Conference looks forward to a positive future

The young boy in the red cap who sat patiently beside his mother throughout an afternoon of speeches was blissfully unaware that the future of his generation was being carefully mapped out.

Speaker after speaker at the Association of African, Caribbean and Asian Lawyers Group fifth annual conference, held in London on 26 October, was not so much looking back in anger as forward in anticipation.

If there was a discernible mood at the conference it was one of positive determination. There were no bitter speeches, but there was plenty of advice on how to succeed in the legal world from ethnic minority lawyers who had often done so in spectacular fashion.

Role model after role model took to the stage to tell a 150-strong audience, made up mostly of law students, that their dreams were difficult to achieve, but that they were achievable.

Ironically, one of the few people to allude to ethnic background as a career barrier was former Law Society president Tony Holland.

“There is a clear and certain prejudice in my view on the part of many firms,” he said in a speech congratulating the 1,000-member-strong ACA on its achievements.

The closest that keynote speaker Patricia Scotland QC went to taking a pot-shot at the largely white, well-off legal profession was in recalling that as a student she was told she would never make it because she was a black woman.

But Lovell White Durrant solicitor Dele Oguntimoju summed up the tone of the conference when he rounded on a student who complained in the conference lunchbreak that he hadn't given a black friend a job.

“If you encounter me in a job, colour comes out of the equation and I'm interested in your qualification for the job. I can't let you in simply because I'm one of you,” said Oguntimoju.

There was talk, though, of building a “network” among ethnic lawyers and directing work from ethnic communities towards them. But delegates denied that there was a risk that an organisation that had sought to cut old-school ties in the profession is turning around and developing new ethnic ties to shut out other practitioners.

ACA chair Hardeep Nahal is pragmatic about any such accusation. He argued that ethnic lawyers could and indeed need to respond to the requirements of their communities better. But he disagreed that a wealthy Oxford or Cambridge-trained lawyer could argue the same.

“I think that sort of argument loses sight of the reality of some of the people we are dealing with,” he said. “When you're looking at strong cultural forces [for example a Muslim divorce] you can't look at the legal issue in isolation.”

Nahal said the idea was to make people aware of the services of ethnic lawyers, in order simply to give them the option of choosing one.

Selling a proactive message to the communities its serves is the next stage of ACA's mission.

It already appears to have convinced a new generation of ethnic minority lawyers not to concentrate so much on the blinkered beliefs of others but rather to believe in themselves.