Diversity in all contexts should be enriching. So why does the legal profession appear to still walk on eggshells? Mindsets range from those who feel diversity has been adequately addressed, to those who believe it remains an untapped opportunity. I appreciate that diversity is a layered term that means different things to different people. For clarification, multiculturalism, race and gender influence my relationship with the word.
Diversity and its challenges are part of my DNA. Growing up in numerous countries (England, Nigeria, Iceland and Tanzania), speaking unrelated languages, and being part of a family that hails from varied backgrounds, I was an outsider in places I called home. I learnt that every situation has multiple perspectives and that uniqueness is everything, if it is not viewed as a limitation. With this awareness, my heritages changed from a weakness to a strength. I realised they allowed me to be a cultural chameleon who thrived in diverse environments.
My diverse academic background had a similar narrative. Both my parents studied law, which inspired me to run as far away from it as possible. Instead, I ran to the stage and read Theatre Studies at Warwick University. My law elective during my Public Policy master’s at UCL reconnected me with the legal world. Venturing into the training contract rat race, I felt like an anomaly alongside other people equipped with respected academic degrees. When I finally started work, this familiar feeling of exclusion resurfaced. As a black woman, I was a minority, within a minority.
To some extent, being a junior lawyer mirrors childhood. Your law firm is your adopted home. Parents and siblings come disguised as supervisors, mentors and buddies. The problem is finding a way to feel included when few of your new family look like you or fully understand you.
As black people, developing our identity in these surroundings can be confusing and misconceptions often occur – opinionated is intimidating, loud is unprofessional and nice is inauthentic. Consequently, we tip toe around how much we wish to associate with uncomfortable topics. The solution for many is neutrality, to avoid unwanted attention and focus on excelling as a professional.
One uniting factor regardless of race is that we all tread on eggshells. Apprehension takes precedence over spontaneity regarding what can and cannot be said. As an example, my varied hairstyles still confuse my colleagues, who are nervous to ask intrusive questions. Hesitancy seems to also occur when tackling deeper issues. Some might say sidestepping sensitive matters is the trade-off for the discomfort of asking fundamental questions.
These questions include, what are the real effects of tokenism? Why is more emphasis placed on recruitment rather than retention? How do we address unconscious biases and why are certain demographics grouped under umbrella statistics? The list continues.
These discussions need to happen. From a business angle, the combination of globalisation, client demands and cross-border deals require law firms to have a profound awareness of the benefits of diversity. People from different backgrounds offer a wealth of resources and innovative ideas. They have strong cultural connections with clients across jurisdictions, many of which will become increasingly commercially important, not least because of global demographic and related economic changes. Not only does this strengthen client relationships, it increases work streams and profit. The result is always more beneficial. From a best-practice perspective, diversity fosters a transparent and welcoming environment. This allows employees to flourish, as they feel relevant, confident and appreciated. When people feel like they belong, they want to stay and are passionate about doing so.
Other mediums such as sports and entertainment have already showcased the benefits of embracing diversity. For example, London’s diversity was used as a unique selling point to help Great Britain clinch the 2012 Olympics. In 2018, the Black Panther movie became one of the highest-grossing Marvel films of all time. It is evident that the legal industry knows that diversity is an enrichment approach to be celebrated. The question is, is it moving at the right pace?
Shakespeare’s famous quote “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” resonates abundantly in life and in law. We all have a role to play in solving this complex puzzle, irrespective of our backgrounds. Ambassadors and allies are needed to educate each other. Pressure is often placed on senior lawyers to use their standing as a catalyst for change, but junior lawyers can also help to alter the narrative. We should actively seek out opportunities to support and inspire those following in our footsteps. This includes participation in committees inside and outside of work, attendance at relevant networking events and involvement with mentoring schemes. Crucially, we can explore creative initiatives with our firms to raise awareness, not just during Black History Month, but throughout the year. It should be a sustainable reality to be cracked with workable resolutions.
Ultimately, securing a job as a lawyer is not enough. Junior black lawyers have a voice and should use it to make a positive difference for all, including our firms. Colleagues also recognise that there is more to do and that they can be part of finding a solution. It is time to flip the script, from a historical eggshell to a discourse that diversity and inclusion properly implemented is not just “the right thing to do”, but a commercial imperative in a global world. Diversity fatigue is a luxury that we can no longer afford, because unity in diversity is powerful.
Ese Overo-Tarimo is a trainee solicitor at Mayer Brown. We welcome contributions for Black History Month. Email firstname.lastname@example.org