"All are equal under the law"

In order for the law to represent everyone, it must have representatives from a wide range of backgrounds. We spoke to four people about their own experiences within the profession, and asked what advice they have for aspiring lawyers.

  • Last updated Jan 3, 2019 5:43:50 PM
  • Becky Kells and Emma Finamore
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Robert Hunter, partner at Edmonds Marshall McMahon 

Robert was a partner at Allen & Overy for 24 years, before he became head of fraud at Herbert Smith Freehills for seven years. He then joined his current firm and is listed in the Legal 500 Hall of Fame. Robert has also experienced progressive hearing loss since his mid-teens and is now profoundly deaf.

I dislike the expression “disability” although I have to use it all the time. I regard my hearing as just another personal difference. My working life as a partner in a City law firm is all about making accommodation for other people’s differences, whether they arise from different legal skills, interpersonal skills or whatever. ‘Disabilities’, however you define them, are just another feature of my own skills and abilities. 

Because I’m deaf, people tend to regard my career track as defined by a struggle with that particular issue. It’s true that I’ve faced difficulties as a result of my deafness. But I’ve also faced difficulties as a result of, for example, my being disorganised (I am!). The worst thing anyone can do is to regard any one of their features as defining them. That’s as true of ‘disabilities’ as it is anything else. The real problems with my hearing have not been practical but have been the result of other people’s attitude and expectations relating to it.

The legal profession (at least in the City) has a bad reputation for dealing with disabilities. At the moment, many law firms are keen to show that they are good places to work if you’re a disabled lawyer. The problem is they assume that this is the case and regard the problem as simply one of getting across how great they are with disabilities. Nobody sees themselves as prejudiced: they regard themselves instead as being ‘realistic’.

The feeling of isolation that people can have when they have a ‘disability’ is one of the worst aspects. It’s vital to speak to someone who’s been through the same experience. Otherwise, it can be very easy to buy into the idea that everyone around you is right and there’s something wrong with you. When I started, I was advised to go into an area of law that required me to consider documents rather than deal with people. But advocacy and cross-examination turned out to be one of my strengths. Reading long documents that I found boring certainly didn’t!

A really key thing to avoid is becoming a ‘poster boy’ for your employer. Many law firms encourage people to go around writing articles and speaking about how ‘good’ their employers are about disability. Often the subtext is: “They must be good —they gave me a job.” The hidden message is that someone with a disability should be happy just to be employed. They shouldn’t. They should have a shot at the same career path as everyone else.

Some organisations have fantastic disability networks. Others are run by the organisation (or its diversity staff ) with the aim of promoting how ‘good’ it is with disability. You need to look quite carefully to see what the network is actually like. Similarly, be cautious about disability professionals: people who earn a living advising firms as to how to deal with disabilities. They may find it difficult to be critical of their clients.

My own charity City Disabilities (citydisabilities.org.uk) aims to put disabled professionals and would-be professionals in London in touch with one another by mentoring schemes. Whether you’re a student or already a professional, by all means contact us. 

Jay Bhayani, solicitor and managing director at Bhayani HR & Employment Law 

Jay is a specialist employment-law solicitor with over 25 years’ experience. She has won various accolades, including the ABDN Professional of the Year award in 2013. Jay came to England as a child in 1972 from Uganda, when then-President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian minority, and has lived in Sheffield since qualifying.

I qualified in 1992 and took the traditional route of law degree, law-society finals and training contract. The challenges then were firstly in securing a training contract and then having credibility within a very white, middle-class profession.

I recall there were incidents of overt racism from clients as well as more subtle discrimination from clients and colleagues. The way you spoke, the school and university you attended, the connections you had, all mattered a great deal in those days. I think this is less so now. I was fortunate to work in a firm where the partners had high integrity and zero tolerance for racism, so they stood up for me when incidents arose. Many of my friends weren’t as fortunate and were expected to put up with discriminatory comments.

The legal profession has changed to some extent and is more diverse, but independent analysis shows the probability of becoming a partner for white males is almost 75% compared to 13% for BAME females. I think that, uniquely to the profession, decision-making generally rests with partners: if partners are made up of white, middle-class males, there’s a tendency to recruit in one’s own shadow. There are a higher proportion of BAME partners in small firms and sole-practitioner firms, and many tend to start their own firm to get over some of the hurdles.

I’m not sure that the profession has become more accessible overall. There are many more students taking law degrees from BAME backgrounds than in previous years. However, there seems to be a drop-off when it comes to the Legal Practice Course, and this could be related to the huge cost of it and diminishing opportunities to secure a training contract. In 2016, almost 80% of white students successfully completed their LPC, compared with only 40% of black students and 53% of Asian/Asian British students.

I think access to the profession has increased through alternative routes, such legal apprenticeships as well as CILEX courses, so I hope that will change the landscape.

My advice to young people from BAME backgrounds is to keep pushing at doors. One of the problems for BAME candidates is that they may not have contacts. I’ve been involved in schemes with schools and the chamber of commerce to offer workexperience opportunities. Contact your local law firms and law society, and perhaps use LinkedIn to ask for opportunities. Check the Law Society’s groups with a focus on ethnic-minority lawyers and black lawyers: ask them for help to find opportunities. The Law Society also runs a diversity access scheme.

Lewis Powers, solicitor at Josiah-Lake Gardiner and chair of LAGLA

While studying law at Queen Mary University, Lewis volunteered at the university’s Student Advice Centre. He worked on the Pink Law team, providing advice to members of the local LGBTQ+ community. He was offered a work placement with JLG after graduating, before being offered a paralegal role at the firm and eventually a training contract. He qualified in 2017. 

During my time at the university Legal Advice Centre, I worked with a lot of lawyers from well-known firms who gave their time to supervise our Pink Law sessions and help members of the local LGBTQ+ community. I believe this definitely gave me the confidence to be who I am. I never felt the need to hide my sexuality during work-experience placements, training-contract applications and similar opportunities. 

Unfortunately, you’re always going to cross paths with people who are prejudiced. However, as a whole, I’m happy to say my experience has been extremely positive. My employer is inclusive, diverse and supportive. I don’t hide my identity from colleagues, counsel or other lawyers—the same goes for clients. Indeed, my online profile on my employer’s website acknowledges the fact I’m chair of LAGLA (LGBTQ+ Lawyers Association for England and Wales), something of which I’m very proud.

LAGLA (lagla.org.uk) was established over 20 years ago and we provide regular events where members (solicitors, barristers, chartered legal executives, trainees, students, academics, etc) can meet one another in an informal setting. We hold monthly socials where members can catch up. We’re looking to expand and organise lectures and seminars in due course.

There are lots of support networks for LGBTQ+ lawyers. At LAGLA, for example, we welcome members who are at the start of their careers (i.e. students or trainee lawyers). Each arm of the profession has their own LGBTQ+ network. As a solicitor, I’m also a member of The Law Society’s LGBT+ Lawyers Division, which holds regular events. Recently, I marched at London Pride together with fellow members of the legal profession, under the banner “All are equal under the law”.

There are so many organisations and networks to join, and my advice to anyone who is LGBTQ+ and pursuing a career in law is to get involved with these wider networks and be visible.

Scott Bowley, partner at Porter Dodson 

Scott did his training contract for a small two-partner firm in Leicestershire, qualifying in 1999. He moved to another two-partner firm four months later, and became equity partner at that firm in 2001. The firm was acquired by Porter Dodson in 2015, where Scott is now a partner.

I attended Wreake Valley school in Leicestershire, a state secondary school. When I started my A-levels in 1989, I didn’t have the information to plot my route into law. There was no internet and there was no careers officer at my school. My working-class parents weren’t in a position to advise me. Getting into the law was one step at a time, with no real forward planning. 

As a state-school student, I don’t recall there being general encouragement to pursue a career in law—I certainly didn’t get any. I think that had a lot to do with the teachers considering I wasn’t bright enough. There was a handful of very bright students in my year and they seemed to be encouraged in their chosen career/university interests.

I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and according to the careers book at school I needed a university education, so I applied to university. During that time, I became aware that I needed to do the LPC and it wasn’t until I was actually on the LPC that I realised I needed to be applying for training contracts. It was at that point I became aware I should gain some work experience to add to my CV. 

I think there are more state-school-educated people entering the law now, compared to how it was when I was applying. I don’t think that entering law from a state school held me back; perhaps I might have had more confidence when I was training, but it depends on the individual. However, I would advise anyone from state school who’s pursuing a career in law to be confident in your abilities and in dealing with people. And, of course, make sure you network! pa

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