also plays into deep-seated cultural beliefs across South Asian nations, which celebrate enterprise and resourcefulness, as well as community.
“I saw a lot of social injustice when I was growing up,” remarks Shaheen Mamun, who co-founded his own firm, Black Antelope Law.
“I witnessed first-hand how issues arising from immigration, housing and family matters to name a few, impacted my community and those around me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to enter this profession.
“The role of a lawyer is to act as the social glue to the community and give a platform to tackle the social injustices we face daily.”
While British South Asians are well represented in the overall practice figures, they are proportionately over-represented in small firms and under-represented in large ones.
One in three (36%) partners in firms containing four or less firms in the UK are British Asian, while the group makes up one in five sole practitioners. South Asian heritage solicitors make up only 3.7% of solicitors in the largest law firms (81+ partners).
Barriers in the profession
Much has been written and talked about active discrimination in the legal profession, but things are moving in the right direction (albeit slowly), believes Dr Sam De Silva, partner in the technology, data and outsourcing team at CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP and chair of the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division.
“CMS, for example, is starting a development programme for ethnic minority senior associates who are considering going for partner. But in general, across law firms, particularly city law firms, there is still much more to be done.”
Sometimes, the barriers British South Asian lawyers face are subtle – the drinking culture in some firms, for example.
“‘I don’t drink and if there’s an evening out or a networking event with a firm, quite often you get the sense that you’re missing out career-wise because you’re not participating in those conversations," says Shaheen.
"It sometimes feels like if you were a better drinking buddy you would be more likeable and have more opportunity to get promoted or recommended for bigger cases.”
A lack of information and role models for young lawyers is also a factor.
“When I started out, I never had a role model in my area of law,” says Amandeep. “No one who looked like me did that. No one talked about this 15 years ago the way we are today.”
Looking to the future
Amandeep points to what’s happening at the top of the Law Society for inspiration.
“It’s a historic moment. We’re seeing I. Stephanie Boyce, who is the first Black president – and also a woman! – handing over to Lubna Shuja, who will be the first South Asian president, a small firm owner, and a woman too!
“That’s incredibly exciting. It makes you think, if they can do it, so can I.”
More role models are needed, believes Shaheen. “There are some great stories, such as Sultana Tafadar being appointed as the first Muslim hijab-wearing female QC. But we need more stories like this to raise our profile.”
Sam believes pressure from clients could be the real catalyst for change.
“If clients can emphasise the importance to them of diversity in the legal teams that will be working on their matters (and not just the pitch team of the law firm) – and align that with fee income – law firms will understand it’s not just about statistics but real representation.”
He has some words of advice for young British South Asian lawyers beginning their career journeys.
“It’s important to stand out and be noticed – one way you can do this is to try to specialise in a ‘gap’ in your practice area that few other lawyers are. I developed my expertise in cloud computing and got appointed representing the UK on the EU Commission Expert Group on Cloud Computing Contracts.
“It will be tough – don’t give up. Find mentors and supporters to help you on your journey.”