As we are at the end of Black History Month and approaching the end of another year of seismic change in UK life, I thought it’s necessary to reflect on what it means to be Black, a solicitor, and in a senior position in the workplace.
Black is just a skin colour, but it is not how I solely identify myself. A young man, a friend, a father, and a colleague.
I am, or think? I am attentive and thoughtful, confident, energetic, a good listener with a good memory, proud to be Black, and always keen to challenge myself and others and boundaries. Some of these are qualities that have served me well in life, and some of them have led me to make mistakes. But that’s life and it is always, for anyone full of adversity and triumphs. I do reflect and wonder why and how I am where I am today. Also, to be open about my route from being a kid to a man, studying law, and being a lawyer.
For a start, I’d never have called myself Geoffrey, but my parents gave my brothers and I all traditional English names to try and make our experiences as black children easier. As they were immigrants from Ghana in the 1960s (Dad) and early 1970s (Mum). My parents came from modest beginnings in life, however, my Dad had Akan tribe and royal lineage, and their hard work, not only gave my brothers and I a good start in life but also instilled in our drive, a strong work ethic, and determination to achieve and succeed. Another thing instilled in me was a strong pride in our background and history. The importance of knowing where you have come from, to know who you are, and what path you want to take in life.
My primary school life was in my opinion, the standard for a north London boy in a state school until a certain teacher – a Mr. Canning- started to take note of my sometimes “challenging” behaviour, but also my ability to learn quickly and remember lots. My mum was a stickler in ensuring we all did lots of reading at home, and is still fiercely proud today of my ability to read a book on my own by 5 years old! Before I knew it, 1991 was the year and I was applying for, and heading off to Hertfordshire, for a secondary school. This was in a totally different environment to what I was used to. I went from being in a very diverse school, to being clearly in the minority with only two or three black children in my year group and related year groups. I remember having what some folks would today call a “Ted talk” from a fellow black pupil telling me all of the nuances of the school, ordeals, certain peers and factions, and also reminding me I was different and would stand out being black and the youngest in my year group.
My aim, without really knowing it, and on reflection, was to enlighten the “black experience” to those who I was surrounded and went to school with. I threw myself into other School activities such as drama and musicals, mooting, and the good old Combined Cadet Force.
The thought of studying law, and being a lawyer, was met with a little derision and scepticism by my sixth form tutor, someone who had taught me in class and on the rugby field for at least five years. In their humble opinion, I did not have the aptitude, discipline, and perseverance to study and then train as a lawyer. Never one to back down, or be told I cannot do something, I promptly applied to study law, and here I am today!
I see BHM as an opportunity for black people to seize the initiative and shape the topics of conversation, from educating people (including the younger black generation) about sensitive issues such as colonialism, slavery and its enduring impact on present-day race relations, to highlighting and promoting black role models whose sacrifices have made a positive impact on society. For me, a time to seize the initiative in terms of becoming a lawyer, happened at school when faced with my sixth form career, University and life choices.
So, you can say my story is one of perseverance and self-belief, but not without failure or huge obstacles to overcome, and at times doubt. Getting into law school and achieving good grades at A-Level was no bother, however, the journey to real-life law and practice is never smooth sailing for anyone, let alone someone with no links to the profession. Having a very good memory only gets you so far, and application, planning, attention to detail, empathy and emotional intelligence, timing, hard work and foresight are all qualities every solicitor needs to hold dear.
Part of my work now and with BHM is to celebrate all things blackness and show society and the black community that we should access the world of law, and impart history, discussion about black history, and sensitive issues around race and society, while also impacting positively on a well-respected profession. Make it count I say, and nothing good is ever rushed, but be a force of change and impact. To appreciate, and to try and be a part of change to enable our profession to reflect society.
AND ALWAYS BACK YOURSELF!
We are all different and should enable all individuals of colour, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or disabilities, with talent and drive to work in our profession. In many ways, this change and change for myself away from in-house practice is what has led me to Ackroyd Legal (London), and the opportunity to work in management. You also need some good fortune and did find in my early career, somehow, I was always making the wrong calls in terms of who I aligned myself with to be able to prove myself in private practice. My late father always said to me “not all coats are cut from the same cloth” and “no two hands are equal”, and over the years of being in the profession I have learned that. Particularly in some very torrid times when making the jump from a naive NQ (Newly Qualified) solicitor into the City, and during the credit crunch when a jump from a stable job to a new practice was foolhardy.
All those who work tirelessly to increase the diversity within the profession are inspirational. But most of all I am inspired by the many black and ethnic minority men and women, boys and girls who chose to make a career in law and who persevere with that dream. I want to reflect to society that men and women of colours, religion, creed, sexual orientation, gender and ability, can reach senior positions in the workplace. With that, I’m off to wrestle billing and drafting of a notice – a private practice lawyer’s life!