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Trevor Sterling

Partner, Moore Barlow

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I have always been aware that people on both sides find discussions on racism uncomfortable, so the dialogue never takes place

It's Time to Act

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It's Time to Act

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The profession must look inwards to tackle systemic racial inequality, says Trevor Sterling

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has rightly sparked an overdue, global conversation on racial inequality, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) 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 within the legal profession. In my 35 years as a lawyer, it is true to say steps have been taken to tackle inequality – both in the profession and generally. However, the type of systemic change that is so desperately needed is not happening fast enough.

The law is in step with a generally increased understanding of the need to make changes and has taken steps, but it is slow in making them. But the same can be said in society – hence the strength of feeling around BLM. 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. But the figures speak for themselves – in 2018, just 1 per cent of partners at large firms were black according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). 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 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.

Firms that are more forward-thinking 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 black and minority ethnic (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 in which 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 the firm’s managing partner has just sent a video blog to all staff highlighting these issues – a starting point for even more open conversation. We work in a profession that is based at its very core on treating people equally. 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. 

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