Reflecting on his experience of developing a career in law, Trevor Sterling, the first black senior partner at a UK top 100 firm, argues that improving diversity will become a condition of survival in the legal sector.
The past two or so years have been seminal for the progression of black rights. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 started a chain reaction that brought Black Lives Matter, one of the most concerted and global movements centred around the black community I have seen in my lifetime, into the mainstream. Almost simultaneously, the pandemic hit and, amongst all the damage it caused, shone a harsh light on socioeconomic inequality in the UK.
As a result, I do believe the narrative has shifted somewhat on diversity and made the onus of responsibility much clearer. It is no longer acceptable to be passive in the face of racism and businesses, in particular, are now expected to demonstrate a proactive and consistent approach to improving equality.
While few are close to truly achieving this, the optimist in me says we are at least now moving in the right direction and, for the first time in my lifetime, moving at a pace above glacial.
This is something we in law need to realise. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that the legal sector has more work to do than most when it comes to improving equality of opportunity and diversifying the crop of people that work in the profession.
I do not believe, for the most part, that this is conscious bias. But law is a profession built around tradition and as a result, it does sometimes take its time in modernising. How we recruit is no exception and the classic pathway – Russell Group University followed by a placement secured through a friend or family member – is still too often the entry point for young lawyers.
To stick with this system now, as other sectors are rapidly modernising their approach to the attraction and retention of diverse talent, would be disastrous for our profession. Extracting the next generation of legal minds from the same narrow talent pool is no longer an approach that is fit for purpose and will see us severely lag behind more progressive industries, losing out on a diverse community of brilliant and talented individuals.
I don’t carry my difference as a burden, it’s a very positive aspect of who I am. As a black lawyer, I have a very different experience to that of my white colleagues. I notice all the time that this means I have different thought processes, come to different conclusions, or see different solutions to the same problems.
Quite often, in my area of law – personal injury – this also means I am more able to relate to my clients if they themselves are black, or from another minority group, that has had similar experiences and setbacks in their lives.
It’s this diversity of thought that, I believe, makes improving equality so vital for the legal profession. Having a more varied group of people involved in the decisions we make, and the advice we give to clients can only make the service we offer more rounded and capable of tackling a wider range of situations and challenges.
The only way to achieve this is to change the mould we use to recruit.
When I started out as a legal clerk, I didn’t have a degree, nor could I afford to get one. My route into law – training on the job to become a solicitor – was not only hard but also largely unheard of. But this path is exactly how we can attract a more diverse group of society into law.
It is also why I am so passionate about championing alternative routes into law. Through my role as chair of the Mary Seacole Trust, I have given talks to over 3,000 school children about my experience to demonstrate to them that a career in law is not beyond their reach.
I have mentored several aspiring lawyers through vocational training routes into the profession and set up my own firm’s Aspiring Lawyers Group – a forum to support the development of trainee lawyers who have taken non-traditional routes into law.
When I became senior partner at Moore Barlow, I, along with our managing partner Ed Whittington and chairman Helen Goatley, were under no illusions that this was ‘job done’. Yes, we had made a positive statement about the type of firm we want to be, but there is still so much more for us to do.
I think, I hope, this is a mindset that lots of other law firms across the country are starting to adopt. The realisation of just how much there is still to do is daunting. But the rewards for embarking on that journey are endless.
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