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When I qualified as a solicitor some of my colleagues had never worked with a black person before, now I’m a partner

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By The Careers Team on

David Carter, a private equity specialist at Ashurst, shares his story

“I don’t regard race as a problem that I’ve had to overcome,” says David Carter, a partner at Ashurst. “In fact, in some instances I’ve been able to use it to my advantage.”

One of three black kids in his school alongside his brother, Carter has long been aware of his ethnicity and knew it wouldn’t be any different if he entered the white-dominated world of law. His reason for striving to get into the profession was essentially his desire to find a job. In the 1990s, when Carter had just graduated with a law degree from Warwick University and was training to be a solicitor, law was not as high profile as it perhaps is now (certainly not the money, anyway). It was steady and secure. He explains:

“People worked in law firms because they wanted to practice law as opposed to seeking a well-paid career, so the people I ended up studying with tended to be very driven. When I got [to my first firm] I realised the deals were exciting, the people were exciting — it was a massive cultural step up for me. If you could do the job you were respected and valued on the team, and I could do the job. I got on with the partners and I always looked forward to going to work.”

Carter doesn’t believe his ethnicity was a barrier either to his entry or to his progression, though when he started out in the City, some of his colleagues had never worked with black lawyers, nor female lawyers, before. He never experienced overt racism at work, though he concedes that unconscious bias can have severe consequences for the inclusion and retention of diverse groups. He also wondered whether the taxis that drove straight past him when he was making his way home from a late night at the office in the 90s would have stopped for a white man.

Carter has climbed his way up the corporate law ranks and is a partner in Ashurst’s private equity practice in London as well as co-chair of the City outfit’s private equity industry group. His race hasn’t hindered him, he argues, and, in some instances, has helped him. He says:

“Being one of the few black partners in the firm has given me greater profile.”

Despite Carter’s optimism, he is concerned that few black lawyers reach his level of seniority. Ultimately, law firms are naturally conservative and are led by the needs of their clients. Because of this, firms sometimes feel they have to hire safe bets and, unfortunately, the safest bets are often those whom the staff at the firm already know or are familiar with — “that’s the hardest bit to stray from”.

“Diversity is essential, law firms realise this and of course they need to be more reflective of society,” Carter, from Barnet, tells Legal Cheek Careers, “the hardest part is putting that into practice.”

What “into practice” means at Ashurst is operating a “clear filtering system”, recruiting gender/ethnicity-blind and embracing initiatives like PRIME.

“Some people, from their applications, look to be very clever and interesting people but perhaps have never had the opportunity to shine. Others have had plenty of opportunity and have got lots of work experience in law and business. It’s about finding that balance of candidates,” Carter tells us.

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While initiatives at graduate recruitment level set the groundwork, Carter thinks it’s important to embrace and support black talent throughout the training process and beyond. At Ashurst, black minority ethnic (BME) lawyers enjoy a multiculturalism network called ‘All at Ashurst’. The firm is marking Black History Month with a series of events and talks “to celebrate and remember the achievements black people have made in the past few centuries”, as Carter puts it.

While the importance of these initiatives cannot be downplayed, there’s no quick fix for the lack of black solicitors at partner level. Firms recruit less laterally so it takes time for the graduate recruitment efforts of today to be seen in the senior ranks of tomorrow. Unfortunately, getting there is a slow process. If you try and buy in diversity, then it’s not genuine, Carter says: “No one wants to feel like they’ve been taken on just as a token. This wouldn’t build into the inclusive nature of a team-based business.”

Arguably, what matters is less the pace of change and more the direction of travel. On this, he’s hopeful:

“In the US there is greater diversity. Firms are businesses, and businesses need to work. Businesses staffed by diverse workforces work better and ultimately win more work; being more diverse is a critical step forward.”

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