17 City firms have signed a pledge aimed at helping BAME lawyers go further in their careers.
The 'Race Fairness Commitment' is intended to "identify and attack" the points at which BAME lawyers fall behind their white peers, all the way from recruitment to partnership prospects.
Corporate declarations of solidarity with black people in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd have been thick on the ground but frequently criticised as superficial PR exercises. The proponents of the RFC say it is different, and demands "concrete, very detailed steps" from signatories.
Participating firms* have pledged to ensure that any outreach programmes they conduct include a proportion of BAME students in line with the relevant school or university population.
Race and racism will also be raised in every induction and exit interview, and the firms will give every junior ethnic minority member of staff access to a senior manager, with a view to creating mentoring - and reverse mentoring - programmes.
The RFC also requires firms to track the rates of black, ethnic minority and white groups moving from application to interview, and again from interview to offer. Data must be collected on the rates at which the different groups are promoted, too, and the rates at which people of different ethnicities leave the firm. A question mark remains over how firms will be held accountable, however, as the RFC only requires them to monitor the data internally, albeit "with a view" to publishing externally, and does not impose targets.
In order to assess whether BAME staff are comfortable in their roles, staff will be asked annually to state how much they agree that they can "be themselves" at work, on a scale of 1 to 10. The check is intended to foster workplaces where BAME people "can be themselves at work as much as White people - without feeling the need to be inauthentic in terms of their speech or culture, simply in order to 'fit in'”.
"I'm feeling I can be myself more, but I also feel that Phil should be himself at work a little less."
Roy Appiah, a senior associate at signatory Clifford Chance, highlighted the difficulty for some BAME lawyers to be themselves on the job. Clifford Chance “is undoubtedly a great place to work and I am very fortunate and privileged to do so", said Appiah, but he was "never too far away from reminders that the firm, and the industry", were not designed for people like him to rise to the top.
Appiah cited his security pass being checked twice when he entered the office, and being invited to training about what leadership looks like "where none of the dozen speakers look like you".
“Being one of the very few ethnic minority lawyers in a department, and seeing very few ethnic minority partners within the firm, showed me that there is a much smaller margin of error for progressing in my career than my White peers", said Appiah. He described how he took the bass out of his voice, and resisted expressing frustration, to avoid providing "ammunition to those holding stereotypes about people like me".
Sengova Kailondo, an associate at Hogan Lovells, said that while his experience had been "very positive", others had been less lucky. He cited having a practice group which "does not have the sort of strong ‘boarding school culture’ that can be prevalent in some law firms".
Ngozie Azu, Slaughter and May's Head of International Relations, said the RFC would help to institutionalise a shift at the Magic Circle firm to focus on personal stories. "How does it actually feel to be Black in a firm like this?” she said. “There will always be areas of differences – for example my unusual name, my hair and how I spend my leisure time. The challenge for firms is to ensure that they are creating an environment in which everyone can bring their most authentic selves to work without fear that our differences will mark us out or impact our ability to succeed”.
Voicing his support for the RFC, BCLP managing partner Segun Osuntokun emphasised the need for greater efforts. “The uncomfortable reality is that despite great strides to improve diversity across the legal industry, we have failed to make enough progress on racial equity", he said. "As a senior Black partner I am conscious of the small minority I represent. The legal industry has a responsibility to ensure the focus on tackling racial injustice we are seeing right now is not a moment in time. If not now, when?"
*Allen & Overy, Ashurst, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, DWF, Dentons, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Macfarlanes, Norton Rose Fulbright, Pinsent Masons, RPC, Slaughter and May, Travers Smith and White & Case.