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Diversity and inclusion – Q&A with Gowling WLG associate Ash-I Knowles

updated on 21 October 2021

Ash-I Knowles is a real estate finance associate at Gowling WLG (UK) LLP.

What attracted you to a career in law?        

My interest in a career in law started when I was in sixth form – the point at which you begin to seriously think about the career you want to pursue. Luckily, the sixth form I attended offered law as an A-level subject, so I got started early. I know lots of people worry that law firms are not keen on students studying law at this  academic stage but at this time I was thinking about studying law at university and wanted to check that it was a subject I enjoyed before committing those three years to it.

Looking back, the idea of being a barrister appealed to me quite early on. However, once I understood the role of a solicitor I realised that I was more interested in this aspect of the profession and that my skillset was more suited to becoming a solicitor.

What was your initial impression of the legal profession?

I have been quite fortunate in that I never really felt that I didn’t belong at the table. I was always made to feel welcome at various networking events that I attended. As a result, my initial impression of the profession was that it was welcoming.

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?

I had no family connections, so I had to make the most of the opportunities that came my way. There are a host of organisations that regularly run taster events and networking events for aspiring lawyers to attend. I made sure I was always subscribed to the latest forums and information services to ensure I would receive the most up-to-date details regarding useful events. I made a conscious effort to attend as many of these as I could.

Attending these events helps to boost your confidence and speaking to firm representatives gives you a feel of what a particular firm’s culture is like. You can read as many websites and brochures as you like, but it often feels like everyone is saying more or less the same thing. So actually speaking to someone about what the firm is like on a day-to-day basis, or speaking to HR about the things you should be including on application forms is incredibly helpful.

In terms of obstacles, it is quite common for individuals to suffer from imposter syndrome – whether that’s because you don’t feel qualified, or there’s no one else in the room that looks like you. That said, I was quite lucky because I grew up in Jamaica. So when I looked at the people within the top positions in Jamaica – for example, bank managers, the prime minister or even lawyers – I saw myself represented. I therefore didn’t develop any preconceived ideas of what I could or couldn’t do.

Did you have any negative experiences?

So far I haven’t experienced any negative experiences within the profession. You obviously don’t know what is said about you once you have left a room, but I always felt welcomed when visiting Gowling and other law firms during my application process.  

It says a lot about a firm when you speak to employees and get on with them. Lots of firms shout about how great their culture is but speaking to people is useful in understanding what ‘culture’ actually means to them. Gowling’s culture is definitely a good fit for me.

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

It is positive to see firms implementing actions to increase diversity at entry level. However, in the past year and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the conversations around diversity and inclusion are increasing at all levels, rather than it just being among the people involved in implementing the diversity and inclusion initiatives.

There remains a long way to go before we see true equality not only within the legal profession, but also within society itself. For the first time, though, there seems to be an understanding in corporations that change is essential.

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?

There must be continued outreach work within underrepresented communities. It’s also important that actions are taken to ensure that once candidates are through the door, work continues to retain these people and create an inclusive working environment. There should be effective mentoring at all levels because we won’t change the top of the profession if people are entering and then leaving the profession.

What work is Gowling doing in this area?

Gowling is consistently making sure that diversity and inclusion is core to its culture and values: it is more than just a phrase. We recently won the excellence in equality and inclusion award at the People in Law Awards 2022 for our Black Lives Matter action plan. This is testament to the actions being implemented – there is a plan in motion and organisations are recognising and commending the firm’s work.

The firm has several networks, including EmbRACE, that meet regularly to discuss matters and to welcome ideas from people throughout the firm. In addition, I (along with other lawyers) recently volunteered for a firm initiative where we were part of a mentoring scheme in which we mentored potential vacation scheme applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds to give them a chance to speak with someone who has recently gone through the process and find out what they should include on applications.

How can firms encourage inclusivity?

There isn’t a quick fix in terms of developing initiatives to improve the retention rates of all diverse candidates within the profession. That said, I believe it is important for firms to understand what their people want out of a career in law and how they can be supported to achieve this.

Where would you like to be in five years?

As I am one year qualified, in five years I would like to see myself at the next level of seniority (ie, senior associate) with Gowling.

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

It’s so important for candidates to firstly believe in themselves and their right to be here.

Secondly, make sure you do your research, attend networking events and make the most of any opportunity thrown your way. Start early – the more you put yourself out there, the more confident you’ll become and the more you’ll understand what different firms have to offer.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help and listen to any advice you’re offered. Across the profession, people are generally quite friendly and willing to help because they know how difficult it is to break into.

What is your favourite programme at the moment?

Squid Game.