In recent years, City law firms have made significant progress attracting and recruiting trainee solicitors from a more diverse pool of candidates.

Though such achievements are to be commended, there is now almost universal recognition in all quarters of the legal profession that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) trainees, particularly those who are also from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, face more career-related obstacles than their white middle-class peers. Indeed, until this issue is put to bed once and for all, career progression of BAME lawyers to more senior ranks will continue to be undermined and the brain drain will continue unabated.

More law firms than ever before have introduced firm-wide initiatives in a bid to create more inclusive cultures, covering everything from unconscious bias training, active listening campaigns, reverse mentoring, employee networks and events with inspirational talks from guest speakers etc. Some have even gone further by making public pledges to set ethnicity targets.

But frustratingly, most still fall woefully short in taking appropriate robust steps to offer ‘targeted’ support that will level the playing field for BAME trainees and create a nurturing environment in which such individuals will thrive. Consequently, instead of reaching their full potential, an unacceptably high proportion of aspiring lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds lag behind their white privileged contemporaries, or worse still, fail to progress beyond their training contracts and end up leaving their firms upon qualification or soon afterwards.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Interestingly, CheekyLittleCareers’ own research found this absence of support is not necessarily down to a lack of willingness by employers to intervene, rather many firms worry about causing offence to BAME trainees. Graduate development teams often tell us in private they fear that suggesting to such individuals they ‘need additional help or fixing’ will naturally result in some playing the blame game and arguing it’s not their problem because put simply, the fault lies with the institutions. In other words, it is partners who need the training – not the trainees.

Therefore, we decided to test this reasoning and last month (September 2020) hosted a BAME trainee focus group, led by me, to discuss this so-called ‘elephant in the room’. As we expected, the participants unanimously confirmed to us that unconscious bias and micro-aggressions are still widely prevalent in the City, as are a lack of suitable role models. The trainees went on to tell us that they felt their backgrounds DID put them at a significant disadvantage during their training contracts and consequently at greater risk of missing out on internal newly qualified (NQ) solicitor roles.

The trainees, however, also unanimously acknowledged additional support that extended beyond affinity networks and inspirational talks would have a hugely positive impact on their career success. Soft skills training, particularly in areas such as identity, imposter syndrome, communication and networking, proved a popular idea.

Significantly, the trainees mostly favoured one-to-one mentoring from individuals with similar backgrounds to theirs who are based outside of their firms. The trainees also added they would really like opportunities to share experiences, thoughts and suggestions with peers from similar firms – again facilitated by senior role models.

Incidentally, findings from our focus group also echo the feedback shared with me from BAME trainees who have successfully completed my outplacement and mentoring programme. Indeed, it was seeing a disproportionately high number of BAME trainees missing out on internal NQ roles that initially brought this issue to my attention.

OUR SOLUTION

CheekyLittleCareers is beavering away designing a ground-breaking programme combining soft skills training and mentoring for second seat trainees, which we are planing to launch in Q1 of 2021.

If your firm is potentially interested in hearing more about the this brand new scheme, please email: team@cheekylittlecareers.com.

Husnara Begum, associate career coach and contributing editor