Jennie DORSAINTI was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. My parents are from Haiti and immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, a difficult period for ethnic minorities. As a nurse, my mother had to deal with patients refusing to receive care from black nurses. My father was a trained architect but, when unable to find a position in an architect firm, worked several years as a taxi driver (the same taxi drivers who filed a discrimination claim when their employers failed to address the issue of customers routinely refusing to ride with ethnic minority drivers). My father went on to qualify as an estate agent and set up his own real estate company.  My parents’ struggles taught me to be resilient and not to shy away from hard work. These traits have helped me in my career and I hope to pass them on to my children!

Like many first generation immigrants, I was told to pursue a career in science. My father used to say to me that in science you rely on your skill set to succeed whereas in law it’s also about who you are – a perception I hope has changed!

I qualified as a lawyer in Montreal then moved to London in 2007 and subsequently qualified as a solicitor in England. Coming to London later meant I missed out on a readily available network of law school friends and contacts. I have gone on to  represent lenders, borrowers and arrangers in real estate finance and structured finance, with a focus on cross-border financing transactions. My experiences have allowed me to stand out from the crowd.

I have worked for US law firms since I left Montreal.  Even 12 years ago diversity was a key topic for those firms, and it was the domestic firms that needed to catch up.  I still remember the sense of achievement among the diversity committee when Paul Hastings was the first US law firm in London to win the Law Society’s award for Excellence in Equality & Diversity in 2011.

Earlier this year, I celebrated 10 years at Paul Hastings. It has been a journey for me and I am glad to have landed at a firm which embraces diversity.

As we celebrate Black History Month, and with these reflections on my own journey in my mind, I think it is it important to recognise the progress made by the legal and business community in pushing forward diversity in the UK.

The last decade has seen a series of milestones, including:

  • In 2009, the Law Society launched its Diversity and Inclusion Charter and since then, every two years, signatories report on how well they are meeting their charter commitments.
  • In 2015, McKinsey & Company published a report (and subsequently various updates) showing with concrete evidence that diverse institutions are more likely to financially outperform their peers.
  • In 2017, the McGregor-Smith Review was published and provides recommendations to make workplace environment more inclusive.
  • In 2019, a group of general counsel in the US, subsequently backed by their UK peers, wrote an open letter setting out their expectations from law firms to deliver on diversity.

Paul Hastings too has established great programmes I’m proud to be a part of, including our global Black Affinity Network, which connects people from across our offices to focus on diversity initiatives, professional and leadership development, events, pro bono activity, scholarships and fellowships.

Despite all this great work, the industry still needs to shift our mind-set and engage in difficult and transparent conversations. The reality is hard – there is no one size fits all solution and each firm will have to find its own way forward, and measure their success by the numbers of BAME talent at every level of their workforce, including at the senior management level.

We all have a duty to push for real diversity and inclusion:

Clients play a key role. In-house teams responsible for appointing law firms should engage directly with the partners at those firms and highlight their expectations on diversity. These conversations are a unique opportunity for law firms to introduce their BAME talent and for clients to explain how this talent can not only help the firm deliver better work product but also help the client meet its own diversity targets.

Law firms should engage with their BAME employees and fee earners and work to understand what can be done to improve diversity and create a more inclusive work environment.  This can only be done through honest and transparent conversations without fear of retribution and where both parties have the trust that the outcome of the discussion will help create a better work environment. Mentoring is also an important aspect.

BAME lawyers should recognise that the task at hand is not easy and understand how vital it is not to quit the profession.  It is also essential to have adequate support (whether at home or through friends and colleagues) and be linked in to people facing similar challenges.  Networking associations, such as the Black Solicitor’s Network, provide a great platform to share experiences and ideas with other BAME lawyers and I have found allow me to share my positive experiences with others who may feel a sense of loneliness often experienced by BAME employees.

By working together we can continue to make a difference for the current and next generation.  It is clear that BAME talent should not need to be more resilient or better at their job to achieve the same career progression.

Jennie Dorsaint is a partner at Paul Hastings. We welcome contributions for Black History Month. Email richard.simmons@thelawyer.com

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