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5 tips for success for aspiring black solicitors – Whiteboard Wednesday


Hi. Welcome to “Whiteboard Wednesday.” I’m Sam Ogunlaja, partner in the PDF group at Shearman & Sterling. And I’m here today to talk to you about five tips for success for aspiring black solicitors.

So, why are we talking about this today?

Well, I think we all know that there’s underrepresentation of black lawyers in the legal profession, and we all know there are a number of reasons for this that I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about today, but you can see some of them on the board here. We have historic inequality, such as racial inequality, social inequality, lack of access to opportunities for people from certain racial and social backgrounds.

We also have lack of visible role models. Because of all of those historic inequalities, we haven’t had as many black people going into the profession, getting into senior positions, and providing that visible role model, and creating those opportunities for others coming through. We have to be honest, there are also some structural issues in the legal profession, you know, only recruiting from certain universities, focused on A-level grades, and lots of other things such as unconscious bias that happens to all of us despite our best efforts.

And all of these things have resulted historically in an underrepresentation of black lawyers in the legal profession. Now, that’s an obvious issue and an obvious issue that we want to fix. And the good news is, change is happening. Progress is being made, but we need a seismic shift here. There’s a lot of work to be done. And as a result, it’s going to take time, all right? We are all doing our best.
Shearman & Sterling is engaged very much in actively promoting the recruitment, retention, and progression of black lawyers. So I think the question is, whilst this change is happening, what do we do? Do we just wait for the world to change? No. I think, as black lawyers, we need to learn how to best position ourselves for success. And I’m here to talk to you today about five tips for success for aspiring solicitors to help you do that.

So, where do we start?

Number 1, take ownership. Now, the best piece of career advice I was ever given was to take ownership. Now, what does that really mean, all right? Well, can mean a lot of things to different people. But to me, taking ownership means taking responsibility, taking responsibility for your own actions and for your own outcomes, working hard, investing in yourself, being accountable to yourself, and doing your absolute utmost to make the success that you want to happen actually happen.

It means showing initiative. Don’t wait to be told everything, all right? You know you need to submit that application. You know you need to reach out to that person on LinkedIn. You know you need to go to that event. Don’t procrastinate. Do it, all right?

Momentum is better than no action, right? What else? Ask for help when needed. Taking ownership and taking responsibility and being proactive doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. You can always ask for help. In fact, you should ask for help, and you should be persistent in asking for help when you really need it, all right? But taking ownership means that regardless of whether you have help, regardless of what’s going to happen, regardless of what else is going on, you are being enthusiastic, you’re being engaged, and you’re positive about your own actions and outcomes.

What’s the second tip? Pursuing excellence. Now, let’s be honest, all right, law is an intellectually demanding industry. We do complex work, we advise complex clients in complex businesses, on complex transactions, and on complex disputes. It’s all very, very complex, all right? And it’s no secret that intellectual capability is very valuable, not even just valuable but essential in our industry.

All right. So I think, with that in mind, you know, you need to get very comfortable with the fact that law is a hard job. But it’s okay, because you guys are up to the challenge. That’s why you’re watching “Whiteboard Wednesday.” You’re being proactive. Now, how do you pursue excellence? Take every opportunity you have to learn, all right?

And “Whiteboard Wednesday” is a great example of that. There are so many resources out there, whether it’s at university, where it’s at law school, whether it’s in the job that you’re doing, to help you gain and acquire skills. Take every opportunity to do so. Increase your effectiveness. Increase your abilities. Become more effective, right? And the more that you do that, the more you’re able to do, the more attractive you are to employers, not just in the legal profession but generally.

All right. What else? Develop a track record of performance. Now, what does that mean? It means taking every opportunity you have to demonstrate your success, to demonstrate your attitude, to demonstrate that you are capable. So that means exams. It means assessments.

It means coursework. It means, you know, every interview. And when you’re actually in this profession, it means every task that you’re given, all right? You want to make sure you’re doing your absolute utmost, trying your hardest, doing your best to deliver that one product, to write that exam to the absolute best of your ability, right? And you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror when you’re done with a piece of work or when you walk out of an exam and know that you’ve done your absolute best to deliver that and to achieve the highest standard that you possibly could.

Now, look, I’m a realist, all right? Life happens. So I know that, sometimes, despite your best efforts, things might happen. You may fall short. And that’s okay. We’re all human beings. It happens to all of us.
Try and minimize that, but we want to understand that it happens. The key is that you learn from your failure, all right? Turn every single failure into an opportunity to learn. Ask for feedback. Get your papers back. Have a session with somebody to really kind of dissect what happened, right, and take it. And don’t just hear it.

Don’t be upset. You know, be a grown-up about it and have an open mind about the feedback. And implement it, implement the changes, so that you get better next time, and all the while pursuing excellence. Number 3, attitude and adaptability. Now, positive attitude equals positive outcomes. People respond positively to positivity. Very, very simple, right?

Be engaged. Be enthusiastic. Smile. Be friendly. Be open to opportunities. Be inquisitive. And as you put that energy out there, you’ll get that energy back.

And trust me, I’ve had so many opportunities and doors opened to me, because I’ve gone in with a positive and enthusiastic attitude. And the key then is to make the most of the opportunities that you’re given. All right. I think the other thing about attitude is about being determined, being driven, and it kind of goes back to what we’re talking about with taking ownership. Be dedicated.

Be disciplined, right? Don’t be denied. And do all of that with a smile on your face, and with a joke, and a pleasant disposition, and you will go far. The other thing I want to say about attitude, all right, or actually it’s more about adaptability. It’s about things change, all right? Circumstances around you change. Your environment may change.

You may go from being in, you know, a certain type of school to being in a certain type of university. You may go from being in university to being in a law firm. All of these things are different environments that require different skills and different approaches. And that’s fine. These things take some getting used to. But really try your best to figure it out. Ask people.

Look for people who can show you the way. Look for people who are in senior positions that you admire, who have gone a successful path or have taken a path that you admire, and copy what they do. Not necessarily, you know, like for like, but take tips from them. Ask them, “How did you do this? How did you deal with that?” And again, make the changes, right? Be open to the feedback. Hear what they say.

Be adaptable, be teachable, and try and, you know, navigate the scenarios that you’re in. And as I said, always ask for help and look for people that can help you do that. The last thing I want to say about attitude and adaptability is about being confident in yourself, right? And I think that this is really, really important for aspiring black solicitors. There’s a lot that’s said in our community around imposter syndrome and not feeling, you know, good enough or feeling like a token.

And all of those things, you know, there’s a lot of valid discussions to be had about those topics, and that’s probably the subject of another video. But all I have to say is be confident in you. And it’s easier said than done, but really, really try, you know. Tell yourself that you are capable, you are talented, that being black and being different is not a bad thing, right?

Embrace your difference and encourage yourself to go out and to make the most of the opportunities that are in front of you. Don’t have a chip on your shoulder. Don’t be bitter about anything. Just be positive, going back to what I was saying about attitude, and really put your best foot forward and celebrate your own blackness, and the excellence will follow. Number 4, build relationships. Law is a relationship business.

You know, you’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” There’s another phrase that says, “Your network is your net worth.” And all of these things are very, very true. Try and build relationships at every single level of the profession. Start with your peers, right, the people that you’re in school with, people you’re in university with, the people that you are on vacation schemes with. These are the people that are going to be working in law firms alongside you or even above you in the future.

I have clients that I trained with. I have clients that were my supervisors when I was a trainee. And all of this is because I had developed good relationships, and I invested in those relationships going forward, and they yield dividends over time. I think the other thing about developing relationships is key is to look for sponsors and mentors, all right? And these two phrases get thrown about a lot. What do they mean?
Sponsors, in a nutshell, are people who create opportunities for you to get promoted and to progress. It might be a boss, it might be a senior partner, it might be somebody who refers you to somebody for an opportunity. Sponsors open doors and create opportunities, very, very, very important. Mentors are people who are much more nurturing.

They teach you.

They invest in you.

They help mold you for the opportunities that the sponsors create. And there can be overlap. One person can perform two roles, or you might have multiple people performing these two roles. But both roles are very, very important, not just to gaining access to the profession but to gaining…you know, to progressing, to sticking around, and to actually being a success as a lawyer in this industry. And I think the key is put yourself out there, you know.

Let people know you’re looking for sponsors. Well, don’t go and say, “Can you sponsor me?” I don’t think people will respond well to that. But look for people who might be in a position to sponsor you. Build relationships with them, reach out to them, ask them for coffee. You know, people, you know, reach out to me on LinkedIn all the time. Do that, all right?

And, you know, the worst that will happen is you’re getting naught. But put yourself out there, make friends, you know, positive attitude, as I said, positivity attracts positivity, and look for people who are in positions to either open doors for you or to teach you things that will help you get to the next level and the next stage of your career. Finally, last but not least, become business savvy. Law is a business.

It’s all about the dollars and cents, all right? If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense. And I’m being flippant, of course. But at end of the day, all law firms exist to make money and to help their clients do the same. And yes, there’s a lot about pro bono and CSR, and that is a very, very important part of what we do, but we can’t get away from the fundamental reason why we’re here. It’s really, really imperative that you understand the business of law.

And I find what separates really good students, really good vac scheme applicants, really good interns from average students, interns, and applicants is those who understand how we do business, who understand billing, who understand fee pressure, who understand strategy, who understand market trends. Try and understand as much of that as you can. And again, ask people, knock on doors, ask…you know, go to seminars, you know, do all of the things that you need to do to get access to that information, and try and understand the business of law and, importantly, where you fit in.

A lot of people don’t get access to the opportunities that they want, because the opportunities that they’re chasing aren’t strategic, or they don’t fit in with the strategy of the firm that they’re at. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to change what you want, but I think it’s helpful to have an understanding of how what you want and where you aspire to be fits in with the strategy of the institution that you’re in, fits in with the market, fits in with trends.

And so you understand kind of your position not just within the organization you’re in but within the sector as a whole, and you can make decisions on that basis. So really try and understand the business of law, market yourself as if you are a commodity within the business, try and always make your, you know, accomplishments shine, always try and make sure you position yourself well for opportunities, take a commercial approach to how you practice and how you manage your own career.

And there you have it. Those are the five tips for success for aspiring black solicitors. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Connect with us on all of our social media platforms. And hope to see you again soon.