Why is there so little BAME representation in the Scottish legal profession?

One of the tweets that stood out to me over the last few weeks or so during the #blacklivesmatter social media campaign was one which said “Thank you for your Black Lives Matter graphic. May I please see a picture of your executive leadership team and company board?” This was aimed at the many corporate organisations who had posted graphics on Blackout Tuesday and started quite an intense dialogue on Twitter. And dialogue is always a good place to start.

Despite many law firms and organisations having made a genuine commitment to diversity with statements on websites and in marketing brochures, the reality is that it is going to take more than just words to actually be diverse. The Scottish legal profession must keep asking itself why so few women or those from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background or working class background are Partners or in leadership positions across the profession. It has to start by acknowledging all that is wrong and all that has been wrong. Accept the need for change. Accept that you will feel uncomfortable when discussing these issues – and then be prepared to learn, educate and work hard at championing, and being, the change.

Although I focus mainly on BAME people in this blog, the principles can equally apply across other strands of diversity. The concept of intersectionality must be better understood by law firms to be able to provide workplaces that allow employees to be themselves at work. Just focusing individually on colour or gender or someone’s socio-economic background is not enough. There is a need to understand and address, for example, the effect of how these might work together. The issues that a privileged black man may face will be very different from those that an Asian woman from a working class background will confront on a day-to-day basis. Simply lumping them both in to the same group – BAME – won’t allow the progression that is required.

I am in the fortunate position where, in my personal, and professional, life, I speak to many BAME people who are already in the legal profession or who want to get in to it. Much of what they share with me is reflected in the 2018 Profile of the Profession report commissioned by the Law Society of Scotland (LSS). In that, 53% of respondents said they felt that fewer BAME solicitors reaching senior positions was due to unconscious bias. Respondents were asked about changes that the LSS could make to working practices to encourage more BAME solicitors to reach senior levels. The provision of unconscious bias training by individual firms and the LSS was most frequently selected as a way to encourage more BAME solicitors to reach senior levels. Whilst this is a good thing to do, it must not be the only thing that is done. A one-hour training session is not going to fix this.

Much more work is required at the grassroots. Children in schools and university students should have access to mentors and role models from BAME backgrounds who are working in the legal profession, at all levels. That will ignite the initial spark. But if there are no role models in the first place, how do we inspire the next generation so that they can enter the profession?

The knock-on effect of the lack of diversity in our profession, at not just a senior level but at any level, is stark. We know that students from BAME communities are disproportionately over-represented on the LLB per head of population. However, these numbers are not translating to traineeships and NQs. Yes, the traineeship market is generally competitive, but from my conversations with BAME students and research carried out by the LSS via roundtables, the feedback is that it appears more so for them. The perception is that although firms say diversity is important to them, they are not showing it. At the LSS roundtable held last year, one attendee said: ‘Organisations talk about the importance of diversity but when you walk into a recruitment fair, the people behind the desks are generally white.’ And that is true. I attended several law fairs on behalf of my firm a few years ago and noted that I was one of two PoC (people of colour) representing a law firm.

The impact on the confidence of a student trying to get a traineeship, who walks in to a room and sees no other PoC, should not be underestimated. I’ve spoken to a quite a few students/NQs (from a BAME background and/or a disadvantaged socio-economic background) who tell me they feel intimidated by the ‘bigger law firms’ – “I could never work there, I wouldn’t fit in” or “It’s too posh for me” or “I won’t be able to do all the fancy schmoozing”. How do you fix that? Rob Marrs (Head of Education at the LSS) has written a really useful blog on ‘How to get a more diverse group of people applying to your organisation’ which has some good tips. The key is to continuously evolve, learn, share, innovate and educate those who need it. The Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyers Association (SEMLA) is leading the way in actively offering to help those firms and organisations who don't know where to start. Take the help.

I’ve also had some very honest and pragmatic conversations with BAME students and junior lawyers encouraging them to ‘be the change’. If they are put off applying for certain jobs when they see a lack of/non-existent diversity and think ‘there’s no place for someone who looks like me’, flip that around and apply for that job. I know how hard that is – I have been there.

Those from a BAME background don’t want to be the ‘token’ BAME person in an organisation. We don’t want to be hired so a box can be ticked and a quota fulfilled. We want to be hired because we have the necessary qualifications, deserve the job, will work hard and would be an asset to your organisation. We also don’t want to be your only source of information. Relying solely on those from BAME backgrounds to be the ones who constantly educate others in the workforce on what it means to be a black/brown/Asian person in the workplace is not acceptable. Asking your Sikh colleague what happens at Eid because you assume they will automatically know about it is very misinformed (true story by the way). There are plenty of resources and organisations out there to enable every single one of us to understand, learn and improve our individual practices. It’s time to make some demands of ourselves of everyday things that we can all do.

Vocal allies are required and this needs to start at the top – senior leaders must lead the way. If there are structural or institutional policies or practices that are holding your organisation back, scrap them and start again. A prime example is only considering CVs from those who applicants who attended a ‘good’ university. It was not that long ago that this was the reality in the Scottish legal profession (I really hope it’s not still happening!). Another example is only giving work experience placements to the Partner’s son/niece/next door neighbour/client’s daughter etc. Such policies and practices have affected, and will continue to affect, your people on an interpersonal basis. And if those people feel bound by such structural or institutional policies and are the ones making important decisions in your firm, how will you progress?

The legal profession needs to be able to show BAME representation at all levels. It is no longer about helping people ‘overcome’ the barriers that exist. The barriers have to be removed. I’ve taken the time to actually talk to students on a 1:1 basis, brought them into our firm, shown them around our offices, introduced them to our people, encouraged them to apply for our vacancies, provided feedback – simple steps that will hopefully make a difference.

Yes, there’s a risk that those in law firms or organisations may say or do the wrong thing, but that’s how our profession will learn and grow. Maybe that current photo of your company board or leadership board isn't reflective of where you would like to be. To that I would say, it's OK to be a work in progress and not the finished article. The firm I work in is certainly a work in progress. But doing nothing, or being silent, is the worst thing to do right now.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn

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