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The University of Law’s first online Diversity Matters event attracts a passionate audience

The University of Law’s (ULaw) first online Diversity Matters event in partnership with the Black Solicitors Network (BSN) was held on Thursday, 26 November 2020. More than 122 attendees joined a number of influential campaigners and advocates who came together to highlight the importance of different branches of diversity. We were delighted at how passionate the attendees were, speaking out and making their voices heard, as well as asking challenging questions.

The University of Law’s Head of Access and Participation Dr Morag Duffin hosted the evening and kicked things off by highlighting our own levels of diversity. “Black, Asian and minority students make up for over half of our undergraduate cohort and 40 per cent of our postgraduate cohort.” She went on to share that 21 per cent of our UG students and 33 per cent of our PG students are mature. Some 53 per cent of our UG and 33 per cent of ULaw students come from a relative area of deprivation (IMD Q1&2). She said ULaw’s aim was to eliminate the BAME attainment gap by 2031 for undergraduates.

Dr Duffin then introduced Paul McFarlane, director at The Black Solicitors Network and partner at Capsticks. He said, “It is vital that the legal profession reflects, at all levels, the community it serves; otherwise there is a risk of you alienating those communities and groups that are underrepresented.” He then explained, “For the first time in my career, I’ve seen employers wanting to be actively seen as anti-racist. This has involved them putting out statements on the subject and actively engaging with their staff in conversations about race.”

Matthew Jones, an associate solicitor in real estate at Weightmans LLP and vice president of Leeds Law Society, went on to talk about being an LGBTQ+ Solicitor in 2020. He advised legal practitioners to bring their authentic selves to work. “I am a gay man, and I work in the legal sector. Those are words that I would never have said when I started my legal career back in 2011. But now, I am proud to do so.”

Yasmin Sheikh, founder of Diverse Matters and vice-chair of Lawyers with Disabilities, spoke about the importance of disability and diversity in the workplace and gave examples from her personal journey. “I had both a good boss and a bad boss. I had a bad boss who told me within weeks of returning to work, Yasmin if I employed everyone with your disability the business would collapse. I’ve got the same problem with part-time women workers. If I employed all of them, the business would collapse too. Needless to say, this guy did not get diversity.”

Catherine Woodward, a solicitor at Gordons LLP, discussed social mobility in the law and her experiences over the years. While discussing education and background she explained: “The assumption always seems to be that you’re at that level where the more privileged people are, and there’s quite often not any effort to understand the differences that may be present in other people or any effort to make people feel comfortable in the topics of conversation. There’s also some assumptions that people have had the same opportunities, which may not be the case.”

Isaac Eloi, a solicitor, co-founder of the Black Men in Law Network and winner of the UK Diversity Legal Awards Rising Star for Entrepreneurship Award 2018, talked about coming into yourself and claiming what you deserve while Black, LGBTQ and/or disabled. He shared “My educational experience was tricky. I remember, thinking back, some teachers on non-uniform days looking at the back of my t-shirts, and they’d want to see where I might buy clothes from. The reason they did that was because people couldn’t believe that you could have black children who would be well dressed or relatively presentable.”

Bavita Rai, a partner and the National Gender Diversity Lead at Weightmans LLP looked at the progress women have made and how far they have come in the industry. She noted how she has learnt to speak up – “I remember being in meetings and I would say something and then the same point was made by a male colleague and suddenly it becomes this phenomenal idea. I now call that out.”

Shanika Varga-Haynes, a senior solicitor at Stowe Family Law & Director of Leeds Law Society, spoke passionately about improving wellbeing in the legal sector. “The legal industry has a disproportionately high number of lawyers suffering from anxiety, depression, burnout and suicidal thoughts.” She added: But often it’s hard to even admit to ourselves that something is wrong, let alone tell anyone else. The hardest thing is saying I need help but actually sometimes that’s the most important thing that you can say.”

Yetunde Dania, partner and head of the Birmingham office at Trowers & Hamlins, Yetunde spoke about the need for diversity in the legal profession. “Diversity is needed because a diverse profession brings about diversity of thought, diversity of experience and of course, innovation.”

Scott Halliday, an associate family law solicitor at Irwin Mitchell LLP, is ranked as a rising star and quoted as an expert in LGBT family law. He spoke on LGBT family law, human rights and being a gay man in a large national law firm. He advised students to pass opportunities on when they find them. “Part of your obligation, I would suggest, is as you grow and become successful, that you look back and try and bring other people along with you.”

ULaw would like to thank everyone, speakers and attendees, who participated in our first Diversity Matters event and made it such a resounding success.