To celebrate Black History Month, we asked members of Matrix’s Race Equality Network to share their thoughts about being black at the Bar.
Q: What’s the value of the Race Equality Network for you?
Ife: In what is a busy environment, the REN offers a safe space to share experiences, be supported, and be collegiate.
Kwaku: The Race Equality Network is a place to go where you have commonalities with colleagues, which creates a relaxed and supportive environment as well as enabling you to have conversations with colleagues who understand you on a different level to others in the organisation. As well as sharing your own experiences, being part of the network opens your eyes to the experiences of others, which is particularly important in an organisation like Matrix (and at the Bar more widely), where individuals’ working lives can be completely different to their colleagues’.
Nina: Having the Race Equality Network at Matrix has been valuable in terms of creating a safe place for the minorities in our organisation to have the freedom to discuss matters we feel passionate about as well as create the opportunity for us to discuss issues surrounding diversity and inclusion within the workplace that require attention.
Q: What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in race equality (at the Bar or more generally) in the last few years? What still needs to change?
Ife: Access to the profession has visibly improved in the 12 years I have been at the Bar. There is more work to do in terms of racial inequality in income (black barristers are much more likely to be practising in the less well-remunerated, publicly funded Bar) and treatment more generally.
Kwaku: In the last few years, I’ve noticed more collective action happening through a variety of networks of black barristers, including a WhatApp group I’m part of for Ghanaian barristers, the Black Barristers Network, the Race Equality Charter, and 10,000 Black Interns. Some of these have been around for a while, but they’re now reaching more people and gaining more influence. These networks are a great thing to be a part of, but these opportunities for collective action still need to be translated into better outcomes, which will happen more and more as the networks grow. Some of the outcomes I want to see are improvements in the experiences of black people at the Bar, and more black people getting into the profession.
Q: What unique challenges face black people working in the legal industry?
Eric: I believe there is still a minimising of the accomplishments, skills and talents of black people in this industry – to the extent that those with more qualifications and experience than colleagues of other races will progress slower than their efforts deserve. The reasoning for this can vary from their name being “too hard” to pronounce and their applications dismissed too easily, to their white or brown counterparts being favoured over them for promotions without valid reasoning. The challenge of black people having to do an excessive amount of work to be considered for positions they more than qualify for has not changed.
Kwaku: Everyone experiences imposter syndrome, but for black people it’s more acute. For many black people, their background, the shortage of examples of people like them in the industry, and not having existing connections with barristers all feed into their impression of themselves, which might not match their idea of what a barrister looks like. Some people end up doing an impression of what they think a barrister is, which they might not feel fits who they are.
Nina: Some challenges that black people face within the legal industry is the lack of representation. Working in an environment that doesn’t have or has limited professionals that are like you, can sometimes make individuals feel like they do not have a sense of belonging or may feel like an outcast in their place of work. As they do not have likeminded colleagues that share the same experiences or an understanding of those experiences.
Q: What’s your top tip for young black people considering a career at the Bar (as or with barristers)?
Eric: Ask for guidance and help from any senior black lawyers or legal professionals who seem to have arrived at a place in their career that you aspire to. They will give you the reality of the Bar and you can decide quickly if it is a space you are still determined to navigate.
Ife: Networking is important. More opportunities exist now than ever before to develop meaningful relationships in the profession as an aspiring barrister which are invaluable when considering a career at the Bar. Black barristers are generally very good at sharing their wisdom, experiences, contacts, and advice to young people.
Kwaku: My advice for young black people considering a career at the Bar is, firstly, to do your research to counteract the misinformation. The best thing you can do next is to get into direct contact with a source of information and support, who has the career you want to have. By doing your own research, speaking to people in your network, and demonstrating your hunger to know more, you can persuade a role model to open up to you, if they weren’t already. But you have to stand out from others who might also want that person’s time, which you will only do by being proactive and eager.
Nina: The best tip I would pass on to someone considering a career within the legal industry would be to network and build relationships as much as possible. Research the particular field (whether it’s at the Bar or in practice management) and see if you can seek advice from individuals that are currently in the positions you wish to aspire to and gain guidance/advice from them.
Q: What’s your top tip for being an ally?
Eric: Listen without taking offence, and do not stop there – action what you have heard consistently.
Nina: An ally is there to support and use their position to educate others, but in a way that doesn’t speak over the members that they’re supporting. My tip would be to “Speak up but not over”.