In March 2021, history was made when I. Stephanie became the 177th president of the Law Society of England and Wales – making her the first Black and the first person of colour president to be appointed to the role. “As the first person of colour to become president of the Law Society, I stand as living testament to the diversity, dynamism and growing social opportunity in the legal profession” she says. Governance and Compliance spoke to I. Stephanie about this historic moment and what it means moving forwards.
Can you tell us about your background and your entry into the profession?
My journey into the profession was not necessarily conventional or without its obstacles.
In 1985, my family relocated to the United States of America. Even though I lived there for the next six years, I always knew I would return to the UK to study law. So, in 1991, a day or so after finishing high school, I returned to the UK—and so began my legal career.
I stumbled on my first barrier upon discovering my US qualifications would not be recognised in the UK. However, thanks to the access to qualification route, I was able to enter London Guildhall University in 1996, where I graduated with an LLB (Hons) in politics. After that, I progressed to the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the College of Law in Guildford.
Securing a training contract was not easy task. However, thanks to the steadfast encouragement of my father, I secured a placement with a local Aylesbury firm, Horwood & James, qualifying in 2002.
I began my career in private practice but was made redundant twice in as many years due to the decline in publicly-funded work. I decided to move in-house, attracted by the opportunity to be more flexible in my working, and to be closer to the decision-making process.
Back in 2004, working in-house wasn’t really talked about as much – certainly, routes into the profession weren’t clear. When I told my first recruitment consultant that I wanted to work in the City, I was told I wasn’t being realistic. So, getting my first job at the Bar Council as a solicitor, to the then Complaints Commissioner and the Senior Investigations Officer was a real coup.
In 2007, I moved to the Association of Chartered Accountants, where I stayed until 2012. I was promoted quickly to committee manager and clerk to the disciplinary and regulatory committees.
One of the things that attracted me to work in-house was that I realised the organisation I worked for could train and pay for me to learn different skill sets.
ACCA funded me to do a part-time master’s in public law and global governance at King’s College, University of London in 2008 and I graduated in 2010.
This was where my appetite for governance started to form, as I got more involved in budgets, policies and procedures that began to dominate my daily work. In 2019 I became a Fellow of the Chartered Governance Institute.
You are a lawyer and also qualified as a Chartered Secretary. What influenced you to do that?
As I took up my first role as General Counsel I wanted to further develop my legal expertise as a valued strategic adviser, and to use my role directly to influence strategy and decision-making. So undertaking the qualification was a way of doing that.
The Law Society was formed over 200 years ago and in March 2021 you became the first person of colour President of the Society. With diversity within organisations being under the spotlight for many years, what are some of the next key steps that you believe need to be taken?
There is growing social opportunity in the legal profession, but we still need to do more to challenge the stereotypes of what a solicitor should look like or where they should come from. To this end we have a large ongoing workstream focused on improving social mobility in the profession. We want to show that people from all walks of life and backgrounds can make valuable contributions and achieve success in our profession.
Our latest statistics suggest that just over half of practising solicitors are the first generation in their family to attend university. Despite the increase in diversity in the profession, challenges remain in ensuring equal opportunities and progression and a culture of inclusivity. For example, 23% of practising solicitors attended independent or public schools, compared to only around 7% of the population of England and Wales.
There are also external factors that make it more difficult for aspiring solicitors to enter the profession, such as difficulties in getting access to work experience, and lack of finance or guidance from social or family connections for those from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds. There is clearly still room for improvement.
The Law Society is committed to ensuring that anyone with the necessary skills, knowledge and commitment to become a solicitor is supported, enabled and empowered throughout their career, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background.
The Law Society runs a number of programmes to promote social mobility in the profession.
The Diversity Access Scheme (or DAS) is a scholarship that has been running annually at the Law Society for over 10 years. It aims to identify exceptional students who have a strong ambition to qualify as a solicitor but who, without support, will almost certainly not be able to realise that ambition. So far, the DAS has supported over 200 students to continue their legal education and start their legal careers. The DAS provides support to talented aspiring solicitors by providing scholarships to enable students to complete the LPC or SQE; helping them to gain relevant work experience; and putting them in touch with solicitor mentors, who can provide invaluable advice on shaping their career path.
We also run a social mobility ambassadors programme, launched in 2015, to promote diversity in the profession by putting a spotlight on solicitor role models. The project showcases accomplished members of the profession who have overcome socio-economic challenges to pursue their legal education and succeed in their careers.
The Society selects ten new solicitor ambassadors on a bi-annual basis to share their experience of entering the profession, including the obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. Reflecting on their career path, each ambassador provides practical tips and advice on pursuing a career in law, providing inspiration and valuable insight for students considering a legal career. Our ambassadors’ experiences are told in print, through our ambassador booklets, and in film, on our ambassador webpages. We have also created a way for our ambassadors to help aspiring solicitors on a one-to-one level through the ‘ask an ambassador’ email address.
We are also proud to be part of an independent taskforce commissioned by HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and run by City of London Corporation to improve socio-economic diversity at senior levels in financial and professional services across the UK.
Ultimately, a diverse and inclusive legal profession is vital to ensure that we reflect the communities and consumers that we serve.
How has the pandemic brought these issues further under the spotlight?
On the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias has started to become a business priority.
Large law firms have taken their diversity pledges one step further by considering diversity targets for promotions and career progression. Equally, in-house teams of large corporations, such as Coca-Cola and NatWest, are setting minimum diversity requirements for their law firms panels.
But there is much more to be done. In Lady Hale’s words “although the battleground has shifted, the battle is not yet won”.
The Law Society’s research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities across the sector. Across the country lawyers with disabilities, women, LGBTQ+ and black, asian and minority ethnic lawyers continue to face obstacles in the legal sector.
During my term as President, the Law Society will become even more central in the effort to challenge harmful stereotypes:
We need genuine equal opportunities and equal treatment in the legal profession and in the judiciary. Having achieved greater diversity at entry level, we must address the retention and progression gaps mid-career.
We need to do the best we can to close the gender and ethnicity pay gap.
Anyone with the necessary skills, knowledge and commitment to become a solicitor should be supported, enabled and empowered to stay in the profession and thrive in this profession for as long as they wish to be a solicitor.
How does diversity and inclusion impact the boardroom?
Improving the diversity and inclusiveness of the legal profession is both a moral and a business imperative. It is essential that our profession reflects the communities we serve, and that we ensure talented individuals are able to progress in the practice of law, whatever their background.
The profession and the sector can only benefit from the richness of experience and expertise that a diverse workforce brings. However, it is not enough to give someone a seat at the table you must also allow their voice to be heard. As in the words of Verna Myers “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance".
During your term as President, what are some of the main areas you will be focussing on? Is there anything in particular you are hoping to achieve?
As the first person of colour to become president of the Law Society, I stand as living testament to the diversity, dynamism and growing social opportunity in the legal profession. I hope to bring a fresh perspective – an understanding of the experiences of these under-represented groups, and what we must to do to support them.
I have chosen to concentrate on several areas during my term.
Access to justice and technology
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, new technology (and utilising existing technology) has provided a glimpse of how the justice system could work in the future. It has also highlighted the many challenges that technology poses to the provision of legal advice and genuine access to justice. During my presidential term, I will continue the debate on how geographical and digital barriers can be overcome.
Public legal education
Helping the public to understand legal issues and their rights is at the heart of what it means to be a solicitor. Public legal education helps people to make better decisions, anticipate problems and play an active role in shaping the decisions that affect them. It can also ensure that when the public seek advice, they receive it from a practitioner who is qualified, insured and regulated.
During my term, I will support public legal education initiatives to raise awareness of the law and work in making the law accessible for all.
Supporting members and upholding the rule of law
As president, I will stand up for our members and defend our profession against needless hostility. In recent years we have seen increasing attacks on the reputation and integrity of our profession. It is vital that we work to uphold the rule of law as a fundamental British value, and that solicitors and the legal sector can continue to do their job without fear of intimidation.
Diversity and social mobility
Black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors continue to experience barriers within the profession. Having achieved greater diversity at entry level, we must address the retention and progression gaps mid-career. Anyone with the necessary skills, knowledge and commitment to become a solicitor should be supported, enabled and empowered throughout their career.
We want to show that people from all walks of life and backgrounds can make valuable contributions and achieve success in our profession.
Mental health and wellbeing
The pandemic has exposed further the need for a renewed focus on mental health and well-being.
Good mental health and wellbeing must be valued and encouraged, and where environments do not facilitate this, change must be realised.
As president, I will seek to improve our offer of resources, support, guidance to help support our members with their mental health and wellbeing, and work with firms, legal businesses and organisations to ensure that they create a supportive and healthy workplace culture.
More can be done too to support in-house solicitors. Working in-house is a challenge very different from many others in the legal sector, and one in which support can often be harder to access.
Despite in-house solicitors making up almost 25% of our membership, I am the second in-house solicitor to become president of the Law Society – and I hope to use my position to reach out to in-house solicitors, to understand further the challenges they face and to deliver resources for in-house practitioners to advance their careers, to learn, and to access support as and when they need it.
A global legal centre and the practice of law post-Brexit
While the process of Brexit has now concluded following the Trade and Cooperation Agreement late last year, challenges facing lawyers seeking to adjust to the new arrangements remain.
England and Wales remains a global legal centre, an open and welcoming jurisdiction committed to excellence in legal services and to the rule of law. As the UK seeks to secure new trade agreements with other countries, it is vital that legal services and market access are considered. I will act as a champion of our legal services sector, promoting our work to the public, to the wider sector, and to the government.
It is my mission to leave this profession more diverse and inclusive than the one I entered but this must be a shared ambition with each and everyone of us playing our part.
What are some of the main governance challenges the sector is facing?
There are a lot of challenges, both domestic and international – Brexit and the impact on trade and services, the effects of the pandemic, the legal aid system, persecution of lawyers abroad all present their own governance challenges – luckily the Law Society has ongoing work in all these areas, which I would encourage those who are interested to read more about on our website.
But to pick one of those, I’ll talk a little bit about access to justice. As lawyers, we all understand the importance of the rule of law – our role is to be a trusted adviser, helping clients navigate a difficult and hard to understand legal world in a way that will let them enforce their rights, be those clients individuals, families or businesses.
Those of us whose clients are primarily businesses may not often interact with the legal aid system, but I would hope we recognise its importance to ensure that everyone can enforce their rights – because if people’s rights cannot be enforced, they may as well not exist.
Our legal aid infrastructure – the system that ensures those in the most economically precarious position can access justice – is in a worrying state.
Years of cuts and stagnant rates have precipitated a severe decline in the number of criminal legal aid firms. In 2010 there were 1,861 firms; in April of this year that had dropped to 1,090.
With a Government in office that is committed to a policy of regional equality, which they have labelled “levelling up”, we have an important opportunity to turn the dial up on this issue by linking it into this agenda. This is something the Law Society is working hard on at the moment with the Government set to make key spending decisions this autumn. It is imperative that the right governance framework is in place to support the levelling up agenda to ensure a fair and equitable spread of opportunity.
What advice would you give to those beginning their governance career?
Don’t think about it, just do it!
To never ever give up, that every door is open if you PUSH: Persevere Until Something Happens. Self belief is key. So to is resilience and determination. Let not your setbacks be the end of your story but an opportunity to try again.
There is a saying that “ships don’t sink because of the water around them, ships sink because of the water that gets in them”.