If I am honest it wasn’t that I put tonnes of thought into the decision to become a lawyer when I was 18. I was strong across a range of different subjects at school. I did Biology, Chemistry, History and German at A Level and could have gone in several different directions. I felt the study of law at university fit my skills – History developed my skills in creating arguments, written skills and taking on a lot of information.
Science was good for learning concepts and applying them. I initially thought I would go down the advocacy route because I had a lot of acting experience and having a bit of dramatic flair can help in court. It was one of my professors at Cambridge, who was also a barrister, who said: “If there is anything you can think of doing other than the Bar then go and do it”. I also shadowed a black barrister by completing a mini-pupillage after my A levels and it was clear that it was a tough role. At Cambridge we get courted early on by big law firms; the package they offer is all very attractive and it becomes an easy decision to go down that route.
I started my career at Shearman & Sterling and then moved to DLA Piper as an NQ. I was at DLA Piper for almost four years before moving in-house. At DLA Piper I was in the Energy And Infrastructure finance team – 80 per cent of our deals were in Africa or had a heavy African slant. This interested me because I have a Ghanaian background. The issues of inadequate energy generation in Africa are clear to see and this work appeals to me. I felt I could contribute to help develop African nations through the work I did.
When I was in private practice, I gravitated toward a Greek partner who was a real champion for me and grew my practice, skills and knowledge. The limitations were a bit wider than what I could get from him as a sponsor; I was enthusiastic about Africa, but I wasn’t met with the same optimism from the department as a whole. I thought If I want to focus on Africa I should move to the continent itself. The impetus for leaving private practice came in 2015 when I had my first role in directly advising an African country. I advised the Government of Rwanda on Energy and Infrastructure projects from a legal and transactional point of view.
I am now inhouse at Globeleq – we are one of the leading power developers and operators in sub-Saharan African. Essentially, we are the ones keeping the lights on in a little village.
My in-house life has been much more fruitful for me as a person – I am supported and listened to and am able to contribute to the organisation. It suits my personality in a better way – I am able to create relationships at work that help me and our work. In law firms it was all so combative and adversarial, I did not feel I had a chance to shine or develop.
Looking back, I would have done things very differently in my private practice career. I now have the benefit of hindsight, which I can use to help young black lawyers coming up behind me. This is why I founded the “Creating Pathways Programme” with a fellow lawyer – we actively give advice and support to talented BAME lawyers by pairing them with senior lawyers for mentoring. We run the programme with the help of the Black Solicitors Network.
More needs to be done by law firms to recognise good talent and develop diverse talent. A lot of Black associates are underdeveloped and are side-lined whereas their white counterparts get more exposure to great work and informal mentoring and sponsorship.
Since Africa has become such a shiny tool for the City, a lot of firms want to have diverse talent to be able to win that work. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has caused a lot in introspection for many organisations. Clients are also demanding diversity statistics as part of their selection criteria for firms.