“I had the audacity to persevere and believe in myself”
I come from a traditional West African family, and if you weren’t a doctor, lawyer or accountant, you were nothing. I was surrounded by cousins, aunties and uncles who were all barristers. Growing up, I wanted to be a barrister because that’s all I saw.
I worked in the courts part time while at university, but realised I didn’t want to be a barrister after all. People are used to TV portrayals of court cases, but in reality, it’s not like that. There’s a lot of adjournments and it can be very stop-start. But it was great exposure. I was able to ask judges questions, and it enabled me to think critically about building a case.
I began my GDL the same year England won the Rugby World Cup. An article in the Times asked if Jonny Wilkinson’s famous dropkick could be trademarked. I remember thinking that was a really interesting concept. I eventually did my dissertation on that exact subject and got a distinction. It was the start of my love for intellectual property (IP) and all things commercial law.
This is where the challenge started. I struggled to find a paralegal position or training contact in commercial law. I remember three or four interviews at City firms where I was told I scored the highest out of all the candidates in the psychometric tests and assessments but didn’t get the contract, and there was never any constructive feedback given. HR departments told me: “I’m sure you’d be a great lawyer, just not for us.” The profession had a mould of what a ‘good lawyer’ looks like: white, male and middle-class. If you didn’t look like that, you were up against it.
When I became a paralegal, I was usually the only Black person in the firm. It was draining. There were a lot of microaggressions. People would come up to me daily and say “you’re so well spoken”, or ask to touch my hair if I had braids. I didn’t have anyone who looked like me to ask: “How do I deal with this?” So, you just swallow it, it starts building up, and you get dejected and frustrated. In a high-pressure environment, you’re looking for somebody senior for inspiration. When you’re not seeing yourself represented, you think “maybe I won’t make it here”.
But, I advanced from being a paralegal to an advisory board member for Europol in The Hague. I gave a presentation to 500 police representatives from all over Europe. Someone from a UK force pulled me aside and said: “We could do with someone like you.” That spurred me to consider an in-house training contract and shortly after I was offered a training contract and qualified in-house as a general commercial lawyer with particular specialisms in IP and data protection. It was an incredible experience; I was able to focus my training on commercial and transactional work.
After I moved to Specsavers, I worked on commercial contracts on a global scale. I worked with teams across the business on supply agreements and licenses for designer frames. I was at the forefront of sustainability, and supported on marketing campaigns to ensure we were not greenwashing.
Most companies I worked for had established EDI agendas, but when I joined Specsavers this wasn’t the case. Again, sadly, I was one of only a handful of Black employees within the support offices, although other parts of the business – like retail – were more diverse. And, although Specsavers have a zero-tolerance policy against racist abuse in stores, policies don’t ask a human being if they’re OK. After hearing one or two stories of racist incidents against frontline retail staff, I realised we needed a staff network to better support our ethnic minority staff and build a network of allies to support the agenda.
At my core is my passion to see a legal profession more diverse than the one I came into almost 20 years ago. I co-chaired and founded [staff network] embRACE, where I had to communicate to the business and executive board why we needed it. I had to be a good leader, creating a vision for a more inclusive work environment, and delegate ambitious goals to a newly created diverse committee. But the biggest part was setting the agenda: what specifically did we want to achieve to make this a success? Having concrete KPIs was vital.
Until I started at Specsavers, I didn’t realise there are higher rates of glaucoma in African, Caribbean and South Asian communities. Having been through my own journey with glaucoma and eye surgery, I wasn’t aware certain demographics, especially ethnic minorities, had a higher prevalence of eye health conditions such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy (often linked to a combination of family history, high intraocular pressure, poor diet, exercise and/or a lack of regular eye checks). If I didn’t know, then I wondered how many people out there didn’t know either. So, the network helped to promote this to customers as part of World Sight Day, which also falls during Black History Month.
I mentor a lot of legal students, and I’m very honest about the profession. One mentee recently was upset after being rejected for three vacation schemes. You need to start building up their tenacity for the profession: it’s tough and demanding. I like to encourage: when I struggled to find a training contract, people tried to put me off. I live by the mantra: “I had the audacity to persevere, I had the audacity to believe in myself.”
When I first got the nomination for Legal Heroes, I was in shock, I thought it was a joke. It was an honour to be shortlisted and huge validation for the work I’ve been doing for over 15 years. It told me that all the late nights working to create opportunities were recognised. It's given me the energy to continue supporting others through their legal journey, so that it’s not as hard for the next generation of aspiring lawyers to break into the profession.
- At the time of publication, Joan no longer works for Specsavers.