Our series of Diversity Matters events have highlighted the importance of having many different types of people and backgrounds within the workplace. Today we’re talking to one of the speakers from our first event, Shanika Varga-Haynes. Alumna Shanika shares how she became a diversity advocate and her insights into the improvements diversity can have in the legal sector.
By Cara Fielder. Published 5 May 2021. Last updated 5 January 2022.
I completed the LPC at The University of Law in York. I did my training contract with Stowe Family Law LLP and stayed with them upon qualification. I was recently promoted to Senior Solicitor and I have been there for six years in total. We are the largest specialist family law firm in the country.
Most of my cases are divorce, financial matters and child matters. I also act for clients in injunction proceedings and have recently branched into private adoptions. I guide clients through the legal process of divorce and advise them on the financial consequences of a marriage breakdown. This can be as simple as making sure the agreement they have reached between themselves is legally binding to issuing court proceedings and representing them throughout. I also advise clients in relation to child arrangements upon seperation and have acted for stepparents wanting to adopt their stepchild. My job involves doing all the case preparation in the background, but also appearing in court for clients.
The legal industry has a long way to go when it comes to diversity but events like Diversity Matters are part of the push for change. It’s vital that in such an important sector, everyone is represented and protected equally. That hasn’t always been the case. The legal system is arguably the backbone of this country, so those in it should properly represent society.
Wellbeing is at the core of everything. If you aren’t physically and mentally well both your personal and professional life will be impacted. The industry is well known for being intense and pressured. The figures for those suffering with anxiety, depression and burnout are shocking and yet progression hasn’t been anywhere near as fast as it should have been.
Education and awareness from the outset is key and that is why events for students and practitioners are so important. If those entering the sector had the tools to protect their wellbeing, we should see an improvement in the health of the industry as a whole in the future.
Representation is so important, especially in the current climate and with the events of 2020 pushing issues that were once ignored or shied away from to the forefront. Now is the time to really force change. The legal sector should represent society and arguably it doesn’t right now.
Growing up I didn’t see people who looked like me doing my job. I was raised to believe I could do whatever I set my mind to. However, if I had actually seen people achieve what I wanted to, it would have felt more doable. I remember the raised eyebrows when I would tell people what I wanted to be when I was older. Had I paid more attention to those looks, I might not have pushed on. That’s largely down to how stubborn I am but not everyone is built that way.
Increased diversity will ensure the industry evolves and changes with the times. By having a more diverse sector the law will be more reflective of society and will better represent those within it. We all have different perspectives, and can each bring something important to the table. By ensuring there is increased diversity we also ensure the progression of the sector by encouraging the sharing of new ideas and viewpoints.
I became a diversity advocate by drawing on my personal experience. I recognised that there was a need for people to speak out more about how they feel and share their journey. I joined the Leeds Law Society as a Director last year and that’s when I really found my voice. The society has a prestigious history and a dynamic board of directors. We are connected to key decision makers across the city, across the region and across the country. It gives me a huge platform and great exposure to talk about things I am passionate about. The Leeds Law Society has set up a diversity and inclusion sub-committee which I am part of – we ran our first conference in September which was a huge success. I first properly opened up about my experience during that conference and realised the power in being honest about my own difficulties.
My firm has also supported my endeavours, giving me the freedom to speak out and put my time and energy into important initiatives. Without that support and understanding, it would be very difficult to do my day job and advocate for wellbeing and better diversity in the law.
The most important thing is finding a passion, that’s the hardest bit. Once you find an area that you feel strongly about the rest falls into place.
Students can support diversity by not being afraid to speak up if they feel something isn’t right. You have a voice that should be heard, so be brave and voice your opinions. Educate yourself, your friends and family. Demand that those around you do better. Attend and support events like this. Think about setting up your own initiatives.
Students are the future. Change has to start from the ground up. The only way this generation is going to see a workforce that properly represents them and protects their interests is by forcing and championing change, by building a workplace they want to be a part of.
It’s everyone’s responsibility to force change but a new generation who wont allow current issues to continue is going to carry a lot of weight. They are the future of the legal system.
However, we have a collective responsibility to force change. The onus isn’t on one group of people to bring about a much needed and necessary shift. We need to be allies and supporters of diversity, otherwise we are never going to see meaningful progression that we all so desperately need.
Couldn’t make the event? Watch the talks on The University of Law YouTube channel.
Our next event in the series, Diversity Matters – Mental Health, is on 13th May at 6:00pm – 8:00pm (GMT+1 or BST). For further information and to register your attendance for this free-of-charge event, please check your student email.