Becoming a Lawyer as a BAME Student: Advice and Tips
I am a managing associate at EIP. I am also black (more specifically Afro-Caribbean) – a point only relevant here because this article is about my perspective as a black lawyer in the UK.
I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica and went to university in the USA. I moved to the UK after graduating and have been living in London since 2008. I think my route into law probably began when I was told that I was too argumentative as a child – I was led to believe that only lawyers considered this a quasi-positive trait. Although I liked the idea of law, I really enjoyed chemistry and ended up studying Materials Science and Engineering at university. My interest in law, however, didn’t go away and I thought perhaps I could combine this with my technical background. Fast forward a few years and I think I’ve managed to do just that: specialising in patent litigation at EIP.
In this article I will: (i) offer some advice and tips for other BAME lawyers/students; (ii) say what I think could be done to further encourage and ensure that those from ethnic minority backgrounds get the same opportunities to progress in the legal sphere; and (iii) share my thoughts on how lawyers/students can react to systemic racism in law.
Before I begin, I will say that the views expressed here are my own and that I do not speak on behalf of the “black community” (whatever that may be).
My advice and tips
While I think I am very lucky to be on my current path, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing and I definitely wouldn’t have navigated some of the obstacles I’ve faced without help from those around me. This brings me on to my first “tip” to other BAME lawyers/students: ask for help if you need it, because more often than not, people want to (and are happy to) help.
I’ve also noticed that at each stage of my career so far, I have found myself questioning whether I’m really good enough or really belong there. I’ve since learned that this is not uncommon and that many people (BAME and non-BAME), have experienced some form of “impostor syndrome”. My second tip would therefore be to believe that you belong/are good enough.
This will make it easier to follow my third tip which is to channel confidence. This one, I admit, is a bit of a tricky one to put into practice and is probably akin to someone saying, “be less nervous”. That said, people do seem to react more positively to someone who at least appears to know what he or she is talking about.
My fourth tip would be to get feedback regularly. You can’t address an issue unless you know about it or have the confidence to be certain that you’re doing something well unless you get feedback. So ask for it, and ask for it often.
And my last tip is: don’t be put off by the fact that there may not be an abundance of faces like yours in senior positions. Change will happen (and is happening) and diversity is getting (and hopefully will continue to get) more than just lip service.
What can be done to ensure equality of opportunity?
When it comes to what can be done to ensure equality of opportunity, I think the first thing for law firms to do is to look at the data. What do the numbers say? Does the office reflect the racial diversity of society? If you don’t know or don’t have the data, then you won’t be able to identify and tackle the issue properly. Firms need to examine their recruitment processes and in particular, look at how they’re doing when it comes to retaining BAME talent.
Secondly, once you have the data, if there are problems, they need to be acknowledged openly. Only then can we try to find solutions. The temptation is often to focus on what is going well or the statistics that look good, but it is important to both recognise and address the areas which could be improved. Even if, on paper, the office is “diverse”, there needs to be an acceptance that biases exist and that we actively need to take steps to counter them. It is also important to ask BAME staff about their experiences – the issues they face may not always be visible to everyone else.
There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution and each firm will have different issues that need to be addressed.
Mentoring and sponsorship are other measures that could be used to help BAME lawyers if they’re struggling to find their place in a possibly unfamiliar world. In my experience, having someone to speak to and ask the “stupid” or awkward questions can be invaluable.
Firms should also not be afraid to break from tradition. If the old way of doing things means maintaining the status quo, then let’s try something different – how about swapping one of the wine and cheese evenings for, say, supper at Nando’s?
How lawyers/students can react to systemic racism in law
With systemic racism in other areas of society being highlighted, we should take a hard look at the legal profession. To all lawyers, whether BAME or not, I would say we first need to recognise that we all have conscious and subconscious biases – because, in acknowledging this, we can start to redress the imbalance. Given that the current situation is unequal, continuing in the same vein should not be a viable option. If we disagree with how things are, then we need to act now and make actual changes. To that end, law firms need to not just talk the politically correct talk. There is no quick fix; it will require sustained effort, but it is the right thing to do. I would love to see dedicated teams within law firms whose job it is to investigate and come up with ideas on tackling racism in law.
To BAME lawyers/students my message is: (1) don’t be disheartened; and (2) be prepared to talk about race and your experiences (we don’t do it enough).
To non-BAME lawyers/students my message is: (1) we all dislike unfairness, so let’s do something about it (inertia is easy, but wrong); and (2) speak out and give your support (BAME people cannot do it on their own).
Managing Associate, Solicitor
Alex is a qualified solicitor-advocate and joined EIP from the intellectual property department of a large international law firm. He specialises in patent litigation and has experience of proceedings before the High Court, Court of Appeal, Copyright Tribunal, European Intellectual Property Office, as well as in ICC Arbitration.