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This is a moment for everyone to stop and think

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25 June 2020

Following the death of George Floyd and resulting protests around the world, Antoinette Willcocks from our Diversity & Inclusion team spoke to the heads of our Race & Ethnicity network and head of D&I about A&O’s progress on racial diversity.
Headshots of two men and two women

A lot of what I thought about racism has changed dramatically over the past few weeks. It has hit me just how much education and learning still needs to happen when it comes to understanding what black people experience in everyday life. These feelings of shock and outrage at police brutality – and the wider systemic racism it represents – are new for many people but not for the communities they affect.

These feelings have been real for black people for a long time. Most of us ignore the ‘little things’, because everyday racism isn’t something we talk about. What has happened over the past few weeks, though, has forced us to face these issues head on and it’s uncomfortable.

Here, I talk to our head of D&I, Jo Dooley, and the co-chairs of our Race & Ethnicity network in London, Karan Dinamani and Paul Flanagan, about some of the questions our people are asking.

What can A&O do internally to respond to the events of recent weeks?

Jo Dooley – head of Diversity & Inclusion: The first thing I believe very strongly is that the biggest change we can all make is to our own individual behaviour. Many of us who live in diverse cities like London go through life telling ourselves that racism isn’t really that bad anymore. But we need to stop thinking that way – racism is built into our structures and institutions and it won’t go away without a concerted effort from us all.

Improving diversity and inclusion within business is a long game – change generally doesn’t happen very quickly – but sometimes you get a pivotal moment where something occurs to speed things up. This is one of those moments and we all need to act to create sustainable change.

The first thing every single one of us can do is educate ourselves. This is something we all need to own, make the effort to understand better and figure out what to do differently. I’ve been working in this area for many years and I’m still learning.

Karan Dinamani, partner and co-head of the Race & Ethnicity network: I would add that neither is it the responsibility of our black friends and colleagues to educate everyone. Of course they should feel able and free to share experiences and have open conversations – but we should not be asking the black community ‘what can I do to help you?’ That just puts the responsibility back on them to come up with solutions. Our black and indeed other minority ethnic colleagues deserve to be able to come to work every day and focus on building a great career without having extra responsibilities and burdens. Ethnic minority groups did not create the systemic racism that exists in most countries and we cannot overcome it alone.

It is also important to stress that we know experiences of discrimination are not confined to the black community – when we work on race and ethnicity at A&O we are thinking about everyone from minority backgrounds. But within that hugely broad and diverse group are people with very different experiences – so in light of what is happening in the world right now we need to speak here about the black experience. What is happening in the U.S. is happening to black people. This is not just a U.S. issue, though, it’s an issue the world over: from apartheid in South Africa and the effects of colonialism across that continent, to the hidden history of slavery in Britain.

Antoinette: Can we say more about our work in this area and our strategy to improve ethnic diversity at A&O?

Paul Flanagan partner and co-head of the Race & Ethnicity network: We did a big piece of work in 2019 to look at data from the past five years on the recruitment, retention and progression of BAME lawyers in London, and specifically the black experience within that.

In the same way that we will make progress by educating ourselves as individuals, the first step in tackling the issues within business is to understand what is actually going on. Looking at data over five years gave us the big picture – equally useful were focus groups we ran last year to hear what people’s actual experiences are here. We also took part in research by Rare Recruitment to look at why black lawyers leave law firms in disproportionate numbers early in their careers.

At the end of 2019 we took a strategy to the Board focused on people (recruitment, retention and development) and culture (inclusion, showing leadership from senior people and being explicit about what we expect at A&O). Karan and I, Ian Field, our London D&I partner, and the D&I team are briefing all partners on their role in implementing this. But it’s also down to every single person at A&O to take responsibility for creating change – supported by the right policies and programmes.

Antoinette: So what has been implemented up to now?

Jo:  Much of our focus in recent years has been on ensuring we attract and recruit a more diverse group of people, working with organisations like Rare and Aspiring Solicitors. We’ve seen success with this – the proportion of BAME trainees in London is now just over 30% and at associate level it’s 23% – but it continues to fall as you move up to the more senior levels, which highlights that it is not enough to focus on recruitment. We also need to look closely at retention – or, put another way, inclusion. We know this issue is bigger in our black population, with more black lawyers choosing to leave their careers and the firms they trained with early on – this is an industry-wide problem. So we have been working on identifying and eliminating barriers to career progression through, for example, bias training for trainee supervisors.

As part of our work on retention, we’ve just sent out a survey to all of our BAME lawyers to ask how our training and development works for them, and whether there is something we can do differently or better.

We also introduced REACH – a programme to support lawyers from BAME and low socio-economic backgrounds with professional and personal development. The mentoring element was piloted in Banking last year, offering BAME lawyers at all levels a mentor, and is now being rolled out across all London practice groups. The buddy programme within REACH provides our vacation scheme students with an associate mentor, both during their time here and beyond. We’ve had really positive feedback from the students on this.

With our non-legal teams, we know the demographics within that community and therefore the challenges for people can be different. We held specific focus groups with our support professionals last year but recognise that we still need to understand this better.

Transparency is also key on this issue so we’ve made a commitment to publish our ethnicity pay gap each year, having been the first firm to do so in 2018, as well as taking part in the benchmarking exercise with our peer firms.

Karan: Conversations are also happening with group heads and with directors of support functions about people’s reactions to recent events. In my own team meeting, we had an open and emotional discussion about race – people shared their stories, so did I. It was difficult for me to open up.  Talking about race doesn’t happen very often or comfortably within business and some people will find it hard to listen to the stories and experiences being shared. Even though it’s difficult, I would do it again. But by no means should we pressurise our black colleagues to speak up or participate – only create a safe space if they want to do so, and really listen and engage if they do.

Antoinette: What are the next steps – what else are we planning to do?

Jo: While it is important for each of us to commit to understanding racism better – to recognise that it is not always blatant, that micro-behaviours and inequalities are also keenly felt and damaging – it is also crucial to have strong leadership on this issue, so we’re starting a speaker series for all A&O partners globally to hear what the issues are and understand how to respond to them wherever they are in the world. This needs to be underpinned by effective policies and programmes, which is what the strategy we took to the Board last year addressed.

We will continue to develop and build our strategy. We are determined to get this right and to make sure that the work we do delivers results.

Paul: It’s never ‘job done’ on this subject. It’s a conversation we should all have with ourselves regularly.

We know from conversations with our black colleagues, and through our Race & Ethnicity network and focus groups, that most people are not experiencing blatant or ‘big’ discrimination here – but the smaller things still really matter. Those micro-behaviours have an impact on the way people feel when they come to work, particularly when their different experiences here aren’t acknowledged. And we know that, left unaddressed, this leads to many black colleagues deciding to continue their careers somewhere else.

Change starts with a better understanding, so this is a moment for everyone. This is when we all need to stop, try to understand what is happening right now, and think about what we can do differently. That is how we will make the fastest progress on racial equality at A&O and in society as a whole.