Black History Month: “Don’t let having to be a BAME trailblazer faze you”

In the latest in The Lawyer’s series for Black History Month, Esi Eshun, deputy head of legal at UK Export Finance, talks about her career so far.

What’s your background? Did you always want to be a lawyer and how did you first enter the profession?

I have a true science background and early on I considered a career creating neural networks (thinking computers), then onto a Geological Sciences Degree and Masters focussing on seismology. Then, at some point, I sat down and listed the things I thought I was good at and the things I enjoyed doing; I wanted a career that meant I could do as many of those things as possible. Law won.

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?

My attitude has always been to see anything that looks or smells like a barrier as a challenge. So yes, becoming a lawyer at a City Law firm felt like a challenge. People are more comfortable with what they know, and I felt that my background would be unfamiliar to some of the people I would be working with, so I entered the profession determined to change that. 

Have you ever felt that your background has hindered you in any way?

I attended state schools in south east London with stretched teachers and very large classes – tick. I am of BAME background – tick. I am a woman – tick.

But then I won an assisted place at an independent sixth form, I gained a degree from Oxford University, I trained and qualified at a City law firm and I am now a Deputy Head of Legal of a central governmental department.

So, a hindrance, a career driver or motivation to seize opportunities? – I am still working that one out. 

I do think that if you are by far the minority in any situation, whether you like it or not, you are the one who gets to set people’s perception. The reality of this part of human nature should not be ignored. I have always felt, as have many other successful people from a BAME background, the pressure of having to overturn stereotypes or set perceptions because so few have gone before me.

Tell us a little bit about your role now, and how you got there…

After Simmons & Simmons, I joined UK Export Finance in 2009, became a team leader in the legal division in 2016 and have been Deputy Head of Legal since April 2017.

UK Export Finance, as the UK’s export credit agency and an integral part of the strategy and operations of the Department for International Trade, provides assistance and support to UK exporters and investors. In my role, I see and advise on the full range of UK Export Finance’s products and policies and support many UK Export Finance and Department for International Trade initiatives. 

I can be providing comments on documentation to external parties, discussing transaction structures with legal colleagues, having commercial or policy points bounced off me by internal clients and dialling into cross-government group discussions, all within a single hour of the day. Variety is a prominent feature of my job and I like it that way. 

What advice would you give to (a) students attempting to enter the profession and (b) young lawyers from a BAME background?

We all know that the legal profession is one of the more competitive, so I would advise students to think about what they want their future employers to take away from reading about them, meeting them and working with them – be specific and narrow down the list to a manageable length. Then try to make everything you write and do reinforce that view. Shop around and find out as much as possible about the different legal areas, roles and employers – there is a wide variety out there and there will be somewhere to match the legal position you want.

For young lawyers from a BAME background, if you can find someone who has come from and been through something similar to you, take every opportunity to access any guidance that is available. If you can’t find anyone, don’t let having to be a bit of a trailblazer faze you. Embrace your background and use that knowledge and experience to approach your tasks in your own way and believe that your background will be useful to your career. Support can come from many places and try to recognise and seize that support whenever it appears.

Do you have a legal role model? What’s the most valuable lesson they ever taught you?

I think the most valuable lesson taught to me by a former supervisor is to recognise the potential that can be born of differences in people, especially those differences that depart from the attributes that you initially think people should have for a role or a specific piece of work. Over the years people have then reinforced that lesson to me by bringing many new suggestions to the legal issues that had been deliberated in the same way in the past. 

Clients are now increasingly demanding diversity of their law firms. What are your own feelings on this? Is it a fair thing to ask of firms and will it reap rewards?

I think that it is good to listen to what clients are asking for. I think that diversity in background is going to lead to diversity in approach which then leads to diversity in the solutions that are found. If everyone thought in the same way and acted in the same way then very little would change. I think that clients are asking firms to have initiatives in place to enable the firms to evolve in the same way as the clients’ own customer bases, and produce the innovations that may come along with that. If law firms are not asking that of themselves enough, then I think it is fair for their clients to do so.