News & Insights
Black History Month 2023 brings an opportunity to celebrate and recognise the impact of black heritage and culture. This year’s theme, “Saluting Our Sisters,” focusses on the remarkable journeys of black women who have faced adversity, shattered barriers, and paved the way for change in the legal profession.
Shannett Thompson, Partner in the Regulatory Team at Kingsley Napley and Sandra Paul, Partner at Kingsley Napley specialising in Criminal Litigation, Criminal Defence and Police Investigations and Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace, spoke with barrister, Shekyena Marcelle-Brown about their career journey’s, challenges along the way and hopes for the future.
Shannett Thompson’s Journey
Shannett Thompson’s legal career was ignited by an unexpected source: watching reruns of “LA Law” and being captivated by Blair Underwood, a prominent black actor in a leading role.
“At that time, seeing such representation on television was rare. I had no clear understanding of what lawyers did but watched in fascination. My mum and dad are very active in saying that I was like a dog with a bone as a child, I never had a plan B, this is what I’m going to do!”
She then got a job at Revenue and Customs in the insolvency team, providing her valuable office experience, learning the basics such as time recording.
But it was a role as a legal advisor at the United Bristol Healthcare Trust that truly shaped her path.
“I went for the interview and my sister said, ‘you’ll get this role because it’s so far out of your comfort zone and that’s exactly what happened!”
After being there for about 8 weeks she was offered a training contract by the head of legal services, Dr Harrowing, a chief pharmacist who had cross-qualified as a lawyer and recognised her dedication and work ethic. Shannett’s time at the trust involved handling complex issues, including employers’ liability, personal injury, clinical negligence, and inquests.
One poignant memory involved a case where a young child needed a blood transfusion, but her family, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, hesitated to consent due to religious beliefs. Shannett had to rush to court to secure a judge’s order.
“I knew that I wanted to be in some kind of professional discipline advisory work. I loved my job at the Trust, but they didn’t have any qualified roles, so I looked for roles in London and landed at RadcliffesLeBrasseur, who were advertising two jobs. Their healthcare team was split between doing claims – personal injury and clinical negligence work and the professional discipline and fitness to practice work. They said my personality was better suited to professional discipline work. I really liked the firm, they were world renowned and I spent 3 and a half years of my career there.”
Sandra Paul’s Journey
Sandra Paul, Partner at Kingsley Napley, shares a similar story to Shannett, with her mum also having a story that she tells her friends;
“From being very young, I used to say I was going to be a barrister! What I did when I left school was a degree in Sociology and social work, because I was super clear that I wanted to do child protection work, I like people, I want to work with people and do something useful. I really enjoyed it, but it’s hard work. I found herself repeatedly in court with barristers and solicitors from my legal department, speaking on my behalf which I found frustrating. When it’s what I’m saying and thinking and it’s my judgement I should be speaking for myself.”
It was an article by solicitor, Yvonne Brown, a black family lawyer, that encouraged her to start the process of doing the conversion.
“Anybody who tells you that they don’t doubt themselves are lying! I did the conversion part time while I was working, I did well, I liked it, it was interesting. I thought if I’m going to do this right, I need to sort some other aspects of my life, so I had a couple of kids, and then I went and did the LPC full time at Store Street College of Law. I loved it, crushed it!”
Sandra then embarked on the challenging task of finding a job in her 30s. It was a time when she had to repackage her experiences to meet the criteria of potential employers, a daunting task for anyone.
Sandra eventually secured a position at Hodge Jones & Allen, where she found a supportive mentor and sponsor in Nigel Richardson.
“When I put that experience to work, it made for a brilliant career, I loved my job! I’d worked in an office environment, I’d been in somebody’s house and removed their children, I could manage being a duty solicitor – those life skills really helped me.”
Kingsley Napley recognised her talent and offered her a position, which she initially hesitated to accept and took some time to think about.
“In the end I did it and it’s been brilliant, I love it. Lots of good people have been generous and kind and a little bit rough with me, reminding me that I can do better. And I try to do better.”
Mentorship and sponsorship play pivotal roles in the careers of many successful professionals. Shekyena asked Sandra and Shannett if they’ve had any specific role models or mentors who have inspired their career and impacted their path.
Sandra focusses on the importance of recognising these supportive relationships, even when they are not immediately apparent, and acknowledges the numerous people who have mentored and sponsored her.
“I have lots and I’m grateful for them, what I try to do is give back everything that I get and more, this can be in the law and outside the law. Always recognise that they come in all shapes and sizes, you’d be tempted to think they’re all beautiful, black women. One of my current best sponsors is Stephen Parkinson who is about to go off to be the Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service. It was him who said, ‘come and work at Kingsley Napley. He is a middle-aged white man, he’s not what you’d expect, but he’s a brilliant sponsor. Your sponsors can also be at the same level of you, or those behind you in terms of PQE. The associates that I work with now are some of my best sponsors. I feel lucky and take them all as gifts and pay it and forward – every which way.”
Both Shannett and Sandra have encountered unique challenges during their careers.
Shannett’s initial hurdle was battling imposter syndrome, a common experience for many.
“I come from a family where there are no lawyers, so I had no legal network to tap into, and as a black woman, I didn’t see much representation across the sector. I found it difficult to build my professional network. You can teach me the law in university, but who do I speak to learn about day-to-day practice and how to navigate the culture of a law firm?”
Shannett reflects on her time applying for a training contract, “I don’t know how many applications I did; I was knocked back and had ‘the wobble’, questioning if this was for me.”
The pivotal turning point was when she was offered her role at the Trust by Dr Harrowing, a white man, who became her first sponsor and role model.
“People say birds of a feather flock together, but the network is wider than that. You’ll learn and develop from lots of different people. People can champion you that don’t look like you or come from the same place as you – don’t forget about that and the importance of active allyship.”
Shannett then secured an NQ role because of the nature of her training inhouse in the legal services department of a hospital trust. This was strange to her after her struggle to find her training contract!
“I left RadcliffesLeBrasseur when I wanted to develop my career and joined Kingsley Napley. What’s great about Kingsley Napley is that, as much we’re an inclusive employer, we recognise that we have a job to do and can’t be complacent. We don’t sit on our laurels; we keep pushing through.”
The transition from a junior lawyer to a partner was a challenge, as she grappled with self-doubt and a lack of understanding about equity within a firm.
“I had conversations with Sandra and Melinka Berridge about the hurdles with going for partnership. Some of these were self-imposed and others were about equity within the firm. We don’t all start from the same place. Sometimes people need more mentoring and championing depending on their background. I think we missed a trick; mentorship for black women is so important. The good thing about Kinglsey Napley is that it listens.”
Sandra also confronted her share of challenges, some of which were generated by her own ‘poverty of expectation’.
“I was happy at Hodge Jones & Allen. I thought, ‘I’m good here, I have a good office, I like my clients, so I’ll just stay.’ But I needed to take the next step, I had a responsibility to take the next step. Some challenges are self-imposed, some are real.”
Sandra emphasises the importance of recognising systemic barriers within the legal profession, such as the necessity for the right connections to generate work and advance in a law firm.
“If you don’t have those, how do you make or sustain your application for partnership. You must approach it in a different way as a woman of colour.”
Sandra learned to embrace less glamorous roles that allowed her to gain a deep understanding of a firm’s inner workings. These experiences shaped her ability to influence and navigate the legal landscape effectively.
“The roles that nobody else wants to do, give you the chance to demonstrate your qualities. I managed the diary; I got 25 lawyers to 30 courts. These roles allow you to be at the centre of an organisation and influence how it works. Take those jobs! There’s nothing Machiavellian about that, that’s where the gap is, so do it.”
Challenges Faced by Black Women in the Legal Profession
Shannett and Sandra both recall moments in their careers where they felt they were treated unfairly due to their race and gender.
Shannett reflects on occasions where she has recognised that something wasn’t right but didn’t always have the wording to put to it, she shared an interview experience early in her career.
“I was being interview by a white middle-class man, who was asking me questions that had nothing to do with legal position, such as who had won the Pulitzer Prize in a particular year. It was clear that what he was seeking to do was pick apart my background and understand whether I would be right for them, their clients and him as an individual.”
She remembers occasions when she’s been passed over for pieces of work or overlooked for an opportunity. “You must pick your battles, not to sweep anything under the carpet, but it is important to protect your wellbeing. People have reached out in the past on social media asking for help. I can’t always tell them the answer, but I can offer support mechanisms. You can never tell someone how to navigate their journey, it is their journey.”
As a Partner in a law firm, Shannett now feels she has the platform and the confidence to address any issues that she may not have had as a junior lawyer.
“At the beginning of my career there were times where I said nothing as I didn’t have a voice in the room. Now, in my position, which isn’t the typical presentation of what a lawyer looks like, I have a platform that I can use for influence, not just for myself but for others. You can raise issues without making it combative and personal, and as I’ve become more senior, I’ve learnt to navigate that.”
Both Shannett and Sandra have become more confident in addressing discrimination as their careers have progressed. Sandra acknowledges that she now has a platform to advocate not only for herself but also for others who may be facing discrimination.
“I get to raise discrimination on the occasions that it does come up, I don’t need to hold my mouth, which is a very liberating experience.”
She shares a recent example when she was with a client at a police station and the desk sergeant mistook Sandra for the client.
“My client, a white professional male, was incensed!”
Progress and Ongoing Challenges
The legal profession has made strides in increasing diversity at the entry level. Initiatives such as mentorship programmes, internships, and diversity access schemes have facilitated the entry of black individuals into the profession. However, both Shannett and Sandra recognise that there is much work to be done beyond entry-level diversity.
One significant challenge is the attrition of black lawyers once they enter the profession.
Shannett addresses the need for equitable distribution of work, access to opportunities, the availability of role models, the building of networks, and the tackling of discrimination.
“What has got better is entry into the professions, schemes, and mentorships. But what we need to do better is tackling the attrition of black lawyers once they enter the profession. A lot of people leave the profession at around three years qualified. The statistics show that there is a marked drop-off in representation at senior levels. That’s what I’d like to see the legal sector tackling, so that we’re not having this same discussion in 20 years.”
Sandra points to the need for greater representation in the C-suite and leadership positions within law firms.
“The one to work on is the C-Suite, the equity partners and management teams. This space is still untapped. Having the ability to manage a firm and have access to its priorities must be the next frontier for black women in particular. These positions come with a serious financial commitment, and you need the confidence to invest in a firm where there isn’t always a huge amount of diversity. We need to anticipate the commitment at a senior level; to be able to take the risks that are inherent at more senior positions.”
Addressing Challenges: The “How” Matters
Sandra offers an insight into tackling challenges faced by black women in the legal profession, emphasising the importance of making the most out of every career level and leveraging your network.
“If I have an issue, I need to have a network to go to. The ‘How’ includes my network and how to use it. If I was giving advice to somebody, it would be to value your network, recognise it and invest in it. That network will see you all the way through, it will support and challenge you.”
Building a Network and Personal Brand
Sandra advises people to start by expanding their networks beyond the legal field.
“One thing I would say, is your network doesn’t have to start with your legal network, don’t forget the potential of your non-legal network, family and friends.”
She also emphasises the importance of being approachable and responsive on professional platforms like LinkedIn.
“Go looking for things, what sparks your passion and is relevant to your areas of interest in the law. You’ll soon build a network. There are always things going on at the Inns, solicitors’ profession and talks at Court. Go and listen and see if there’s something interesting. Building your is network is intentional, but it doesn’t have to be sophisticated. Show up, be interested and don’t be rude.”
Shannett advises aspiring lawyers to focus on their individual brand and business development.
“Building your brand and understanding business development is important, that’s the skill we’re not taught at law school, but is important as a lawyer. What is your passion that ignites for the law and how are you going to use that to develop your career? Always be polite to people, be authentic, compassionate, and professional.”
She also shares the importance of remaining mindful of their online presence and how you present yourself.
“Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want people to see in public, be careful what you’re putting out there and think about this before you even enter the profession. Also feed back into your networks, this doesn’t have to be monetary, it can be an introduction. Reciprocate, protect, and develop your brand.”
Shekyena raised a crucial point about the dilemma faced by some black women when it comes to branding. They may fear being perceived as “too black” or hesitate to showcase their authentic selves in professional settings.
“As long as you’re being authentic, you can’t be criticised for that. Everyone has a professional face, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.” – Shannett
Shannett reflects on a viral TikTok video which she features in and a comment made by a young black girl entering the profession, “Oh my gosh, she’s a partner in a law firm and she has braids in her hair!”
“Those little things for representation matter and they are important, so you should never totally change yourself to fit into a space.”
Sandra suggests that individuals should find ways to highlight the unique aspects of their identity, using these qualities as valuable assets.
“Never leave any of yourself at home but rather focus on what makes you shine at work. l tell people straight, I tell the truth and I’m straight to the point. I’ve rebranded that as ‘very clear advice, done quickly, which is cost efficient. Find a way of bottling what you have and make it a selling point.”
Initiatives and Organisations
To further their careers and contribute to the legal profession, both Shannett and Sharon recommend engaging with various initiatives and organisations including Urban Lawyers, Black Men in Law, the Black Solicitors Network, the Black Barristers Network, Black Counsel Forum, and the Law Society’s Diverse Access Scheme and Ethnic Solicitors network which offer networking opportunities and resources to black professionals.
Sandra highlights the importance of interest groups within larger organisations, such as the Women in Criminal Law’s race equality committee.
These groups can provide a platform to connect with like-minded individuals, share experiences, and support one another.
The Significance of Black History Month
Shannett emphasises that while celebrating black history during this designated month is essential, it’s equally vital to recognise and address the ongoing issues throughout the year.
“I love the fact that we have a Black History Month, what I’m less enamoured about, is the other months of the year where there’s no focus. What I’ve often found, is that when I’m asked questions, it’s as a person of colour rather than as a black woman. People too often want to homogenise the experiences of a number of different racial and ethnic groups. Intersectionality is real, all our experiences are different, I cannot speak for every black woman on the planet. This is the same when you look at celebrating black history, it has many different strands. Within the UK, Black History is looked at through an American lens, we focus on slavery and World War 2. We don’t look at our own soil, about colonialism and how the British Empire was built. Black History Month is very important to me, and I will celebrate it to the day I die. It is something that I want to understand, allies to understand, and people who are ignorant to black history to understand.”
Sandra Paul notes that Black History Month serves as a reminder to prioritise issues related to black history and heritage.
“I use it to prioritise my time to celebrate the women in my life who are really important and remind the men in my life, why the women in their life are so important.”
Shekyena emphasises the importance of celebrating oneself during Black History Month;
“We’re always so busy, that we don’t take a moment to think about our achievements and how far we’ve come in the profession.”
Thank you to Shekyena, Sandra and Shannett for sharing your experiences and advice.
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