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Panel discussion: the road to racial equality in the legal profession and wider business world

Demonstrations around the world in 2020 showed racism remains a troubling reality. Our panel of five alumni and A&O staff offers opinions, observations and roadmaps for the future, based on their own experiences.

Left to right: Rachel Lee (A&O associate), Luvo Mnduzulwana (A&O counsel), Neil Patel (A&O alumnus), Douglass Sims (A&O alumnus), Stephanie Vaughan (A&O alumna)

The anti-racism demonstrations seen across the world in 2020 have sparked a more frank and honest discussion about racial equality in many countries. Through marches, protests and conversations online, more stories are being shared that shine a light on the inequalities still faced by people of colour every day.

So how can the momentum created by such events be translated into real progress on racial diversity across the legal profession and wider business world? 

We brought together five people from A&O past and present in a virtual roundtable to share their stories and ideas for what individuals and organisations can do to drive change. Their conversation starts with introductions and a little personal history.

Rachel Lee says she has spent almost equal amounts of time in Asia and America. “When someone asks ‘Where are you from?’ I consider it an opportunity to share my experiences,” she says. “I emigrated from South Korea to California, then moved to Washington, D.C. for my education and now work in New York.

“My experience has been one of constant learning and adaptation and, within that, I’ve found myself growing into a community builder wherever I go, in an effort to create a supportive environment for those with similar backgrounds – particularly for the Asian-American community, a historically under-represented group.”

As he listens to Rachel, the first reaction of Douglass Sims is how much better younger generations are at articulating their experiences. “For me, growing up in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, with parents from the Southern U.S., it was harder to speak about these things. The structures you grow up within impact your identity a lot.

“Going to predominantly white institutions for education and work meant I always entered into situations wondering what role race would play in the interaction. Should I be worried about speaking in a certain way? Will somebody see me as inferior? You’re often taking a step back from yourself to consider how you’re going to be perceived.”

Stephanie Vaughan echoes Douglass’s awareness of perceptions. She was born in Jamaica and lived in both Norway and Bristol, UK, before moving to London. “When I first started work,” she says, “it became obvious very quickly that not many lawyers looked like me. It didn’t dramatically affect how I presented myself, but I was always conscious that the onus was on me to fit in and appear comfortable in my environment – more so than on the people around me.”

Neil Patel’s parents are of Indian heritage and he grew up in an area of London with a large Indian community. He says: “My first experience of feeling different because of my skin colour or race was at the boys’ senior school I went to, where I was one of the few Indian people in my year. I also occasionally feel it when I travel to other parts of the UK – I suddenly become a lot more conscious of my colour – but if I’m completely honest, I don’t think it has played a role in my career, at least not negatively, nor has it impeded other aspects of my life.

“That won’t necessarily be true for everyone from my racial background,” he adds, “but that’s why these conversations are so important. We have to start breaking down the subject of race and ethnicity and try to understand people’s specific experiences.” 

Luvo Mnduzulwana’s experiences in South Africa are certainly different. He grew up in a small rural town in the Eastern Cape, in one of the poorest provinces mainly constituted by two of the sub-states designated for black people. “I moved to a predominantly white school when I was 14 and the first barrier I encountered was language,” he says. “I was expecting to be taught in English (not even my first language) but when I arrived everything was in Afrikaans (mostly spoken by white people). When I raised this, I was told I could go to another school if I wished – referring to a school in the townships for black people.

“But bigger challenges come in the work environment. You’ve been through university, been accepted at one of the top firms in South Africa, you think you’re there on merit – but then you’re quickly reminded that you’re just making up the government quotas for black people.”

The barriers, as Luvo points out, can sometimes feel overwhelming. 

We have to start breaking down the subject of race and ethnicity and try to understand people’s specific experiences.

What are the barriers and how can they be overcome? 

“In the firm I trained with,” Luvo says, “black trainees struggled to get the same exposure as our white counterparts. Our time was often filled with elementary work and, on the rare occasions we were taken to client meetings, we would be the only black person there and feel like an outsider.

“At lunchtimes, I would stand by myself not knowing who to speak to – the senior people all just went about their business not realising I was there. You feel you’re lagging behind from the start.” 

As Rachel explains, the stereotypes about Asians – quiet, submissive and hardworking – are not necessarily bad qualities, “but the problems arise when people expect nothing more than those qualities, as you may not be considered for a client meeting or pitch, or be expected to speak.”

She adds: “I’ve also encountered assumptions that, because I speak English fluently, I must have been born in America and don’t have the experiences of being an immigrant. When confronted with these stereotypes, I take it upon myself to give the person the benefit of the doubt and use it as an educational opportunity, as well as to build personal connections. But it can be exhausting.”

Compounding that, Rachel believes some barriers are evolving over time: “We’re speaking more about our culture and identities, which is positive, but it sometimes results in people avoiding conversations because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. That’s becoming a new barrier, but it can be overcome by asking questions based on respectful curiosity.” 

Neil believes the emphasis should be on other people starting to challenge their own stereotypes. He says: “At school, I definitely downplayed my culture because it didn’t feel relevant to my friends – they didn’t seem interested. My parents would ask me, ‘Why are you so different in front of your friends than with us?’ But when I invited my friends to my wedding, it was the reverse – they couldn’t get enough of Indian culture!

“So I think sometimes it’s not that attitudes are fundamentally racist, it’s more that ignorance can create barriers.”

Neil, though, has witnessed bigger challenges for some: “A friend of mine – a black woman – grew up in the same area as me, went to the same university, worked for a Magic Circle law firm and is now at BlackRock. But when we compare our experiences, hers are so different. Her teachers didn’t always support her, and she is exhausted by the number of times (as compared to her non-black counterparts) that she has had to clarify or justify why she has a seat at the table. For me, it hasn’t been like that. In many cases, I think it’s down to race and possibly gender that our experiences are so different – because very little else distinguishes us. Not many would have been as resilient as she has been.”

We're speaking about our culture and identities, which is positive, but it sometimes results in people avoiding conversations because they're worried about saying the wrong thing. That's becoming a new barrier...

Douglass says one of the principal barriers most black Americans face is a financial one: “Our education system in the U.S. means most of us have to borrow a lot of money. I owed a huge amount when I came out of law school. All my money went on paying down debt, not building wealth. The deposit on the apartment that others got from their parents, I didn’t have that.

“Businesses might say that social inequalities are something they cannot control,” Douglass says, “but a lot of the traditional structures in law firms, for example, simply reinforce them. Just because these inequalities can’t be solved by businesses doesn’t mean that you should act like they don’t exist. It’s naive.”

Luvo offers a “classic example” of that: “When I started work,” he says, “most of my white counterparts were staying in apartments near the office and had cars, while the black trainees didn’t even have driver’s licences. I was living 20 miles from the office and relying on the public transport system, which in South Africa is very bad! That already put black trainees at a disadvantage.” 

Stephanie feels that growing up in a privileged family in Jamaica has made it easier to brush off racial prejudice. “But it’s much harder for people to do that when there is an intersection of race and class.

“I read an interesting exchange on LinkedIn recently,” she says. “One person was arguing that structural inequalities exist in society – therefore, the lack of senior black lawyers is simply a result of the lack of good black candidates.

“But a young woman responded by saying that she was from a disadvantaged background and had become a successful lawyer because of one of A&O’s access programmes. She made the point that the legal profession should not only recognise the inequalities in society but what you can do to help people overcome them. Otherwise, we’re just perpetuating those inequalities.

“In terms of removing barriers,” says Stephanie, “we need concrete actions to change the picture at the top, because people care about seeing people who look like them.” 

Neil agrees: “When I hear people ask why there aren’t enough black lawyers rising through the ranks, it’s partly because businesses group everyone together under this broad ‘BAME’ (black, Asian and minority ethnic) label – so they hit recruitment targets because the label includes anyone who is not white. But, within that, you might only have one black person out of 100, which is not representative. We need to look much more carefully at that.”

What have the events of the past year done to change conversations about race?

Douglass notes the international reaction to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor: “They seem like very American events,” he says, “but they’ve produced massive reactions all over the world. That makes me think people are interpreting them in the context of their own experiences. 

“These issues go back centuries, of course. What changed the civil rights movement in the U.S. was the film footage of people getting dogs set on them or the use of water cannons during peaceful protests. That meant the public could no longer pretend these things weren’t happening. 

“I think that’s why we’ve seen such a reaction to George Floyd – people around the world actually witnessed the brutality of it.” 

These events may bring specific reforms, for example around law enforcement, Douglass believes, “but we also need to accelerate reform in the business world. We have to understand the underlying inequalities that allow these deaths to happen. Without that, we’re not going to achieve meaningful change.”

For Rachel, the events in the U.S. have revealed uncomfortable but unsurprising truths. “These injustices have been going on for a long time,” she says, “and for those affected it’s disheartening and exhausting. 

“But they’re also generating more dialogue across racial groups and cultures – for instance, we’ve had a lot of discussions in the U.S. Diversity Committee and the Asian Affinity Network about how we can support our black colleagues and our local communities in a meaningful way.”

The danger, though, is that the momentum dies down, particularly with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Rachel adds: “Great ideas and initiatives need time to materialise, so it’s hugely important that we don’t let this opportunity for progress slip away. It’s our job as lawyers and as a global firm to be at the forefront of that.”

What actions should organisations focus on to drive real change?

Our five panellists agree that the key to seeing real progress with racial diversity in business is targeted action and accountability.

Racial inequality, as Luvo says, won’t fix itself without interventions. “We’ve had 26 years of democracy in South Africa without much progress,” he says. “Black lawyers are not making it to the top in anywhere near representative numbers.

“It’s not enough to say that we’ll start focusing on the current juniors and nurture them all the way up. We need a two-pronged approach, to recruit at the top while also implementing measures to support the progress of those already in the system. 

“Then we need strong KPIs to measure progress and, where not enough is being made, to identify the barriers and remove them.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to rely on consensus and goodwill. Change will only happen if people are held accountable for their commitments,” he says, adding: “This all has to be an intrinsic element of a business plan.”

Luvo points to the South African Rugby World Cup winning team in 2019: “We had the first black captain and, because of the targets set in 2011 coming to fruition, seven of the 15 players that started the final were black, compared to the three who started the last Springboks game of the previous World Cup. And we won. It dispelled the claims that coaches used to make about not seeing colour, only talent. That myth of ‘meritocracy’ is usually just a way to close ranks – it entrenches privilege.”

Stephanie and Douglass agree, and also stress how crucial the effective use of data is. 

Douglass says: “For any organisation to make significant progress, KPIs and data are really important: the hiring data, the client data, the management data. That’s the only way you can understand what is actually happening within a business.

“For example, when someone leaves an organisation, do you know why? That person’s team will know, but if the organisation isn’t asking whether race was a factor and capturing that data then they have a blind spot and can’t react to the information.

“We need to be moving initiatives towards the centre of a business and bringing in transparency and accountability, in the way we would for any other strategically important metric,” says Douglass. “That’s the only way change will happen.”

Stephanie says more emphasis is needed on data and insight, particularly around retention and progression, to drive better initiatives, processes and decision-making. “Then you can evaluate what’s working and what isn’t working,” she says. “But objectives won’t be realised unless targets are set alongside them and people accept accountability – at partner level, department level and firm-wide level. And for associates too, quite frankly.” 

Setting targets to boost the representation of minority groups is a hotly debated subject. But, says Neil, to take Luvo’s rugby example, targets can work. He says: “The reason we haven’t seen enough movement on the progression of black and ethnic minority people in business is because action has always been a bit voluntary. It’s easy to claim you’re not racist as an organisation or an individual, but are you anti-racist? There’s a difference.”

With seniority comes influence, so what can you do to help others?

Neil believes a proactive effort is needed from senior figures: “Leaders demonstrate their impact in every other area of business, so if organisations are serious about making progress, senior individuals should be demonstrating what they’re doing to promote diversity and inclusion too.

“On top of the bigger-picture measures, those of us now in a position of seniority can do things to help. I met a young colleague recently who had come to Britain as a refugee, done very well at school and university, but needed some guidance about his career. We only talked for an hour, but he still messages me on LinkedIn to give me updates and thank me for the advice. It made me realise the impact mentoring can have, so that’s something I want to do more of – and I will be held accountable for that!”

Rachel believes that, for those at the more junior level, having an advocate helping to shape your career plays a big part in retention. “Recognition from your team is also key,” she says. “When people put in the hard work, it’s important to see it reciprocated with a sense of investment from the team and clear opportunities for growth. That encourages people to stay and broaden the talent pool.”

It’s not always easy to transform the system, but neither is it impossible.

How important is the culture of a workplace?

Targets and accountability are important, says Rachel, but culture underpins everything. 

“Leaders need to understand that what they say (or don’t say) day to day sets a tone,” she says. “It’s a ripple for culture.”

Answering those who question why we need to talk about sensitive issues like racism at work, she says: “It’s because our colleagues and their loved ones are affected by them in a very real way. So if leaders don’t talk about them, it signals that they don’t feel the issues matter. But if they do, it can go a long way.

“When we’re at work, sitting behind an email address and company title, there’s a ‘privilege shield’,” Rachel says. “But once we step out the door, minority attorneys still face discrimination. So we need a work culture in which people can be comfortable talking about real societal issues. It helps build true connections.”

Stephanie says culture “certainly” plays a big role in retention. “When people from minority backgrounds talk about career progression, I sometimes get the sense that when they reach a certain level, they feel grateful,” she says. “But the emphasis should be on the fact you’ve worked hard and you deserve to be there. For that, you need a culture – from leaders right the way through – that wants you to succeed.

“Networks and affinity groups are helping to build a stronger sense of community and to profile senior role models, which then encourage more talent to come through. Representation is crucial for culture.

“On a personal level,” Stephanie adds, “I love the culture at A&O – I married someone from my team and am still good friends with most of the people in it, so it’s been a big part of my life!”

Luvo feels the same about A&O: “I joined five years ago and I’m the happiest I’ve been – the opportunities are phenomenal,” he says. “But I’m also mindful that for juniors coming from a similar background to mine, even having a job in Johannesburg is overwhelming, never mind starting to build a global perspective with A&O! So we must ensure that we don’t shut people out.

“Part of that is about having strong values as an organisation – and A&O has those – but culture must also evolve to accommodate all the different people coming in. Everyone must feel like equally valued members of our group.”

Do you have any advice for your younger selves?

“Stay in touch with your own culture and identity,” Rachel says. “The world will constantly change and we will always be adapting, with or without knowing, so we need that anchor for ourselves and to guide others along the way. Also, everyone has something in common, so we all need to keep an open mind and a compassionate lens.”

For Luvo: “There’s a lesson to be learned from every experience, so make sure you learn it! To my black colleagues, I’d say that it’s not always easy to transform the system, but neither is it impossible. To our allies, I say thank you for your desire to achieve equality for all.”

Find out more information on the current D&I networks open to alumni.

Neil Patel

Director, Trading & Derivatives
Legal, BlackRock
A&O: 2006 - 2018

Douglass Sims

Senior Advisor, Natural Resources
Defense Council
A&O: 2001 - 2010

Stephanie Vaughan

Global Legal Practice Director
iManage RAVN
A&O: 2009 - 2019

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