Shannett Thompson

It was Blair Underwood’s character Jonathan Rollins in LA Law who first inspired me to become a lawyer, cliched as this sounds. As a child aged 7, I had never seen a black man in a professional role before, and I was in awe – representation really does matter.

My initial steps into the legal sector, even at university, demonstrated to me how few black people, and, in particular given the theme of this year’s Black History Month, how few women there were. I was one of two black women in my law undergraduate class, and the difference in terms of background from my fellow students was palpable to me at least.

Perhaps unsurprisingly my search for a training contract was not straightforward. LinkedIn had not been created then, and I was not aware of networks I could use to access fellow black women in the profession.  I certainly didn’t have the confidence to ‘cold-call’ a qualified lawyer and ask for help.

In the end after repeated rejections from London law firms, I changed tack and took a position as a Legal Advisor at the then United Bristol Healthcare Trust which led to a training contract. I haven’t looked back since.

My story is not unique, but hopefully as people like me and other black women move forward with our careers in the law, we become a source of inspiration and knowledge for the next generation and I have had feedback to that effect.

As the training principal at Kingsley Napley, responsible for the recruitment and development of trainees at the firm, I hear time and time again that representation is key for prospective black candidates when they are considering which law firms to apply for at the start of their career.

The question candidates often ask themselves is: does a firm have people that look like me and that I can relate to? Whilst blind selection processes are one thing, whether a candidate feels they will fit into the culture within an organisation is often a more critical factor governing their choice.

The other big test for prospective applicants is: do firms walk the talk on diversity and have genuinely active and engaged networks, senior management buy-in, and well-supported, rolling programmes beyond Black History Month?

Together these things show diversity efforts are real at a firm and not simply tokenism.

In terms of career advice, I regularly share with candidates of all backgrounds, but especially black women, my long held mantra of: find a champion, ally or mentor who will help you to reach your potential.  The importance of a person who can guide you on your journey and who will speak highly of you and your skills when you are outside of the room cannot be overstated. This doesn’t have to be a black person but sometimes it helps.

I am fortunate now to be part of a growing network of black women, some from my own firm and some external, who not only provide me with allyship and support, but also help advance my career.  They give me the checks and balance that I need to navigate difficult situations and understand when I am frustrated by microaggressions and a plethora of other issues. They provide connections to other professionals, and generally champion me and my career, as I do for them. This sister tribe makes my professional life so enriched, that I often wonder how different my career trajectory would have been had I known them earlier.

The fact this network now exists is a sign the legal profession has changed.

Statistics show that black representation in law firms overall is now on a par with the general UK workforce in that 3 per cent of lawyers in the SRA’s most recent diversity survey were black and a similar proportion of black employees make up the UK workforce across all industries. This does not mean that all is well, however as black lawyers still report issues such as:

  • Difficulty getting into the profession;
  • A lack of progression once they enter the profession;
  • Unwelcoming cultures within firms and in-house teams; and
  • Leaving the profession due to all of the above and more.

The result is that the rate of attrition of black lawyers is far higher than any other group, and this has to be dealt with.

Further, there is still a job to do to increase this representation, considering black people make up 4 per cent of the total UK population and at least another 1 per cent are of mixed heritage (according to the latest 2021 Census data). In addition, we particularly need to address the issue of underrepresentation of black lawyers in larger firms, at a senior level and in practice areas like corporate and property law which the SRA study shows are lagging behind.

At my firm 19 per cent of our lawyer community are black and we have three female black partners comprising 11 per cent of the partnership which compares favourably to some other firms. We have senior representation in non-legal areas of the business such as IT but are yet to have a black Board member so that remains something to strive for.

This Black History Month, I would like to salute my sisters at Kingsley Napley and elsewhere who inspire me every day. As the saying goes: my tribe is strong.

Kingsley Napley’s training principal Shannett Thompson is running an event this month for Black men who want to get into the law.

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