Setting up a BAME network

It’s not surprising that diversity and inclusion are central to the staff at Leigh Day—the firm’s practice areas include human rights law, medical negligence and employment law. We spoke to solicitor Suleikha Ali about setting up a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) network at the firm.

  • Last updated Dec 17, 2018 12:14:40 PM
  • Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw
Images by Freepik

Within the past three months, solicitors at Leigh Day have acted on behalf of survivors of physical abuse and child cruelty, women involved in unequal pay disputes, and victims of medical negligence—to name but a few. Given the humanitarian focus of such cases, it comes as no surprise that diversity and inclusion are among its core values internally. 

The majority of partners are women (54%) and 25% are nonwhite, making the firm’s partnership much more diverse than the figures reflected at multiple partner law firms nationally. This means that the steps towards diversity and inclusion initiatives have been taken differently at Leigh Day—having already established itself as an ethnically diverse place to practice law, it’s now building on this by setting up a BAME network. 

“Leigh Day is in a unique position because our partnership is actually more diverse than the rest of the firm—and generally compared to other legal firms—in terms of both gender and race,” says Suleikha Ali, a clinical negligence solicitor at the firm who’s involved in setting up the network. “Initially, I don’t think the firm felt that it needed a BAME network, as it was so historically diverse. 

“But as we got bigger, we wanted to ensure that the recruitment and progression of BAME staff continued, so that the diversity that we see at the top can be seen throughout the firm. This was the initial catalyst for starting the BAME network.” 

BAME networks exist in almost every facet of professional life: universities; the armed forces; the NHS; and private-sector companies large and small. Many law firms have set up BAME networks to establish inclusivity and support in a traditionally white environment. “We’ve looked at the commercial firms and how they’ve approached diversity. The reason why the majority become more diverse is because their clients have said, ‘Hold on, I’m in a room with five white men—where are the women and the different ethnicities? This matters to me.’ ”

For Leigh Day, it’s a slightly different situation—more about consolidating the existing culture of inclusivity rather than trying to introduce it afresh. “When you’re a fairly small firm, everyone tends to be on the same wavelength and have similar ideas. But as you get bigger, it’s important that we don’t lose those elements of what we’re about,” says Suleikha. 

Mentorship and menteeship 

With a strong group of BAME and women partners heading up the firm, it’s assumed that many are in a position to mentor more junior staff members, guiding them through the professional hurdles that they encountered. Suleikha has noticed a culture of mentorship at the firm, in her own experience and in those of others. She describes how, rather than an “official policy of mentorship and menteeship”, this form of professional relationship is borne out of the partnership being “very open doors”, creating a culture where “people can go in and ask questions”.

A BAME network is the next logical step to strengthening this culture of mentorship—especially as the network will span the firm in its entirety. “The committee is made up of around ten members, ranging from partners to business services—a mix of legal and non-legal staff. We’ve tried to ensure that we’ve got representatives from both our offices.”

The first steps 

The BAME network at Leigh Day has set up its committee, listed its aims and been approved by the management board of partnership. One of its first events, Suleikha says, will be to open the conversation around race. “People tend to shy away from those conversations, as they don’t want to offend. Trying to normalise these conversations is a part of what we’re trying to do.”

Indeed, one of the aims of the newly established network is to bring about education and conversation around the wider race debate. “Internally, we’ve been looking at education around language, mainly trying to make people understand that they can have conversations around race,” says Suleikha. “It also offers opportunities to have open dialogue around issues, and have different perspectives from different communities and backgrounds, which helps the firm to think about the way they address issues and ensure they’re having the right debates.” 

Suleikha’s goal within the network will be to work on bringing the wider race debate into the firm, looking at external networks, organising internal events and seeking to inform and educate. Another aim is to increase accessibility to the legal profession in schools. Again, this involves building on existing strategies in place at the firm, such as its social-mobility policy, in which students in the local area are given menteeships and internships. “People from low-income backgrounds who are attracted to our type of work may not have had the same opportunities as others— we want to make sure that people still have the same opportunities to have experience they can put on their CVs and further their careers,” says Suleikha.

The BAME network will also increase the recruitment and progression of BAME staff within the firm. The existence of a network specifically for BAME people to share experiences, network and collaborate is a significant move in this direction: “Employees encounter these networks and see people that look like them, and it provides a level of support and connection, which in turn encourages them to remain within the organisation and progress.

“If you’re a trainee coming into a firm and you see things like the BAME network and the LGBT society, you’ll feel that you have a safe space within the firm to talk openly about your experiences. Having that safe space and actually meeting people who can tell you about how things work practically, as well as what you need to do to progress, is an overall benefit.”

Yet BAME networks are keen to expand their scope beyond the firms within which they operate, broadening their focus to the clients and associated bodies of the legal profession. “Our plan going forward is to actively encourage our suppliers and networks to be more diverse,” says Suleikha. “As a legal firm, our biggest network of suppliers tend to be barristers. We’d like to try and work with the chambers over which we have some sort of influence, to say, ‘We want you to be more diverse, because that matters to us.’ ”

As a small firm with a clear focus on assisting underrepresented people, Leigh Day is able to approach diversity with a strong grounding. However, the firm recognises that this doesn’t consolidate its diverse status, and there’s still some work to be done. “The firm is based on the principle of social justice, so a lot of the characteristics that you would need for menteeships and to promote diversity are already embedded within the partnership anyway,” says Suleikha. “It’s just a case of ensuring that we don’t rest on our laurels and that those values continue.”

To find out more about diversity at Leigh Day, please visit the firm's website.

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