This content is from: United Kingdom

Black lawyers: say yes to challenges and ‘be the first’

Five lawyers explain the key to a successful career in IP and what the profession can do to support emerging and existing black talent

As a young boy, Jason Raeburn enjoyed disassembling, coding and reconfiguring scrap computers and servers.

It’s not the most traditional pastime for children, but Raeburn, a partner at international firm Baker McKenzie and a part-time judge at the England and Wales High Court who is speaking in a personal capacity, believes this is what kick-started his interest intellectual property.

“That love of technology stuck with me and I eventually discovered that I could combine my various interests by practising in the field of IP,” he tells Managing IP.

In fact, fostering an early interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) –where black take-up is traditionally lacking – can help promote IP as a possible career path, say lawyers.  

To mark Black History Month in the UK, five sources who are either black or of mixed heritage share their success stories and tell Managing IP that law firms, barristers’ chambers, universities and even schools have a role to play in helping to encourage the next cohort of aspiring lawyers.

Because STEM is so linked to IP, particularly patents and designs but also some copyright and trademark cases, encouraging a focus on this at an early age is crucial, they say.

However, they add that hard work, saying yes to challenges, and making sure work and achievements are noticed by senior decision makers are also key.

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The lack of black lawyers in IP has been laid bare. In a 2021 survey conducted by trademark and patent attorney regulator IPReg, 0.7% of more than 1,100 respondents described themselves as African or Caribbean.

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s latest diversity statistics, the proportion of black solicitors in England and Wales is 3%. Among practising barristers, 3.2% are from a black background. However, those statistics cover all areas of law – not just IP.

In total, around 3.4% of the UK working-age population is black.

STEM studies

The make-up of barristers and solicitors within IP is less clear but, on average, only 6.2% of black students enrol into STEM-related subjects at university.

While a STEM-related degree is not an absolute necessity for IP law, sources say it is vital for many areas of the profession, including at the bar where barristers are required to take on any case that falls within their knowledge area.

Ashton Chantrielle, a barrister at 8 New Square in London, says many students she encounters who are considering IP law believe simply studying law is the best way forward.

“People don’t necessarily realise you don’t have to do a pure law degree to be a lawyer,” says Chantrielle, who studied chemistry and law at university.

She adds: “The necessity of that science background is crucial; even in copyright and design cases it can be hugely beneficial. There should be a focus on encouraging the study of science from much earlier, even at school age.

“Luckily for me, I always knew I wanted to go into IP, but for others I don’t get a sense that IP is being put forward as a potential career path for those considering studying STEM – it’s all focused on being an engineer or a scientist.”

‘Be the first’

When we speak to law firms about their diversity efforts – namely how diverse their partnership is – a common theme is that there is a lack of diverse talent coming through the ranks. One theory is that aspiring black lawyers may look at a law firm or organisation’s senior management, see entirely white faces, and be put off.

However, while they are sympathetic to this potential problem, sources say this should not be a concern.

Chantrielle, who is of Fijian and Caribbean heritage, says a lack of diverse applicants could cause a cycle whereby non-diverse organisations always end up with the same candidates.

She encourages aspiring black lawyers who see a practice filled with white males to instead sense the opportunity. “I think my background worked in my favour. It’s rare to have a woman in science and IP, and especially a woman of colour.

“People should look at a law firm or chambers and think: ‘I have the chance to offer something different.’ At the same time, senior decision-makers in that firm may be keen for some diversity in their ranks.”

Raeburn agrees with the need to be proactive: “Don’t be put off by the absence of a well-defined or beaten track of individuals who have the same or similar attributes or background to you.”

He adds: “Diversity in all its forms is inherently beneficial, and forging your path with your own story will help others in the future. Don’t be afraid to be the first.”  

Ese Akpogheneta, trademark counsel at BAT in London, urges young people not to shy away from challenges if they want to ensure their name is known.

Despite not being a qualified lawyer when she first entered the IP profession – she worked as a research assistant and latterly hearings clerk at the UKIPO – she was eventually encouraged to qualify as a trademark attorney.

“I thought to myself that this sounds like a challenge, but you have to be prepared to take on those challenges, so I did. Even being asked to speak at industry events, however nerve-wracking it sounds, you should do it.”

Form allies

One thing sources agree on is that prejudice, whether intentional or not, still exists and that they will have to work harder than their peers for recognition.

Carol Nyahasha, a Zimbabwean-born senior attorney at Baron Warren Redfern in London, and who previously worked for two global firms, says she was once told by a senior partner in a previous role that she had a “very good grasp of English for someone from the colonies”.

Chantrielle and another IP attorney both say they have been mistaken for hospitality staff at a work drinks event, while Baker McKenzie’s Raeburn says prejudice and discrimination has played a significant role at “every stage of his life”.

“To this day, there is sometimes a sentiment that there is an element of tokenism surrounding my achievements and that I have not obtained them on merit,” he says.

“Of course, the reality is that people from ethnic minority backgrounds often have to work incredibly hard to level the playing field. To have those accomplishments somehow reduced to tokenism is something I have found difficult to come to terms with.”    

While this poses its own challenges and can be tough to accept, forming allies with trusted colleagues can help, say sources.

Akpogheneta notes that there have been occasions when colleagues of lesser or equal seniority were chosen ahead of her for vacant roles, or to go on work trips as the face of the organisation.

“Luckily when I was overlooked for a work trip a colleague, without me knowing, asked senior management why I was not going. Forming those allies with colleagues who will back you is really important. Allies have always been there; they have just never been given a name until now.”    

One attorney of African-Caribbean origin who did not want to be named notes that she was supported by her line manager when she decided to cut her hair.

“Throughout most of my education and career, my hair did not prove to be a barrier for me because it was permed. Natural Afro-Caribbean hair can attract a lot of negative comments. There is a view among some people that it is untidy or looks unprofessional.”

The attorney encourages firms and organisations to be proactive on issues like this by adopting policies such as the Halo Code, a campaign pledge that promises members of the black community that they have the freedom to wear afro hairstyles without judgement.

Nyahasha says she has been lucky to have the support of allies throughout her career.  

“Mostly they have been professional, but allies come in different forms. People spoke up for me when I didn’t know they had or where I may have hesitated, such as telling managers when I was working late.

“I’ve nearly always been the only black attorney there, wherever I have been, so knowing that I had support of colleagues was important.”

However, Akpogheneta notes that explicit support from the top cannot be overlooked.

“I know someone who moved firms because the firm did not say anything after the death of George Floyd.

“This is the kind of thing that has to be done. If a firm is going to say it supports diverse talent, it has to back that up with actions.”  

Lawyers should also make themselves available on social networks such as LinkedIn to offer advice to aspiring lawyers, sources suggest.

“Research and investigate firms and organisations,” says Akpogheneta. “Talk to existing lawyers and find out what they did and how they got to where they are.”

Time for change

Undoubtedly diversity has become a significant talking point and firms and organisations are now making conscious efforts to improve how they are perceived.

However, the term BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) – adopted to describe any staff members who are not white – should be retired in favour of a far more detailed assessment of diversity efforts that addresses different races individually, say the five lawyers.

One criticism is that the term allows organisations to say they have a diverse workforce when in fact black representation may be very low but south-Asian representation, for example, is very high.

“If your firm is not diverse then be honest about it – there’s no point in trying to fudge the numbers or the statistics,” says one attorney.

Firms should consider hiring an external diversity and inclusion expert, they suggest, adding that at the moment these roles are often given to a partner in the firm who meets the relevant criteria.

“There is a danger of this appearing self-serving,” they warn.

Nyahasha adds that quotas only work if they are in conjunction with concrete action. “We need more transparency. Reveal the numbers even when it isn’t working and talk about why.”

Raeburn says catch-all terms such as BAME risk homogenising groups that have very different experiences, attributes or views.

“Not only does the use of the term BAME reduce that multitude of diversity to a single group, it could also contribute to an ‘us versus them’ construct that further perpetuates or reinforces an unhelpful divide,” he adds.

By recognising that catch-all terms do not work, and focusing on encouraging black talent to enter the profession and supporting them in it, law firms may be able to shrink some of those divides. 

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