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Marni Choudhari looks back at the Sisters in Law event which tried to capture the experiences of BAME women in the profession.
Picture this - two Asian sisters studying law at the (then) College of Law, Store Street, walking into their contract law class to find a sea of faces, none quite like theirs. They sit down at a table which just so happens to be the rugby boys favourite - ignorant to the ‘tries’, ‘conversions’ and ‘drop goals’ that seemed so important to ‘ruggers’. This was not all they’d appeared to have missed out on; they soon discovered that all the others on their table had a training contract waiting for them.
Help! Surely life got better for these two sisters in law? Surely, the future is brighter for those coming up today? To my dismay, this story is real. The Sisters In Law event at the Law Society presented compelling research that progression for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and women solicitors hasn’t changed much over the years.
Professor Hilary Sommerlad laid out the brutal facts: The Solicitors Regulatory Authority reports (2016) that ‘on the surface the solicitors profession is diverse.’ However, research reveals: under representation of black solicitors in the profession (2 per cent); a significant under representation of BAME lawyers at partner level; and women lawyer salaries being on average 30 per cent lower across all sectors of private practice.
Well, where was the good news that the two sisters were expecting? Recent Solicitors Regulatory Authority research (2016) confirms that almost half of all solicitors in England and Wales are women. I’m afraid, for many of the sisters in the audience that was as good as it got.
The paradox was revealed that night: ‘Almost all top 100 and large firms have a diversity and inclusion (D&I) policy in place and most are monitoring the implementation of the policy’ (Law Society 2016). Clearly, it’s not enough to have just a policy. Leadership needs to espouse and embody D&I, and practical action is required through HR, training and networks, to name a few examples.
The Law Society Statistics Report confirms that retaining women and BAME solicitors together poses a challenge to their progression to more senior levels in the profession.
Before the sisters in law got too disheartened, Jessica Peacock and Jerry Garvey of the Law Society opened up the panel to discussion from the audience, welcoming suggestions and ideas. One lady stated that she had decided to go straight to the younger generation and teach them about equality and diversity in order to build the future. Other suggestions were more BAME specific coaching, training and mentoring. One solicitor said that even small integrative steps could help, for instance encouraging the correct pronunciation of her name at her firm.
It was encouraging that the Law Society had helped put this event into being (via the Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division). The current Law Society president, Robert Bourns, has placed equality and diversity as a priority in his presidency. Many of us are keen to see what this will include.
Returning to the classroom at the College of Law, the two sisters in law, sitting next to the rugby lads, whose fathers had secured training contracts through their connections have now made sense of it all. They realised that they had become the statistics. However, they were still shocked to discover that the younger sisters were in the same boat.
Key findings from Professor Sommerlad’s report for the Legal Services Board includes that the ‘Greatest barriers to diversity are cultural practices, that revolve around making and sustenance of personal bonds, and which depend upon and naturalise cultural stereotypes. This tends to mean that those who are different from the ‘norm’ are not always recognised as full professionals.’ I think we need another Law Society event.
Following the launch the first in a programme of activities will be the ‘Say my Name campaign.’ This will include short videos from a range of women that explain the importance or heritage of pronouncing your name correctly and the best way to ask about pronunciation. This is about calling people in and asking them to be responsible for getting the correct pronunciation. These videos will be used internally at The Law Society, on social media ( #SayMyName), and shared with firms.