Illustration taken from HSF's mag.
One year on from the murder of George Floyd, black lawyers at Herbert Smith Freehills have described the impact of his death and the subsequent protests on their experiences of working in law.
The accounts were published this month in Onwards and Upwards, a magazine produced by Herbie's BAME committee.
Tanisha Onyenaoha, an associate in HSF's Technology, Media, Telecommunications and Data team, learned of Floyd's death as she was celebrating a successful qualification interview with two friends who “knocked on my window with a little bottle of Prosecco to say a socially distanced well done”.
"I had been a few metres outside of my house for all but ten minutes before the post-milestone buzz had disappeared, and there was a sudden, and visceral, shift in realities", said Onyenaoha.
"Or rather, there was an acknowledgement that these two realities existed at once: security and relief juxtaposed against sadness and shock".
Qualifying as a solicitor at Herbies as the BLM protests took place "was personal success co-existing with distant and communal grief", the NQ said.
Others described the tensions that could arise at work. Esther Adeyinka, a solicitor in HSF's Sydney Disputes practice, described how her awareness “that the world we live in was constructed in a manner which often works against us" extended to the office environment.
"Ask any Bla(c)k person who has found themselves to be the only one in a room, or in an organisation” she said.
”Do you know what it feels like to constantly shrink yourself in order to be more relatable? To change the cadence of your voice so that you don’t come across a certain way? To always try and make a good first impression, not because it’s just the right thing to do, but because others’ first impression of you will inform how they relate to other Black people?"
"It’s weighty", said Adeyinka. "We’re fighting an uphill battle and the weight of it all feels heavy. I can’t be expected to carry the plight of my people forever."
Other HSF lawyers detected positive change. Kelechi E. Okengwu, an associate in the firm's New York office, was convinced that her sense of community was "forever changed" following Floyd's death, but said she was also "convinced that the killing allowed people to reflect and start conversations on the path of transformative and conscious healing".
"Standing in a sea of people at the Black Lives Matter protests, amongst the feelings of fear and anger, there was also an overwhelming feeling of hope", agreed Jhané Gibson, a member of the London office's business services team. "People were singing, chanting and speaking with strangers, swapping contact details and making plans for the future. Music played and despite the pain, people danced".
Explaining the motivation for the magazine, Alison Brown, executive partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, said, "Making the time and effort to understand each other's lived experiences is an important part of our commitment to building a more inclusive culture in which everyone can thrive".