Martin Luther King Jr, the US civil rights activist, said that “passive resistance is far more bewildering than outright rejection”. In the UK, which has not experienced a racial upheaval, what is an ethnic law student who has encountered both passive resistance and outright rejection to do?
Each year thousands of students apply for trainee contracts and a small number manage to attain them. An even smaller number of those are from ethnic minorities. Many ethnic minority students with outstanding resumes have applied for jobs to be turned away without adequate explanation.
Some students have sent identical resumes with more Anglicised names to firms and have seen their chances for interviews dramatically increase. One ethnic minority lawyer, now working in a City firm, had his name hidden from his potential employers by a recruitment agent who felt his ethnicity would hinder his chances of acceptance. And he got the job.
Russell Lewin, partner in charge of trainee recruitment at Baker & McKenzie, said: “It's a non-issue in my decision.” He points out that 30 per cent of this year's recruited trainees come from ethnic minority backgrounds.
But, the statistical reality of the recent Law Student Cohort study suggests discrimination does exist. Jerry Garvey, ethnic minorities officer at the Law Society, is a strong advocate of the equal opportunities policy implemented by many firms. He offers counselling and advice to students who feel they have been discriminated against. “In most cases,” Garvey said, “students are reluctant to pursue formal grievance channels for fear it will jeopardise their careers.”
John Whitmore acted for Dharani Thirupathy in her case against a firm which accepted her for an interview as Jane Thorpe after rejecting her with her real name. The firm was found to have unconsciously discriminated against her.
Whitmore believes that while discrimination may not consciously be intended it does occur. Choosing equally qualified students should be like flipping a coin, but when the results become unbalanced, “you begin to suspect there is something wrong with the coin or the person who is flipping it”.
Whitmore also represented Jenny Lindsay in her claim against Ironside, Ray & Vials. Lindsay, then a trainee, brought a claim against the firm when it did not give her the same grants as her white colleagues. She won with a unanimous decision in her favour, but she warns other students who want to challenge the system: “It's very difficult to prove.”
Before her case, in applying for articles, Lindsay was worried her background would limit her chances of success. “I feel extremely angry that I had to play down my ethnicity in my CV. My aim was to get an interview where I could shine through without being pre-judged on a piece of paper.”
Such comments come after the controversial statement from Katie Paxton, publicity officer for the Trainee Solicitors Group, who advised students applying for training contracts to “neutralise” their identities. “Our main role is to help people get a job,” said Paxton, who bases her views on statistical evidence that minority students have a harder time securing contracts than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
Ola Cole, press officer for the African Caribbean and Asian Lawyers Group (ACA) knows people who have Anglicised or shortened their names and had a change in the responses from potential employers. But she is not in favour of students trying to hide their identities. “Are some peoples' names really too long,” she asked, “or are certain minds too short?”
Paul Shadarevian, now a recruitment partner at Norton Rose, was asked at his first pupillage interview: “Have you ever thought of changing your name?” He has been adamant about keeping it since: “Names mean nothing at all.”.
Sailesh Mehta, chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers (SAL), says that it is “an indictment of the profession as a whole” that students are forced to change their names. “This sort of thing panders to the minority in the profession.”
SAL and ACA have set up a scheme to refer highly-qualified minority students, who feel they have been victims of discrimination, to City firms. “It is giving such students an extra chance,” said scheme co-ordinator Vandana Shah. Students who are rejected after the referrals are given explanations on the grounds of their failure.
Shah does not encourage students to change their names or to play down their ethnicity. “I think it can work against you. Whatever you are, you need to have pride in your heritage.”
Makbool Javaid at the Commission for Racial Equality, thinks students should go so far as to “play up” their identities. In the global marketplace, he believes students who have diverse backgrounds can offer multiple perspectives and be an asset to international firms. Javaid tells students: “Get in on who you are otherwise we shall never be able to eliminate discrimination in the profession.”
He says students should see their place of birth and background, as a “positive experience” and in interviews should make a point of mentioning the obstacles overcome.
The reality for students who hide their identities is that they often live in fear of rocking the boat once they are on the inside. Conformity is fine, but no one should be encouraged to be ashamed of what they are. Both students and employers need to take risks to hold the legal community accountable for equality.