Trainee solicitor, Afolarin Awosika, reflects on his experiences entering the legal profession and talks about what more law firms can do to promote diversity within the profession.
1.When did you decide to be a lawyer? What challenges did you have to overcome?
I decided to pursue a career in law when I was at school, when my keen interest in history and politics developed into an interest in public law. I decided to focus on corporate law when I was at university, after finding out more about the career opportunities available to me.
I started my training contract at Stephenson Harwood in March 2018, so I am still in the early stages of my legal career. I haven’t faced any specific challenges unique to the BAME community as such. Having said that, I do think it’s a real challenge to find informal work experience at corporate law firms, which meant that before university I had very little knowledge of this specific area of law. While students of all backgrounds struggle with this, it’s an issue which affects BAME students at a disproportionately higher rate, I suspect largely due to a lack of connections in the legal profession. I was lucky enough to have been involved in diversity initiatives in the early stages of my legal education, so I was acutely aware of the opportunities available to me from my first year at university. One initiative I found especially valuable was the ‘UniStart’ scheme run by Rare Recruitment, which was recommended to me by a family friend, and which I attended just before starting university. The scheme was a pre-university insight event for high achieving black school leavers, aimed at helping students to prepare for university and build a professional network. I’d like to see such opportunities become more widely available at key stages in people’s education, especially BAME students;, this early experience was central to my sitting here today.
2.Has your background enabled you to contribute to the success of the firm? Or how do you envisage that it will do in the future?
I would hope that my state school background and knowledge of Nigerian culture would help me to develop personal relationships with a broad range of people from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and to offer a genuine understanding of certain issues faced by our clients, particularly in the context of Nigeria. While Stephenson Harwood has a highly regarded Africa practice, with notable experience advising Nigerian clients – and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to put my experience and insights to use there particularly – diversity is as much about broadening the range of ideas and voices as it is about specifically understanding clients in particular locations.
There is definitely a business case for diversity; a firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness is an important consideration for many students when deciding which firms to apply to. Promoting diversity not only ensures that you are attracting the best talent from a broad cross-section of society, but also that you retain that talent.
In such a competitive industry, technical competence alone isn’t enough to differentiate a law firm from its competitors. Developing and maintaining relationships with clients is largely down to the ability to build personal relationships with them, which is easier when there is common ground. With an increasingly diverse client portfolio, this is only possible by having an equally diverse group of lawyers.
3.What has your experience been like at Stephenson Harwood?
My experience has been largely positive. I can speak from personal experience with regards to our trainees, and my intake alone is a very diverse group of people. I think the firm’s strong international presence,, with 10 offices across Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and further strategic partnerships with local law firms, enables it to understand the importance of having a diverse group of lawyers, who can relate to the different societies in which our clients operate.
I am also aware of a number of different schemes that Stephenson Harwood offers to lawyers and individuals around the world. For example, in my first week at the firm, I attended training with secondees from two law firms in Nigeria. From this, I learnt that Stephenson Harwood has a well-developed secondment programme with local law firms and corporate entities based in Africa, which demonstrates its commitment to offering opportunities to a wide range of people in strategic parts of the world.
4.Why do you think the number of BAME graduate applications (36.4%) to the legal profession remains under representative?
To some there is a perception that the legal profession, particularly in the area of corporate law, is inaccessible to the BAME community. I think this is partly down to the lack of visible role models in high positions, but also a lack of awareness of the significant improvements which have been made recently to boost BAME representation in the legal industry. A growing number of law firms now actively support and engage with diversity initiatives which target BAME students. Of course, there is still scope for improvement and I think it’s important that law firms encourage applications from less conventional target groups, in order to access talent from a broader cross-section of society.
5.What else would you like to see law firms do to improve in terms of diversity?
I would like to see more law firms embrace measures such as blind CVs and contextual recruitment, which has many advantages, not least demonstrating a commitment to diversity to applicants who otherwise may not apply. However, it’s equally important that a focus on diversity doesn’t begin and end at the recruitment stage. I would like to see law firms foster an inclusive working environment by celebrating different cultures. I also think it’s important to encourage the internal progression of lawyers from groups that are typically underrepresented at the top of the hierarchy, whether in relation to race, socio-economic background, education, sex or disability.
Sarah Jackson, Graduate Recruitment, CSR and D&I Manager at Stephenson Harwood commented “At Stephenson Harwood, we are really pleased to have joined the NOTICED network. We are committed to attracting and retaining the best talent, as well as inspiring and empowering people, from across diverse backgrounds, giving them an opportunity to expand their experiences and maximise their potential. We believe that our partnership with the NOTICED network will help us to achieve this, by ensuring that our full range of opportunities are readily available to everyone.”