Although an obvious choice, one of my early sources of inspiration was the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Her story was so relatable: She had very ordinary beginnings, but was raised in a city where social deprivation amongst black people was rife. She navigated the educational system to graduate from Princeton and Harvard, continuing on to secure a position at pre-eminent corporate law firm Sidley Austin.
Michelle recounts that she was one of only five African American lawyers out of a firm of 400 lawyers. Michelle describes an all too familiar feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ at various stages of her career. However she demonstrates that that can be overcome and with determination, the glass ceiling can be broken. What is more, Michelle through her quiet confidence stood ready to challenge the cultural norms within the firm. She too sought to introduce change for black students and peers coming up behind her so that they did not feel that the door of opportunity was firmly closed to them.
The power of mentoring
Michelle Obama recognized that often young, black students need allies to help support them to get to where they want to be. For me personally, mentoring and diversity programmes were key to the progression of my career in law. They built confidence within me and taught me about the intricacies and nuances in respect of how to conduct myself in this field. They provided me with knowledge and access to people whom I would not have otherwise had the benefit of meeting, some who have set me on the path that I am on today.
Through one such diversity programme, after graduating I had the opportunity to undertake a work shadowing placement with Dame Linda Dobbs, who in 2004 became the UK’s first High Court Judge from an ethnic minority background. The discrimination faced by Dame Linda Dobbs at times during her own career was overt, including from both clients and colleagues. It takes tremendous strength of character to continue on in the face of hostility and to attain such an achievement despite those obstacles. Dame Linda Dobbs’ journey is encouraging as an example of a black woman who has been successful in rising to the top tiers of the judiciary.
Similarly, it was a diversity programme which led me in the direction of my first job within family law. Having previously completed work experience with Goodman Ray, Gwen Williams, now retired, asked that I join her firm. She firmly valued diversity and had personally invested time with me to explain various concepts and details, both practical and legal, to enable me to thrive during my time there.
Widening access for the future
Those who teach you and coach you, particularly in the early stages no doubt inspire and inform your career, as I have found. Much more work is needed in order that young, black lawyers entering the profession have accessible role models with whom they can identify with particularly at senior levels.
There is a drive across the sector with initiatives like The BLD Foundation’s Legal Launch Pad Scheme, SEO’s Corporate Law programme and Rare Recruitment’s Articles programme. These are models that can and should be adopted further, until we reach a truly equal playing field, where socio economic background and ethnicity have no bearing on any budding lawyer’s prospects.