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Black candidates share legal recruitment experiences

updated on 19 October 2021

The number of firms adopting contextual recruitment practices is growing, but structural inequality and a lack of representation at senior levels mean that Black candidates continue to face additional barriers to becoming lawyers.

Reading time: 15 minutes

As the first person of colour to become president of the Law Society, I. Stephanie Boyce has made it her mission “to leave a profession more diverse and inclusive than the one” she entered.  

“The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which were sparked by the death of George Floyd, brought racial inequalities that persist around the world into sharp focus, with the movement undoubtedly increasing emphasis on the issues in society and the legal profession,” says Boyce.

“They also provided a much-needed opportunity for reflection […]. It is imperative we talk openly and honestly to ensure we are creating a culture change in the organisations we work in, not just pursuing our own success,” she adds.

Diversity and inclusion is one of the most important and talked-about issues in the UK legal profession today and there are increasing discussions about the particular challenges faced by Black students getting into the profession, and moving upwards within it.

But does the talk in the industry match the reality faced by candidates? And what opportunities and support is there for aspiring lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds? In the UK legal profession, research presents a complex picture of different levels of diversity between smaller organisations and the elite commercial practices.

Statistical evidence is an important tool in measuring diversity, but it is also essential to understand that inclusion and accessibility – and their absence – are lived experiences, so candidates themselves must have their voices heard. The barristers’ profession, which has the greatest problem with perceptions of elitism and inaccessibility, is a good place to start.

For information on what solicitors’ firms, chambers and legal education providers are doing to improve diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, head to LCN’s Diversity Hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG.

Inequality in the barristers’ profession

At the Bar, only 5.3% of pupils are from a Black/Black British background, according to the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) ‘Report on Diversity at the Bar 2020’. Around 3.2% of the Bar, 3.4% of non-Queen’s Counsel (QC) and 1.3% of QCs are Black/Black British, with the proportion of Black barristers at the Bar increasing by only 0.05% in 2020 compared to December 2019.

While there are little-to-no stats regarding Black students enrolled on the Bar Practice Training Course (BPTC), the BSB stats on ethnic minority BPTC students paint a bleak picture. Although in 2019-20, ethnic minority candidates made up 59% of barristers who had been called to the Bar, only 17.6% secured tenancy. On top of this, research from the BSB relating to students enrolled on the BPTC from 2011/12 to 2019/20 shows that 77% of White candidates with a first-class degree and an ‘outstanding’ BPTC grade secured pupillage, compared with 65% of candidates from an ethnic minority background with the same grades.

Old-fashioned and discriminatory stereotypes of what makes a good barrister are continuing to dictate recruitment practices, with diversity at the Bar a long way from where it should be.

Dylan Kawende, University of Cambridge law student and cofounder and CEO of OmniSpace UK, explains that a huge part of the difference in pupil demographics is down to the way that talent is defined: “The Bar seems to place so much emphasis on archaic characteristics. If I’m getting the same grades as someone else but don’t sound as polished because I didn’t go to Eton, I should still be exposed to the same opportunities.”

However, before even getting to the Bar, securing a place at an elite institution to study law remains problematic.

Dylan says: “We all know how hard it is to get into Cambridge and as a Black person it’s even harder. But as the son of Congolese-Rwandan refugees it’s even more challenging.”

The Oxbridge bias among many chambers disproportionately disadvantages ethnic minority candidates, given that only around 3.7% of Oxford’s 2020 intake and 3.9% of Cambridge’s 2020 intake were Black, according to recent news.  

“It’s important that chambers understand individuals in their personal contexts, as well as celebrate and embrace the diversity of identities.” - Dylan

Although Dylan is now a Cambridge law student, his journey towards studying at this institution was far from straightforward. In 2019, he launched a campaign – ‘#GetDyl2Cambridge’ – to raise money to cover his university fees so he could complete an MA in law. Dylan was aware that studying at Cambridge would present some financial challenges so, as part of his strategy, he applied to several scholarships of which he secured many. However, the money from these scholarships didn’t scratch the surface of his MA fees.

Dylan’s campaign highlighted the detrimental impact that institutionalised racism can have on Black aspiring lawyers. Comparing his journey to his Eton-educated counterparts, Dylan says: “I don’t know that any of them had to crowdfund to study at Cambridge, despite us all having the same academic credentials.”

It’s important to acknowledge that the disparity between Black candidates and their White counterparts is an issue that permeates the profession right from the start. Chair of the Bar council Derek Sweeting QC emphasises the need for change in his response to the BSB’s recent Diversity at the Bar report. Although progress is being made in some areas, he says: “It is crucial that the Bar maintains momentum, particularly towards improving the situation around race, and accelerates progress towards a diverse profession at all levels […].

“Barristers play a key role in our justice system and must collectively reflect the society they represent. Significant change cannot come soon enough.”

There are a number of areas that must be addressed to ensure the Bar is inclusive and reflects the society in which it operates. Dylan homes in on one aspect that “plays a huge part in inequality at the Bar”: perception.

“The notion that there is a particular type of person who makes the ideal barrister is archaic and wrong. I have met so many impressive barristers who don’t fit that mould, but they have had to persist in holding on to their authentic self,” Dylan explains.

“It’s important that chambers understand individuals in their personal contexts, as well as celebrate and embrace the diversity of identities.” Going forward, Dylan urges chambers “to challenge their own assumptions regarding what it means to be a barrister to avoid any disparity between candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds and their White counterparts.”

Black representation in the solicitors’ profession

While 21% of solicitors in England and Wales are from an ethnic minority background, only 3% of these solicitors are Black, the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) latest statistics show. The percentage of Black solicitors has remained the same since 2017.

“While increasing diversity in numbers is important, it is unsustainable if inclusion is not in place." - Nadine

The size of the firm only exacerbates the issue with Black lawyers “significantly underrepresented in mid to large size firms”. The stats at partner level are also an unwelcoming sight – in 2020 only six out of 800 partners at the top five magic circle law firms were Black, according to a recent article by the Telegraph.

The number of Black lawyers in the profession highlights just how bad the diversity and inclusion issue is. Why are Black lawyers not making partner? Why is there such a disparity in representation across the solicitors’ profession?

Nadine Owusu-Ansah, future trainee solicitor at Linklaters LLP, touches on this issue as she explains the importance of inclusivity in retaining diverse talent: “While increasing diversity in numbers is important, it is unsustainable if inclusion is not in place. An example of a policy that promotes inclusivity is the Halo Code, which Nadine says has been “profoundly welcomed” because it highlights the firms that “recognise the importance of diverse candidates feeling comfortable in their authentic self”. The Halo Code is the UK’s first Black hair code aimed at explicitly protecting “employees who come to work with natural hair and protective hairstyles associated with their racial, ethnic and cultural identities”.

Fostering inclusive workspaces is pivotal in creating a legal profession that represents society. Looking back over the past year, Nadine recalls the events of the summer of 2020 and the influence they had on the legal profession: “The whole world woke up to the importance of racial equality in all areas of life. The tragic death of George Floyd and the continued efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked several uncomfortable conversations, whereby people began to listen to try and understand the diverse issues and barriers that hinder the progression of Black people.”

Conversations might be happening, but is real change? The lack of progress in the proportion of Black solicitors since 2017, coupled with the distinct disparity at a senior level reinforces this perception: much like the Bar, the elite end of the solicitors’ profession is self-replicating, largely dominated by White, male partners from the same socioeconomic and educational background promoting people who ‘fit in’ with them.

How to improve equality and access: what do students think?

Improve scholarship funding and purpose

Although Dylan has secured several scholarships to support his journey to the Bar, of which he is extremely grateful, he expresses his concern that the funding on offer is not enough to support candidates properly. “If I had just relied on scholarships, I would have been unable to complete my studies. On top of this, most scholarships are targeted at those requiring financial support so only provide a partial solution to the ongoing diversity issue within the profession,” Dylan explains.

Diversity schemes

Mentoring and careers advice from senior role models and diversity organisations is an important aspect of increasing access.

Linklaters future trainee Nadine took part in the firm’s Get Ahead scheme – a series that has been designed to provide candidates from Black and other minority ethnic backgrounds a head start in the firm’s application process. “I applied for the scheme because, despite having obtained the relevant grades and both legal and non-legal work experience, year after year I kept receiving training contract rejections. I realised that my applications were missing something: commercial awareness. The Get Ahead scheme was exactly what I needed. It involved presentations and workshops which broke down the anatomy of a deal, the commercial considerations important to clients and the role of lawyers and legal departments in a commercial transaction.

“The scheme was also instrumental in developing my networking skills so I could confidently communicate with legal professionals at all levels.”

Nadine believes that schemes such as Get Ahead are important because “the perception remains that you are more likely to succeed in law if you are from a particular background or have attended a certain university. This reality has meant that many diverse candidates suffer with imposter syndrome and shy away from applying because they fear they will not fit in. Schemes such as Get Ahead provide:

  • candidates with the extra confidence they need to apply; and
  • trainee recruitment teams with the unique opportunity to focus on attracting and recruiting diverse talent."

Before making the decision to pursue a career at the Bar, Dylan was a member of diversity organisation Rare Recruitment. He looks back to the support Rare offered him and how his involvement has influenced where he now is. “The organisation helped me to develop my professional skills, including networking and writing compelling applications. Even though I’m now on a very different path, a lot of the skills I developed at Rare Recruitment are transferable.”

Dylan is currently involved in Rare’s Target Oxbridge programme – a free programme designed to help “Black African and Caribbean students and students of mixed race with Black African and Caribbean heritage increase their chances of getting into the universities of Oxford or Cambridge”. Since the programme’s launch in 2021, it has helped more than 200 students secure a place at Oxbridge. “It has been delightful to give back to the organisation and wider community,” Dylan says. “It’s great to have the chance to show individuals just how powerful their unique identity is and how I’ve leveraged my unique identity to succeed in various roles.”

He adds: “Initiatives like this are extremely important as they shed light on the barriers that still exist. They are practical ways to address the issues and they unlock so much talent.”

Mentoring

Mentoring is another initiative that firms are implementing to increase diversity and inclusion. Nadine is a staunch advocate for mentoring: “The rigorous and competitive nature of the legal profession causes many aspiring lawyers to doubt their abilities; and the systemic barriers in place make candidates question whether the profession is for ‘people like them’. Mentoring provides candidates with a visual representation of who they can aspire to be. It also allows mentees to seek personalised advice and guidance which will enable them to excel in all areas of their professional life. Navigating the legal profession is not always easy, so having a mentor who supports you goes a long way.”

Mentoring at a more junior level also proves beneficial. Clifford Chance paralegal and former president of Leeds University Law Society Kingsley Duru opens up about his experience as a mentor and mentee: “Lots of the conversations I had with mentees were about things I had also feared. As a mentor, I could speak with hindsight to reassure my mentees and point them in the right direction for additional support.”

Offering his advice to future mentees, Dylan adds: “A lot of students fail to realise that they need to give back to such a relationship. Ask critical and introspective questions of yourself and your mentor.”

Strength in numbers: join your student law society

“These conversations need to start early. Law societies can support this and help to remove the barriers and ensure that prospective lawyers don’t believe such barriers exist for them.” - Kingsley

While the profession itself remains slow to respond to structural inequality, more students are coming together through student law societies to create opportunities for all members to access. University College London’s (UCL) Law for All society is a great example. Dylan, who was the former president of the society says: “Diversity and inclusion is at the heart of Law for All. Until 2011, UCL didn’t have a law society which was open to the entire student body. Law for All is open to all students irrespective of their degree. We host a wide range of events and offer unique opportunities to our members, such as networking events, speaker-led sessions, mooting workshops, negotiation skills presentations, pro-bono work and social events. With the help of Law for All, I was awarded a Freshfields Stephen Lawrence scholarship in 2017.”

Looking back on his time as president, Dylan says: “Creating such a community is so powerful. I’m still very much connected with what UCL Law for All stand for. I have continued to have conversations with the existing committee about how they can support their students and ways I can support them.”

Supporting and celebrating each other at these early stages is crucial. A good starting point is to build a network of like-minded aspiring lawyers from various backgrounds and have conversations about racism and inequalities in the legal profession. Students involved in these societies are the future of the profession. As equality and diversity secretary in his second year of university, Kingsley worked to “break down the barriers that ethnic minority candidates face – a big aspect of this is how do we get more ethnic minority applicants into the City firms and how do we remove the mental blockade of not feeling like you belong, that so many of these candidates face?”

In March 2020, Kingsley was elected president of Leeds University Law Society: “At the time, I was the only Black law society president at a Russell Group university, which was quite significant.” As president, he continued to work hard and encourage open conversations on this topic. He highlights the importance of university law societies in ensuring all students feel represented and supported: “These conversations need to start early. Law societies can support this and help to remove the barriers and ensure that prospective lawyers don’t believe such barriers exist for them.”

Next steps

For Dylan and Nadine, diversity initiatives like the ones mentioned above are important in making the profession more meritocratic. Dylan says: “In my view, the legal profession has made great strides. Contextual recruitment in law firms has redefined what it means to be talented without diluting the role of a lawyer. Law firms that offer financial support for students from lower-income backgrounds are making the legal profession more accessible. More of this needs to be done.”

Nadine says: “It is encouraging to see the numerous policies being introduced by law firms to combat inequalities and increase diversity within the profession. Many firms have implemented diversity targets aimed at improving the recruitment, retention and promotion of diverse talent. Similarly, we have seen the launch of diversity-focused events and programmes that celebrate the achievements of racially diverse candidates who often fall through the recruitment net.”

While Dylan is aware that progress is underway, he is concerned that many don’t understand “quite how bad things are – people don’t realise how much extra energy and work I am having to invest just so I can be on par with my White counterparts.

“It is tragic that this is still a reality. We can meet all the academic requirements, perform well in interviews and applications but these inter-personal struggles and barriers, which really should not exist, still persist.

“If we want to improve representation, we have to engage with the complexity of individuals rather than group characteristics. There are core skills that a lawyer requires, such as communication, resilience, assertiveness, that are indifferent to one’s identity group. By coaching the individual these skills, group identity has less primacy, as it should. The legal industry has a lot to learn.”

Nadine believes that “if we all work together to make the profession as inclusive and progressive as possible, diverse candidates will start to see themselves as the equal candidates they are. Improving the experiences of diverse lawyers already in the profession will likely encourage the next generation of aspiring lawyers to apply.”

Advice for aspiring lawyers

Dylan: “Do your best to understand the various levers of power; be bold and proceed.”

Kingsley: “Be curious, put yourself out there and make the most of the opportunities that come your way.”

Nadine: “The best way for us to see the type of change we want to see, is to be part of the conversation. Don’t let fear, doubt or imposter syndrome hold you back. Build on your knowledge and your skills, learn from your experiences, network with legal professionals and enjoy your journey”

For more on what solicitors’ firms, chambers and legal education providers are doing to improve diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, head to LCN’s Diversity Hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG.

Olivia Partridge (she/her) is the content producer at LawCareers.Net.