“All of us are responsible for change.”
Jessica Kerslake was promoted to partner at A&O in 2021, becoming one of the first two black partners in our London office, along with MaameYaa Kwafo-Akoto. As she talks about here, this brings an enormous sense of pride along with a determination to bring more diverse talent through.
“Going through the partnership selection process, you really look up from your own practice area and realise that you’re becoming an owner of a global business,” Jess says. “Taking in all the different strategic elements you need to understand throughout the process was fascinating – but definitely a challenge while in lockdown with two children at home!”
Jess qualified into A&O’s Pensions team in 2006 and was promoted to counsel in 2016. “I felt early on that I wanted to aim for partnership and was having very open conversations with the partners about my ambitions.
“Having had two periods of maternity leave – the second in 2013 when I took 15 months off – I needed to build up my client relationships again and then wait for a space. But the open and honest conversations I was having gave me the confidence that I could achieve my ambitions at A&O.”
A sense of responsibility for others
One of the areas Jess says she feels extremely passionate about as a new partner is people. “I’ve always loved mentoring and managing people so I want to become more involved in that aspect of the firm’s strategy and everything we’re trying to achieve with diversity and developing talent across the whole business.”
While she is passionate about diversity in a broad sense, Jess says she feels a strong sense of responsibility to bring more black talent through, in particular.
“There is a clear tone from management on this, but as well as a collective responsibility, each of us as partners should be judged on what we are doing to develop the people in our teams and to create the inclusive culture we want. All of us are responsible for change.”
It is important to consider the specific and unique issues that relate to race and ethnicity, Jess adds, particularly the fact that different races face different issues.
“However, many people have more than one strand of diversity, so intersectionality is also very important. I am a black, state-educated woman – I also see myself as mixed race. My experiences will therefore be different from other black lawyers.”
Parenthood also presents challenges for people, says Jess. “Without the right support, it’s hard to come back from maternity or parental leave breaks and build up client relationships again, especially while looking after young children, so we have to think through all these barriers together.”
The importance of role models
Having diverse role models in senior positions is crucial, Jess believes, but it takes time.
“I remember being told as an undergraduate that I shouldn’t apply for a training contract with A&O. I was confident enough to ignore that but not everyone is, so a big part of what we need is visible role models – people who don’t necessarily ‘fit the ‘mould’ or achieve success by following a straight line.
“I think targets can help as they create a measure of accountability, but it’s not an easy solution as you need to attract diverse talent and retain it right the way through. While targets are tangible, inclusion is harder to measure. As one of the first black partners in London, I didn’t have black senior role models, but I did have other role models and partners who were happy to give their time and talk about their experiences.
“I’m also lucky that I had a strong role model in my mum, who was the first black ground steward at BA and Heathrow Airport in 1967. There will always be firsts, but what’s important is to ensure we’re the first of many.”
Is progress being made?
“More conversations about race and ethnicity are definitely happening across A&O,” says Jess, “but some people still feel deeply uncomfortable talking about it, often because they’re scared of saying the wrong thing. That’s why the work our affinity groups are doing – the speaker series and training around things like micro-aggressions – are so important in bringing about a better understanding.
“For me, A&O was the one firm I wanted to join as a graduate. I remember visiting as a student – it was a PA’s birthday and everyone was together – partners, associates, PAs, there seemed to be no hierarchy – and I thought, what a great place to work. I still think that. Going through the partnership process, every time I picked up the phone to ask a partner for advice or a mock interview, nobody ever said no.
“The support was incredible and reinforced for me that this is where I want to be a partner,” Jess says. “There are things we need to continue to work on, and we will, but A&O is a special place with some amazing people and I’m very glad to be a part of it.”