As part of The Lawyer’s Black History Month series, Milbank associate Felicia Hanson Ofori-Quaah talks about her career to date.
Tell us a little bit about your role now, and how you got there.
I am a senior associate in the Project and Infrastructure Finance team with Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy. I have been with the firm for five and a half years now. My practice is principally focused on financing energy, infrastructure and mining projects in Africa and the Middle East, advising on cross-border, multi-sourced financings involving commercial lenders, export credit agencies and development finance institutions.
I certainly didn’t start my career knowing I wanted to be a Project Finance Lawyer; I actually qualified into the corporate team at Norton Rose (where I completed my training contract) doing mostly M&A in the mining sector. However, as I qualified at the height of the global financial crisis, there weren’t many M&A transactions and I was keen to get as much experience as possible. With the help of my mentor, Mark Bankes, I transitioned into the project finance team and I have not looked back since.
Before I commenced my training contract, I read law at Bristol University and completed my LPC at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice – you could say I got on the legal bandwagon from university (I received my training contract offer at the end of my second year undergraduate degree) and have not fallen off… yet.
When you were first attempting to enter the legal profession, did you feel any sense of trepidation because of the reputation of the profession as white and middle class? What were your preconceptions and how did they compare to the reality of practice?
The thought never crossed my mind when I was a young student considering law as a career. As a child growing up in Ghana there were really only a handful of career options (doctor, engineer, accountant or lawyer) that were deemed “acceptable”.
As I was more of an artist than a scientist, I decided to pursue a career in law and commenced that journey. In that respect I did not have any preconceptions as such.
When I began my undergraduate degree however, there were only four black undergraduates studying law in my year. It was then that I suppose it occurred to me that there may not be many black people in the profession. That realisation manifested itself on the first day of my training contract – I was the only black trainee in my intake; in fact I was the only black trainee among the entire trainee population in the firm at the time.
Have you ever felt that your identity has hindered you in any way?
That’s an interesting question. I am a woman. I am black. I am a mother. Taken individually, each aspect of my identity is very much underrepresented in senior positions in law, particularly in private practice. As a person who straddles the intersection of race and gender (as well as motherhood), I am certainly conscious of the fact that there may be obstacles (whether intentional or otherwise) which could determine the course of my career.
One of the findings in McKinsey’s 2017 report on Women in the Workplace is that “women of color, particularly black women, face even greater challenges. The intersection of race and gender shape women’s experiences in meaningful ways. Women of color face more obstacles and a steeper path to leadership, from receiving less support from managers to getting promoted more slowly”.
There has been in recent years a lot of discussion surrounding the lack of female partners in law firms, although at a junior level there are a lot more women coming through. That aspect of my identity and the potential challenges that come with it has been receiving a lot of attention. I do not think that there is as much attention given to the fact that there isn’t a great representation of senior black people in the profession so the dialogue in that context is not as advanced as that relating to the lack of female representation.
At this relatively early stage in my career (I do have another 30 or so years to go), I don’t think I can give an accurate assessment as to whether my identity has hindered me in my profession. It is however evident that there is a lack of representation in the legal profession for professionals who have an identity that is similar to mine. It is also difficult to determine at this stage if a single aspect of my identity has the potential to be a hindrance, or if it is the intersectionality of my identity, that presents itself with impediments in my professional life.
There has been a lot of talk about the gender pay gap. Do you think that there is a similar issue for BAME employees?
PwC recently published data on the pay gap amongst its ethnic minority employees, which revealed that its BAME workforce were being paid lower than its other employees. Earlier this year Serena Williams posted an article on “Black Women’s Equal Pay Day” where she suggests that “black women earn 17 per cent less than their white female counterparts and that black women are paid 63 per cent of the dollar men are paid”.
Evidently there is an issue here that needs to be explored further; there needs to be more data in order to determine the nature of the problem and how it can be resolved.
In the context of law firms, there are a number of firms whose remuneration policy for associates is based on the lock step for the first eight years post qualification. In theory, during this period, all associates – male, female, black or white receive the same amount of compensation.
In law firms where associate salaries are not linked to a lock step, it would be interesting to see the results of any data collected and whether it demonstrates that there is a pay gap based on ethnic diversity. Without any real data, it is difficult to make a fair assessment of the existence of an ethnic minority pay gap in law firms.