When Corrine, a Black lawyer, saw her name on a client pitch led by one of the partners at the major U.K. law firm where she was an associate, she was confused. “It wasn’t even my area of work,” she said.
She soon realised that the pitching team “did not include a person of colour”. And despite having no involvement in the matter, the firm “added my name to the pitch”.
Her story, it turns out, is just one of many similar episodes experienced by racial minority lawyers at the U.K.’s biggest law firms.
Since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, law firms have clambered to denounce racism in all its forms, sounding off terms such as ‘diversity committee’, ‘targets’ and ‘mentoring’. Now, a Law.com International investigation reveals how some of the U.K.’s largest law firms are falsely portraying themselves as more diverse than they are, to the detriment of both minority employees and clients.
Over the course of several months Law.com International spoke with a wide range of associates, partners and in-house lawyers, all from minority backgrounds, who described experiences similar to Corrine’s, almost all of which occurred within the last two years.
Instances include partners bringing Black lawyers into client pitches for deals that they were later excluded from; minority lawyers having their names and faces put on marketing and deal materials, even where they had no connection to the matter or even to the region concerned; and situations where lawyers were given no advance warning that their name or image would be used.
Many of the lawyers say the experiences left them feeling exploited by law firms more interested in presenting themselves as diverse than in changing damaging attitudes and behaviours, while others say they felt like ‘diversity props’ only to be swiftly cast aside when it comes to actual work allocation.
The topic is intensely sensitive and many of the lawyers feared for the affect on their careers should they be identified. As a result, names and minor details have been changed to protect the identity of those who spoke on condition of anonymity. To further protect them, Law.com International has also agreed not to name the specific law firms involved.
‘Token Black Lawyer’
Law firms are under increasing pressure to include more Black and minority lawyers on their top deal teams, with much of that pressure coming from clients. Consider Novartis which in 2020 introduced a diversity focus to its 22-strong legal panel, or Coca-Cola, whose former general counsel said law firm diversity efforts needed to be much better.
But several Black lawyers in private practice describe situations that seem to suggest law firms are doing nothing more than paying lip service to the cause.
In Corrine’s case, she said her name was put on panel pitch documents so that the firm had a diverse name to present to the client. “They didn’t have anybody of colour for a pitch”, she explained. “It wasn’t even my area of work and they added my name to the pitch.”
Elena, a former partner at a top U.K. firm echoed this experience. She recalled being sat in a meeting room while male, white partners were mulling how to meet diversity requirements for an upcoming client pitch.
“They pointed at me and said, ‘We need to make sure we cover diversity – you’ll do it, won’t you, Elena?’”
‘The Actual Work Was Not Given To Me’
Another female partner at a U.K. firm, Samia, also recalled being pulled in from another practice area to attend a meeting with a client GC “who looked like me”. “My skin colour decided that”, but the actual work for that client was not given to her, she explained.
Shani, an associate at a top 10 U.K. law firm, added it is very common that where an African client reaches out to the firm, law firms “all of a sudden realise it’s important to give Black or ethnic minority associates a chance to attend pitches”.
After Shani was “summoned” to be the “diverse” lawyer, the partner involved never again considered her for work beyond that.
“That’s where the frustration is. Why am I only selected for work with an Africa element?” she said.
Samia gave an example of how her law firm employed tokenism during a legal matter that arose from the Grenfell Tower incident in 2017.
Her firm was one of many working on several strands of legal work and she recalled that “Black lawyers were all over the pitching presentation but not on the actual work”, which was instead taken over by male, white partners.
A Black partner at a large U.K. law firm said that she has felt that she’d on occasion be “taken to panel pitches because the rest of the team were white”.
“While others in the team may also have protected characteristics, they aren’t visible. But mine is. I’m not downgrading myself, because I am good at what I do, but sometimes there have been others who were better placed than me to go to these pitches.
“It’s a concern I continue to have: am I at these pitches so the client doesn’t think there is no ethnic diversity in our team?”
‘They Used My Non-White Face’
Lawyers of colour are readily showcased on law firm websites, their images frequently used in marketing materials. But often this presents an inaccurate and often misleading picture.
Reshma, a London-born trainee of Indian heritage working at a major international firm, described a time earlier this year when she was scrolling through her firm’s website. She was shocked to find her image being displayed – what she called her “non-white face” – on the firm’s India page, particularly as she had never completed any India-related work.
“I found out randomly. I obviously knew my photo was being taken but I didn’t know it would go on the website like that.”
When this situation was described to a partner of an Indian background at a U.K. top 50 firm they called it “really, really bad”, and said firms must put out the message that “lawyers do not need to be Indian to work on a firm’s India desk”.
Despite laughing it off at first, Reshma now recognises a more insidious aspect to this experience. She said she has often seen lawyers of colour being “dragged in to [see a client]”, especially when the general counsel is Black.
Elena shared a similar example when her photo was used on a law firm diversity award submission, despite her having raised issues with the firm about its poor attitude to race and diversity.
“They won the award for diversity. They used my photo as a way to win awards, when the reality of my time at the firm was very different”.
Meanwhile, a consultant who focuses on D&I in the professional services industry says a recent conversation with a Black trainee demonstrates that the tactical “use” of minority lawyers is still a live issue within law firms.
“The trainee had only just started and had already been called on to run a talk on D&I. They’ve only been there for a few weeks so how can they speak to the diversity at the firm? Four weeks and they’re already the Black spokesperson?”
Flattered, At First
The consultant added that junior lawyers probably felt “flattered” at first but will likely recognise what was actually happening later on.
Elena agreed that flattery plays a part. She was “proud” when she was first asked to be the woman of colour leading diversity events. But as she progressed, she realised she was being pigeonholed and rolled out whenever a person of colour was needed.
“A partner once gave me a piece of work because it was focused on the country I’m from in Asia,” she said. “They said I’ll enjoy it because I’m from there. But actually, I enjoyed it because it was to do with my practice, not because of my heritage.”
She said she firmly believes that if it was work that was perceived as “top tier, gold standard work” for a non-Asian, white client, she would not have been called upon.
Today, Elena still sees junior lawyers of colour being “cynically deployed” by law firms.
Shani explained that being called on only for Africa work meant when it comes to a matter relating to another, perhaps larger, client, “you’re not the first person they think about. You’re now the ‘Africa lawyer’.”
She added that, in her experience, “if the client doesn’t have an emphasis on diversity and/or Africa, then the [Black] associate is typically not front and centre of the partner’s mind”.
“It’s not a nice feeling if you know you’re just there to make up numbers and you feel like you’re being used”, Shani said, suggesting that associates become disillusioned and these experiences contribute to people of colour leaving a firm.
This is a point on which Shani and Elena converge. Elena pointed out: “As you progress, your eyes open on how your gender or race is being utilised. You’re used for commercial purposes, to bolster the law firm credentials as opposed to encouraging you as an individual.”
Law Firms’ Response
Responding to the allegations of tokenism, a person at one of the major firms identified in this investigation conceded that “breaking an old habit and creating a new one requires effort”.
“If you replace ‘ethnic minority’ with ‘gender’ and go back 20 years, it’s the same issue. Lawyers would panic and say, ‘Quick, we need a woman in the meeting!’ It’s a really bad, shortsighted strategy.”
They added that their firm needed “to be more deliberate about who we’re choosing and why”. “It’s very disempowering for someone to be made to feel like they’re there for performance. Policies need to drive and create new culture and new habits, we shouldn’t be vacuously performative. It is worth us as a firm being clear about that to all our people.”
On the prevalence of tokenism, the person added: “Does it surprise me that somebody occasionally does this? No. But the important part is that we start to listen and break habits and bring all lawyers in the firm up to our high standard of inclusivity. Being performative is not just bad for the person, it’s bad for the firm. We need to be clear on this. We’ll keep educating and building on the capacity of managers and we need to make it easier for us to hear what people are experiencing too.”
A person at a second major firm where one of the people worked stressed that their firm “wants to create an environment in which people feel they can raise matters internally in a confidential manner”.
They added: “We’d like to speak to any staff members about their lived experiences around tokenism going forward but can respect the decisions not to share this internally so far.”
Is It The Client’s Fault?
Some believe the pressure firms feel from clients, general counsel in particular, can legitimise, perhaps even cajole, law firms to bow to tokenism.
The legal consultant said clients “perpetuate traditional expectations of what external line ups should look like”, and being “vague” on pitch requirements produces a grey area for law firms.
They insisted that it is mainly law firms that are “duping and being performative”, but some of the blame should be borne by the client. Ultimately, they said, the client too is being deceived.
“One GC told me that they gave a matter to a law firm and D&I was a key determinant for the decision. However on the actual matter, the team they liaised with lacked that diversity.”
The latest diversity metrics have been championed by in-house counsel, who in recent years have asked for specific gender and ethnicity data from law firms during panel pitches. Companies, including Natwest and YouGov, have all placed emphasis on the issue.
“GCs conveniently look at the numbers but not who their advisers actually are,” said Elena, adding that GCs tend to rely on the “comfort blanket” of existing law firms rather than encouraging real change.
She emphasised that it is “within the gift of a GC” to actively do something.
A Black partner at a U.K. top 50 firm added that GCs should use their power and “call out and embarrass the firms during the pitch”.
She also suggested opening a dialogue with the diverse lawyer and asking them how much insight they had on the pitch.
A partner at a U.S. firm took a more generous view, however, suggesting that “it’s very difficult to get on a panel without showing an immediate response to diversity”. They conceded however that, while “it isn’t necessarily tokenism”, “sometimes, it might be”.
Regulators Have a Role to Play
Shannett Thompson, a partner at Kingsley Napley, added that, while firms and partners played an essential role in addressing the issues raised in this investigation, those regulating the industry too could do more.
“Can the SRA or The Law Society make more active targets for law firms? Yes. I think they will need to be more proactive and have proper oversight of firms,” she says.
“The Law Society and SRA should be there at the forefront to assist the profession. Part of the solution is for candid conversations to happen. Law firms need to be honest about what they’re doing in terms of diversity, both internally and externally.
“If an individual feels they’re being used as a token, how quickly that will backfire on the firm can be catastrophic and can lead to them taking their talent elsewhere.”
Would you like to share your experience, or do you have a response to this investigation? Law.com International would love to hear from you. Get in touch at [email protected]