When Lorena Gomez Sutherland joined her fellow trainees at Mishcon de Reya, last summer, she was aware that her path might look different from her peers.
At 32 years old, she starts her legal career at a time when most professionals have already made their way into private practice.
In the space between now and 10 years ago, when she finished her degree, life got in the way: she became pregnant with her first child. Being a single mother while she was entering the professional world was tough. But Gomez Sutherland was used to fielding the balls life threw at her. Since age 16, she had always been working jobs in retail to sustain her education.
Her parents immigrated from Colombia to the UK a few years after her birth. She was brought up on a council estate, the only black and foreign family on the estate, which meant racially discriminative experiences were not hard to come by. English was not her first language. Growing up, she heard stories about her father’s work as a criminal defence lawyer in his home country, but in the UK she saw him and her mother having to work all day as cleaners to provide for a family of six.
She decided she wanted to pursue law. “The more I understood the world, the more I was drawn to this profession,” she recalls.
When she finished her studies, she found it difficult to get a job. At 22, she had to make do to sustain herself and her child, which meant also taking on cleaning jobs. She did not have any connections to the world of law in the UK. “In those days, there were not many opportunities through Internet,” she explains. “You had to know somebody who understood the legal field to get experience in a firm or in an office.”
Without any type of direction, she had to find one on her own. As she looked for paralegal, legal assistant, even volunteering positions, it was no after no. She did not have enough experience, or her grades were not high enough. She found a job at a local council to gain some office experience and see how to get into legal work, studying part time for her LPC. “I couldn’t pursue it on a full time basis while working and caring for my child: too many responsibilities and boundaries.”
Her career at the council would last 10 years, occupied with housing welfare and social care, helping struggling tenants receive rent assistance. During her LPC, she had her second child. During that period at the council, she would have two more children with her husband.
Gomez Sutherland was ready to give up on her career dream when her opportunity finally arose, in the summer of 2020. “It was a period when it really hit me that I had spent so much money on qualifications that might turn out to be useless,” she says.
She was browsing Linkedin when she stumbled on a new initiative called Black Interns Matter. It was launched by Black-owned recruitment firm, The Stephen James Partnership (SJP), under the helm of founder Samuel Clague. She decided to take part. The team reviewed her CV and prepared her for internships and vacation schemes interviews at law firms. This year, she landed an internship at Mishcon. Against her expectations, she performed so well that she was offered a training contract interview.
Samuel Clague started his recruitment firm in 2011. His heritage is half Barbadian and half British. The idea for a business that would promote diversity in the profession stemmed from his own experience of the industry. After his GDL and LPC, he struggled to get any paralegal role, let alone a training contract. He started the business first focusing on the junior end of placements, and over six years he expanded to a full offering.
Clague created these programmes about a year ago to give young Black lawyers more opportunities. They include Black Interns Matter, which organises work experiences with several City law firms by covering also commuting and other costs, as well as the Black Vacation Scheme and Black Lawyers Matter Mentoring. The latter was launched recently with a charity called The Aleto Foundation; it pairs lawyers and partners with SJP mentees who are aspiring to become legal professionals.
“The drive behind these programmes is to increase representation of minority backgrounds across the legal profession. About three to five per cent of newly-qualified lawyers are Black and firms have problems attracting and retaining this talent,” Clague says.
Barriers were also a constant in the journey of Dominic H. (he requested that his last name be reduced to his initial). Through the SJP programmes, he was selected for a summer scheme at Bates Wells. Before getting there, he had always faced subtle but constant hurdles in the recruitment process — obstacles that he associated with his background and identity. His father is from Barbados, his mother is Jamaican. He was born in the UK, but his family moved to the Caribbean when he was five. He got back to Europe only when he was 16. When his father went back there, he was on his own finishing the last year of university. “My family does not live here. I lack that support network that British people who have been here for longer have,” he says. He moved in with a family friend and managed to get an internship.
When he found the Stephen James Partnership, at 21, he started working with them as a resourcer. “They gave me a better idea of what each area of law provided and, along the way, they always gave me advice and opportunities,” he says. Through Clague, Dominic received help with his CV and outreach sessions to prepare for interviews, which got him a foot in the door. He worked as a paralegal at BT for one year and last summer landed a vacation scheme at Bates Wells.
Like Gomez Sutherland, he saw the lack of connections to the industry as a major hurdle in the early stages of his professional path. “Forty years ago, when my parents started, there were big systemic problems. They might have faded away but the repercussions are still prevalent. My parents did not know lawyers, that means as a child I had no access to those connections. It is important because it is not only a mark of disadvantage; it entrenches the inequality in the wider society.”
Dominic says work experience is not something most people can do; if he had to pay his own rent, he would have struggled to accept certain opportunities. And even when you land an interview, it doesn’t get any easier. “The industry is arguably not as exclusionary to those who do not fit as it was 40 years ago. The fact that there are bias both conscious or unconscious in the system is undeniable, though.”
His English-sounding name often got him a call, but then, Dominic says, he quickly realised the firms understood he was not a “white gentleman”. That’s why the biggest opportunity he found through the SJP initiative, as a gay man from a minority background, was the freedom to show who he was. “Even though these differences may seem minor, because of how competitive the legal profession is, even something as small as just the way you act or if you’re somewhat flamboyant – there are certain aspects to you that people from more traditional background may find difficult to understand,” he explains. “They might not realise they’re counting down a person just because of that.”
For one year now, Dominic has been working as a paralegal at City boutique Preiskel & Co. He finished his LPC and now dreams of a career in litigation. His younger sister moved in with him in a new place, and his job allows him to sustain both.
Many of the problems in the industry often stem from the fact that candidates don’t see real representation in firms despite the best pledges. This is what registered in the mind of Maame Serwaah one day at a diversity panel of a big City law firm. Born in the UK, she grew up in Ghana and returned to her country of birth when she was 7 to start school. In year 10, her school organised a “present yourself” day. Everyone had to come in business attire to take part in mock-up interviews and find more about various career paths. She became interested in law and sought out work experience and internships. A scheme at Allen & Overy was followed by internships at the Bar, including 3 Verulam Buildings, where she shadowed barristers like Rory Philips QC. “I emailed over 100 barristers. Finally, I received a response from one that confirmed that ‘Me and so and so and so have all received your email’,” she laughs.
The real thrill for Serwaah came from commercial work. From her second year of university, she channelled her efforts into becoming a solicitor, even spending a year in Hong Kong. When it came time to apply for vac schemes and training contracts, she froze. She realised she did not know how to properly write an application. Her studies at Queen Mary University had been focused on politics. In 2018, she came across Sam Clague on Linkedin and took part in a session that gave her a new perspective on the process. The takeaway, in a sense, surprised her. “He said I was not selling myself well enough,” she recalls. Serwaah knew she had valuable experience, having also co-chaired an initiative called Black Women in Law that would go on to collaborate with the Stephen James Partnership. Somehow, she realised she had instinctively avoid targeting certain opportunities out of some hidden fear of not fitting in.
While studying, she had heard some horror stories about schemes where you are treated differently if you are joining through pro bono schemes or similar initiatives – people mentioned receiving less attention than those who came in through the traditional way. The fact that she had always been a determined person meant that she refused to see barriers even when she knew they were there. “Upon reflection, I felt like I had almost excluded myself from applying to certain places,” she says.
The reason, she thinks, is that she did not see anyone like that in those places. That day at the City firm event, she witnessed a diversity and inclusion talk where no diverse partner could be seen on stage. She was there because she had won an essay competition and felt excited that the firm would hold an event about an issue she cared for deeply. She came armed with questions. When she sat at the chair, the sight of three white women made her feel confused. “I knew the firm had ethnically diverse partners, so why were they not there?,” she could not stop asking herself. “It would have been more impactful.” She had even started drafting an application to join the firm, but after the experience she ended up not sending it. An email to the organisers expressing feedback on the panel composition went unanswered. “I knew what kind of lawyer I wanted to be,” she says. “I wanted to be in a firm that celebrates diversity.”
This experience of seeing what ‘diversity with no proof’ looks like with her own eyes changed her perspective. From that point, she always made it a priority to check the diversity rates of the firms she was applying to. “I would go the extra mile to attend firm events and see for myself how diverse they were and who was on panels. It can’t be reduced to what is on the website,” she explains.
The sessions with the Stephen James Partnership gave her the confidence to look out for opportunities she previously never considered. She was selected for a vacation scheme at Eversheds Sutherland, where she worked with the employment team and sank her teeth into drafting and research work.
Recently, after a string of applications, she received an offer of a training contract at Travers Smith. She texted Sam Clague straight away: “I can’t believe this day has come for me.”
While giving young lawyers from the new generation the opportunity to change their own lives, Clague’s goal is to drive bigger changes in the industry as a whole. Too many times he found himself negotiating with managing partners at global or regional firms that wanted to talk diversity without any experience of what being Black in the UK means. “It is our chance to create our own narrative in the legal sector. There are too many companies not run by Black people that pretend to talk about these issues,” he says.
“This was my opportunity to put my hand up and say that this problem is real and it is linked to my own background. I have gone through the hurdles of our legal system and it is my job to influence people at the highest level of management and increase representation. My message to every law firm I speak with is: act first, reflect second, talk third.”