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There are systematic barriers that Black individuals face in the legal profession that still heavily favour those from a privileged background.
For this reason, there has been increased support for talented and diverse Black individuals in navigating their professional and personal development, before, during and after a career in law.
So, who are the organisations supporting Black excellence in the legal industry?
In this blog post, I explore the role of these organisations and look at their mission statements.
Statistically imperfect, practically possible
According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) 2017 diversity data, only 3% of solicitors make up the proportion of Black solicitors in England and Wales, whereas 3.2% are practising barristers. The proportion of Black lawyers is lower than other ethnic groups within the profession.
At the Bar, around 3.2% of barristers in England and Wales are Black, and only 5.3% make up the proportion of pupil barristers. This accounts for approximately 3.4% of the UK workforce population.
Read ‘Black candidates share legal recruitment experiences’ for insights from those going through the process now.
In the UK Law Society’s 2020 race for inclusion report, it was revealed that barriers to entering the profession are interconnected with coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background and being state school educated.
Although it is increasingly common for firms and chambers to overlook these factors, the disadvantage for Black lawyers continues to be present past the initial recruitment stage.
Almost all participants in the Law Society’s report reported experiencing microaggressions. By its definition, a ‘microaggression’ is a verbal or non-verbal hostile, derogatory or negative communication towards a marginalised group, including those of a different race or gender. While microaggressions can be easily disguised as a passing comment for many, it is important to recognise that comments about someone’s name, culture and way of speech can amount to microaggressions.
This report indicates that Black lawyers are leaving law firms to go in-house or choosing to leave the profession altogether. This discovery is unsurprising given that Black solicitors are reported to have the lowest levels of remuneration, a 30% pay gap in comparison to White solicitors; White solicitors were reported to earn an average of £85,912.00, compared to £60,138.00 for Black solicitors.
Although I find it easy to be disheartened by these statistics and the fact that the hardships faced by Black legal professionals remain, there are organisations that are maximising their initiatives to offer encouragement and support to those looking to break barriers, while reminding us that recognition and the successes of Black aspiring lawyers, lawyers and support staff is possible:
- Urban Lawyers: founded by Dr Tunde Okewale, a barrister who continues to break the barriers into the profession, having become the youngest master bencher of Inner Temple, attended a non-Russell group university and achieved a 2:2 for his undergraduate degree. Urban lawyers is a charity that hosts a series of events, including workshops for aspiring lawyers to tackle diversity issues within the legal profession. Each year, Urban Lawyers provides a conference, which presents members with the opportunity to attend a series of workshops and law fair breakout sessions, as well as hearing inspiring speeches for practising lawyers.
- Black Barristers Network: for a profession that has forever employed those from traditional backgrounds, the Black Barristers Network is a reminder that Black barristers can and will be visible within and outside the Bar.
- The Black Solicitors Network (BSN): having formed in 1995, the BSN focuses on representing the voices of Black solicitors within the English and Welsh jurisdictions. The BSN is committed to providing pastoral care and support and promoting diversity within the solicitor’s profession while being involved in consultations with legal regulatory bodies such as the SRA.
- Bridging the Bar: Bridging the Bar is a new organisation aiming to increase diversity at the bar. Bridging the Bar has committed to offering equal access opportunities to students from underrepresented backgrounds by offering mini-pupillages, mentoring and transparency with a directory that showcases chambers and legal organisations that are providing equal access. The charity is predominantly comprised of junior barristers and aspiring barristers, who are perfectly placed to support future talent during the current challenges of accessibility to the Bar.
- Society of Black Lawyers: the Society of Black Lawyers is the oldest organisation of Black lawyers in the UK. Its long-standing mission since it was established in 1969, has been to promote equality and diversity within the profession by eliminating racial discrimination and working towards ensuring access to justice for those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds.
- BME at the bar: BME at the Bar pledges to support Black practitioners during recruitment stages and employment while ensuring the retention of Black barristers. BME at the Bar collaborates with The Forum and other Bar organisations to represent the interests of Black practitioners and achieve a diverse and inclusive profession.
- Black women in law: the LinkedIn group aims to connect all Black women across the legal profession to provide support and offer guidance to Black women throughout their legal careers.
- BML Network (Black Men In Law): the LinkedIn group focuses on increasing the representation of Black male lawyers while inspiring the next generation of men to join the profession through discussions, shared experiences and collaborations with firms and chambers.
What these organisations all have in common are the mentoring and opportunities that they bring to encourage and support those who face similar challenges within the profession.
Continuing recognition beyond Black History Month
Looking to the future, it is imperative to ensure accessibility to the profession for Black individuals. This can be done by:
- employing standards for firms and chambers to provide information about accessibility and the process of ensuring diversity and inclusion at recruitment stages and during employment;
- reserving training contracts and pupillage places for aspiring Black lawyers;
- encouraging all staff and senior members to complete diversity and inclusion training;
- introducing a zero-tolerance policy to address the ill-treatment, stereotyping and bullying of Black individuals in the workplace, including courts, to tackle the prejudice faced by black individuals; and
- ensuring that black lawyers, aspiring lawyers and legal support personnel are sufficiently represented in policy-making and considered when developing new methods to support Black individuals within the profession.
Gone are the days when diversity is seen as a box-ticking exercise and with these organisations at hand, the step to breaking barriers is within reach. Given the historical background of those entering the legal profession, sometimes it can be easy to subconsciously create self-imposed barriers.
It’s important to not self-isolate, find your feet and believe in yourself.