Lawyers reflect on racism

‘Diversity’ was not a word district judge Tan Ikram heard much of in the 1990s, he told attendees at the launch of the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division earlier this month.

The former London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association president said: ‘Being a lawyer was a big deal. Being a partner is something you dreamt about. Being a judge is something other people did because they did not look like me.’

Fellow speaker Baroness Warsi, a solicitor, recalled a visit to the careers advice office at her school, where she was asked what she would like to do. The former cabinet minister said she wanted to work with people, to which she was told: ‘There’s a McDonald’s opening in town.’

Judging by the questions that were asked to the panel of speakers, which also included Akin Palmer partner Dele Ogun and former MTV networks vice president (legal) Sharifah Faure, diversity is still an issue that needs to be addressed.

Warsi, for instance, was asked how she dealt with racism and sexism. (Overt racism and sexism she can handle, it’s the ‘respectable’ forms she’s more worried about, such as being left out of a meeting you should have been told about or not being told about an important document.)

Faure was asked how lawyers can include other professionals in the battle against racism. (Diversity can help expand businesses and protect services.)

Ogun was asked about the obstacles he faced as founding partner of his firm. (Ogun spoke of the ‘outrageous experience’ he faced when, having no claims since the firm was established in 1997, he was unable to secure insurance for his two-partner law firm. Most minority lawyers, he pointed out, tended to fall within the two-partner-firm category.)

Ikram said black and minority ethnic lawyers needed to lead, not follow, the debate on diversity. One hopes the creation of the Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division will go some way to enabling that.

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