It's time to act
The profession must look inwards to tackle systemic racial inequality, says Trevor Sterling
The death of George Floyd has rightly sparked an overdue, global conversation on racial inequality, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement.
While people of all races have been quick to condemn the actions of the police officers involved, it is crucial for every one of us to use this as a catalyst to explore the structural racism that enabled, and has enabled throughout Black history, the deaths of innocent people.
The time is now for all industries to reflect on the systems in place that create prejudice against people of colour, including the legal profession.
In my 35 years as a lawyer, it is true to say steps have been taken to tackle inequality. However, the type of systemic change that is so desperately needed is not happening fast enough.
Positively, I have found that my peers no longer question the fact that people from minority ethnic backgrounds face unique barriers to progression in the legal industry. There has been a marked improvement in firms being more vocal on the topic of diversity and inclusion.
The figures speak for themselves though – in 2018 just 1% of partners at large firms were black according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Throughout my career, I have always been incredibly careful about openly discussing racism. In a predominantly white, middle-class profession, I have been acutely conscious of how I come across. I have always been very aware that people on both sides find discussions on racism uncomfortable, so the dialogue never takes place.
During the past few weeks, it has been uplifting to see conversations now starting to take place within the legal profession, along with a greater understanding that this is everyone’s problem.
More forward-thinking firms have previously adopted measures to tackle inequality. This moment needs to be a springboard for the entire profession to adopt inclusive initiatives that tackle systemic inequalities.
At Moore Barlow, we have policies in place that target the root causes of structural racism, including compulsory unconscious bias training for all management. When a problem is systemic, it is important people challenge themselves to explore biases they may not openly be aware of.
We also have obligatory BAME representation on the remuneration committee, helping to put the necessary checks and balances in place to support the progression of all employees, no matter their background.
The firm has also created a supportive internal forum with diverse membership, the Aspiring Lawyers Group, to ensure we are inclusive when training lawyers and to facilitate social mobility.
These initiatives have been great steps forward, but this moment requires action from all firms to keep the conversation going. Leaders should create an environment where colleagues from all backgrounds can leave their comfort zones and have an honest conversation about how to tackle the issues surrounding systemic racial inequality.
I was delighted that Moore Barlow’s managing partner sent a vlog to all staff highlighting these issues. A starting point for even more open conversation.
We work in a profession that is based on treating people equally at its very core. With the issue of racial equality now firmly out in the open, it is a matter of integrity, fairness and justice that the legal profession leads the way in tackling this issue. Enacting real change will need all of us to act.
Trevor Sterling is a partner at Moore Barlow