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Diversity and inclusion – Q&A with Gowling WLG associate Oratile Jonas

updated on 17 November 2022

Oratile Jonas is an associate at Gowling WLG (UK) LLP.

What attracted you to a career in law?     

To be honest, there wasn’t a specific aspect of the profession that I was attracted to at first, as I had an interest in both law and accounting. I couldn't choose which route to take so I decided to go for a double major and studied both law and accounting hoping that my final path would choose me while studying. Eventually, I found myself gravitating more towards the law side of my degree and I think the decision to pursue a career as a solicitor was also heavily influenced by the people I found myself speaking to and interacting with through my lectures and career days, who were mostly lawyers. I guess, it was a natural gravitation towards the career.

What was your initial impression of the legal profession?

“What have I signed up for?”

Entering the profession felt very different to the experience of the law that I’d had while studying. I soon realised that the study of law was very theoretical whereas the daily work of a lawyer is very practical and, in certain seats, very transactional and process driven, something which I perhaps was not prepared for.

Although it was a tough adjustment, I really feel that the role of a trainee, and subsequently an associate, has really given me additional skills that I never had before that I can apply in any aspect of life.

What was your experience of the legal profession like as an aspiring lawyer/pre-qualifying? Did you face any obstacles? How did you overcome them?

My experience was a bit like a rollercoaster – there were lots of ups and downs. One of the obstacles I faced early on was adjusting to different people’s work styles. I found this difficult in the sense that it’s hard to please everybody on all levels. Eventually, I spoke to a senior associate during my training contract who advised me to be flexible and open to people's working style while also working on developing my own personal style. This was the guidance I needed in order to overcome that obstacle as I became more open to listening to and understanding other people's perspective and also, what other people want from me and I started having conversations with individuals about how we should work together, which made working with other people so much easier.

Did you have any negative experiences?

My personality is different to what people might imagine of a ‘typical’ lawyer – I think lawyers are often considered to have a Type A personality, and although I may relate to some aspects of a Type A personality, I know that I don’t fall within that personality type. I have come across a lot of people who have the Type A personality and working with them has caused some clashes but this was an interesting learning curve for me as I had to adjust my personality to work with them in the same way that they had to adjust theirs to work with me.

What’s the biggest positive change you’ve seen since entering the profession?

Realising that my knowledge of the law has improved so much since entering the profession. As you start out in the profession, you’re learning lots of different things at a fast pace and in a short period of time because you sit in seats for around six months at a time during your training contract (which honestly isn’t enough to fully grasp the area of law you're in during that time). During my training contract, I worried that I wouldn’t remember everything but eventually I did through practise and using my free time to read up on things that caught my interest, and this helped me adjust more easily when I moved jurisdictions too.

Although many law firms are increasingly promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace, what more can be done to ensure the legal profession is a diverse and inclusive profession?

I’d encourage everyone to be open to listening to people from different levels. While firms are doing lots of promotional activities when it comes to diversity and inclusion, I’m not sure that many people feel as though the work is actually being done, or that they’re being heard. In my current team, I find that we’re encouraged to speak up and ask questions and the team is open to putting some time aside and listening. They’re also very open to change and all it takes is a simple conversation.

It's also important to communicate internally about the actions being taken within the firm, rather than just promoting the initiatives externally. For example, are your employees all aware of the different events taking place throughout the year? To ensure that these events are being communicated internally at our firm, Gowling WLG send out emails (monthly and at times, daily) and reminders about upcoming events and initiatives to encourage participation or involvement within the firm.

What work is Gowling doing in this area?

One thing the firm does that I really appreciate is encourage everyone to set objectives. So, every year, you sit down with an allocated partner to discuss your objectives from the past year and to set new ones. This is followed by 'check in' meetings to see how you’re progressing with your objectives. From this, they’ve asked everyone to include a diversity and inclusivity objective within these. For example, because I’m actively involved and part of the firm's internal networks, my objective is to keep attending events, having an input, expressing my ideas and encouraging others to join the networks and participate or attend the various events.

There are lots of different diversity and inclusion networks at the firm, including:

  • EmbRACE (for ethnicity);
  • Enable (for disability, mental health and wellbeing);
  • OpenHouse (for LGBTQ+ people and straight allies);
  • Family Matters (for working partners and carers); and
  • Thrive (for gender equality).

As a result of these networks, the firm has been able to pick up on areas of improvement and has shown that it’s open to receiving ideas and understanding how individuals and groups are treated within the firm.

How can firms encourage inclusivity?

Firms should continue being open to having conversations. Another thing that I think firms should implement is a ‘step plan’, which can be impactful. Every firm is different but working on a step plan that the firm has put together with input from different levels can be conducive to progress. Each firm will have to find what’s right for them. For example, within the various networks we had open forums with people from various levels of the business, including partners, associates, trainees and support staff, where people were able to express how they were feeling. Following these conversations, the firm introduced the diversity objectives for employees that I mentioned earlier.

It’s also important to encourage trainees to get involved in the networks as they can often be a bit reluctant to start with.

Where would you like to be in five years?

I have no idea – I’m comfortable not knowing because I prefer working towards short-term goals. The one thing my mum always encourages me to do is “be comfortable, being uncomfortable”. So, when I don’t know how something is going to work out, it shouldn’t make me feel doubtful of myself. Instead, I focus on the next steps that I need to take to help me get to where I need to be at that moment. This way of looking at my future was encouraged by my parents because I am a worrier, so taking it step-by-step works better for me.

What are your three top tips for candidates from underrepresented backgrounds who are keen to pursue a legal career?

Be yourself and be confident in your own ability – never try to change yourself to suit other people’s expectations. Always be mindful and eventually people will adjust to you in the same way you’ll adjust to others.

Never give up – there will certainly be hard times when it feels like nothing is going your way but take these times as a sign to take a step back and have a breather. Eventually, things will work out.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable - because you’ll find yourself in a workplace dealing with different personalities and working styles, how you deal with any challenge or situation is more important. 

What’s your favourite way to unwind after work?

Cooking! Food is for the soul. When I’m not working, I like to cook and watch reality shows and documentaries – I always pick something that’s not law-related so I can properly switch off.