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My experience as a Black junior lawyer in the City

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By Divyansh Sharma on

Ropes & Gray’s Kwasi Yeboah on training at a US law firm and how the profession can become more inclusive

“When I was schooling back in Africa, I remember being looked down upon for not being able to read and write at the same pace as my peers,” says Kwasi Yeboah, associate in the asset management group at Ropes & Gray’s London office. “One day, my mother explained that she would not let me be defined by any such labels. She sat me down and helped me study for class each day. This experience taught me that no matter where you start, you can get anywhere with the right support and training opportunities.”

Having now been qualified for a little over a year, Yeboah tells me that he very much enjoys the variety that commercial law offers. “As lawyers, our role is to help clients achieve their commercial objectives in the most efficient ways. This involves meeting the clients, learning about their businesses and the wider economic risks that might affect them. We then draft commercial agreements tailored to their specific goals,” he says.

Tailoring advice for clients is a daily part of Yeboah’s role as a funds lawyer. His team acts for a variety of clients including institutional investors, sovereign wealth funds and pension funds. On some days, he’s busy drafting subscription documents or offering circulars for clients while on others, he’s working with investors on bespoke contracts like selling their interest in an investment vehicle.

Training at US firms

During our chat, Yeboah speaks candidly about his conscious decision to apply for US law firms like Ropes & Gray. “I wanted to be doing high quality deals at a firm which would offer me great amounts of responsibility. Upon researching, it became apparent that US law firms are good at winning high volumes of private equity work,” he says.

It was the unique training style at firms like Ropes & Gray that further bolstered Yeboah’s conviction. “What I particularly like about the firm is its entrepreneurial and meritocratic culture,” he tells me. “You can offer ideas at the most junior levels, and are still allowed to implement them. I have myself been given the opportunity to organise business development events with clients and junior to mid-level associates. The firm also encourages us to have an active role in training juniors. Recently, I put together a trainee handbook with everything our new joiners need to know, and this initiative of mine has been very well received.”

The application deadline for Ropes & Gray’s 2024 Vacation Schemes is 31 January 2024

Another exciting idea that Yeboah has been able to bring to life is the launch of a new firm podcast. “I helped start Ropes Talk, a trainee podcast series aimed at giving applicants an insight into the firm culture,” he tells me. “I have interviewed leading lawyers across the firm, including Jane Rogers, our London managing partner. The fact that such senior lawyers made time for these conversations is emblematic of how much the firm cares about its emerging talent.”

There is vast amounts of structured training too, Yeboah emphasises. Ropes often conducts periodic training sessions on topics like effective writing and time management. Each week starts with a ‘hot topic session’ which provides insights into the deal work at the firm. If they need further direction with their career, lawyers also have at their perusal a ‘careers development coach’ who is a former partner or trained counsellor.

Taking stock of D&I

Law firms like Ropes & Gray are making great inroads when it comes to being inclusive of BAME lawyers. “There has been a great focus at our firm to put targeted events for Black lawyers,” says Yeboah. “We now have a Caribbean heritage group and often conduct conferences with organisations like the Black Counsel Forum. Recently, members of our policy committee flew down from across the pond to have dinner with us in London. They discussed the firm’s commitment to diversity and its future plans. We are also routinely encouraged to develop our capabilities and merit, something that underrepresented groups often struggle with.”

While there is a great amount of focus on recruitment, it is the ‘retention’ of BAME employees that concerns Yeboah.

“Once you have diverse talent in the door, we also need to support them to develop at par with their colleagues,” he says. “Sometimes, diverse talent finds it difficult to fit within a workplace. Minorities naturally have less in common with their peers and this might invariably trickle down to work allocation. This means they can be overlooked, even unintentionally so, when it comes to allocating quality work or client exposure. These are the problems we need to start addressing.”

‘The experience is what you make of it’

Yeboah leaves me with some advice for aspiring and junior lawyers who belong to minority groups. “It is a challenging and high-performing environment. Therefore, you would not be in the room if you did not have the attributes required to excel in this role,” he says. “The struggle might be challenging but you can take comfort in the fact that there are people like you who have gone through similar hurdles and want to help you. Make sure to reach out to them if you need any help or support.”

Yeboah also advises that students own up their experiences and sell themselves fully when making applications. “The experience is going to be unique for everyone. You will have your own journey, which will add unique skills to your personality. This will likely look different when compared with your colleagues, but that is what makes your candidature stronger! Make use of your own unique skills to your advantage,” he says. “You would have been told all sorts of things about what you can and cannot do. But if you keep at it and give every single opportunity your best shot, you are bound to succeed.”

Kwasi Yeboah will be speaking at ‘Black lawyers share their stories — with Ropes & Gray‘, an in-person student event taking place TODAY. This event is fully booked, but check out our upcoming events here.

The application deadline for Ropes & Gray’s 2024 Vacation Schemes is 31 January 2024

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