Get to know the latest addition to Sidley Austin's web of affinity groups.
Can you give us a bit of a background to the Ethnic Minority Networking Group? When and why was the group created?
Kapish Davé: The group was created in 2019 but it has been particularly active since I joined the firm in July 2021. I understand the reason for the group’s creation was to give ethnic minority colleagues a collective voice and an ability to speak out on issues they feel passionately about and are relevant to their communities. It’s also a great forum for discussing new ideas to increase inclusion and awareness across the firm whilst also incorporating the social/networking element to allow ethnic minority colleagues to meet one another in an informal setting.
What are the group’s core values?
Raveena Channa: I think the group has a number of core values, including (i) building awareness, (ii) ensuring that our firm actually reflects the makeup of our wider society, (iii) increasing social mobility for those of an ethnic minority background, and (iv) building on our existing diversity & inclusion initiatives to create an established network of ethnic minority individuals within the firm.
KD: For me, the group’s core values focus on two elements – representation and inclusion. By this, I mean that the group gives individuals an ability to feel represented and proactively suggest things that can be incorporated into Sidley initiatives, such as the introduction of a London-wide religious holidays calendar which is circulated to all colleagues. This is valuable as it means as a group we are truly involved in helping maintain the firm’s global outlook, even if it’s through relatively small changes.
“Inclusion is more a ‘feeling’ and I think the group does a great job of this by bringing together colleagues across offices to discuss shared experiences and build new relationships.”
Inclusion is more a “feeling” and I think the group does a great job of this by bringing together colleagues across offices to discuss shared experiences and build new relationships. Simple initiatives, such as the firm-sponsored monthly coffee meet-ups between members of the group, are a great way to meet others and have a general catch-up, discuss life at Sidley and, really importantly, meet people you’ve not come across before.
What is the makeup of the group like? Is it just associates, or are partners involved?
Becca Chambers: Associates and trainees with a partner at the helm. Lots of different cultures, ages and ethnicities are represented in the group which means we have very lively discussions which ensure everyone is catered for and feels comfortable in the group.
RC: The group is also supported by a number of senior partners in the firm who make up the wider Diversity & Inclusion Committee, as well as other members of staff within the firm who are specifically dedicated to our firm’s Diversity & Corporate Responsibility initiatives. It feels like the initiatives and ideas that originate from the Ethnic Minority Networking Group are very associate-driven, with all ideas being welcome no matter the level of seniority or position in the firm.
KD: We are trying to more actively market the group across the firm as an “any colleague can join” group as it’s important to understand the opinions and challenges of our ethnic minority colleagues who are not lawyers.
“We consider that getting to know your colleagues does and should involve getting to know someone’s background – even if it as simple as learning about cultural aspects of a colleague’s life.”
How does the group interact with the rest of the firm?
RC: The group regularly pushes out firm-wide updates and contributes to monthly newsletters and bulletins. The group also often extends the invite for events to members outside of the group, with a view to build firmwide awareness as to the range of diverse ethnic minority backgrounds that exist within the firm. We consider that getting to know your colleagues does and should involve getting to know someone’s background – even if it as simple as learning about cultural aspects of a colleague’s life.
Does the group host any particular events or implement any initiatives?
KD: The firm hosts various events across the year from those celebrating wider initiatives such as Black History Month to the more informal, member-led monthly catch-ups and the quarterly group social.
RC: Since I joined the Networking Group, there have been so many initiatives that I’ve been involved with. One of these is the Ethnic Minority Coffee Pairings – where members of the network are given a budget to go for a coffee or other non-alcoholic beverage with someone else in the network or partners from an ethnic minority background. This has been a hugely successful initiative as it prompts members to benefit from one-on-one time with someone in your network, usually from another team, with a view to simply getting to know each other. I have had a number of these coffees now and what really stands about it is that it has not just become something that junior lawyers partake in, but there has been a lot of uptake from partners of an ethnic minority background. This naturally feels quite encouraging as it feels like there is a real drive for a community feeling “from the top.”
The network also runs the Bright Network event – which involves hosting an insight day for students of an ethnic minority background that are also members of the Bright Network – ranging from sixth form students to university students. The day comprises a number of sessions that are intended to assist with starting an education or career in law, such as introductions on commercial awareness or the life in the day of a trainee.
What has been the best part about being involved in the Ethnic Minority Networking Group?
BC: Meeting like-minded individuals and getting the chance to introduce our ideas and also socialise with each other.
KD: For me, I feel the flat structure of the group is great as it really does provide a legitimate platform to raise new ideas and suggestions. At my previous firms, I’ve sometimes experienced a process to get a relatively simple or uncontroversial idea authorised whereas here I’ve always felt we have support from those leading the firm, both in London and globally.
RC: Personally I find that there is a real sense of comfort in knowing that there is a group effort to continue to build a strong Ethnic Minority Networking Group – and also a sense of togetherness. Being from a traditionally underrepresented group (i.e. the very nature of being from a minority background), it is genuinely a great feeling to know that there are people that may have had similar experiences or thoughts to me in what can be a challenging, yet incredibly motivating, industry.
“Being part of the group has been very reassuring to my early days of imposter syndrome!”
More specifically, I started with Sidley during the pandemic and was onboarded remotely due to COVID restrictions. This was quite an odd experience and meant that I wasn’t able to meet many other people in the firm for a large part of my first year at the firm. Very quickly, a few members of the group reached out to introduce themselves and tell me more about what they do here, and it wasn’t long before I was invited to one of the group’s regular meetings. For me, this was a super valuable reach-out for two reasons. The first was that I was a new starter and by joining a firm from home, you don’t get the same opportunity to meet people organically, by bumping into them in the kitchen, for example, or having matter-related meetings in person. The second reason was that when I joined, there was clearly an instant effort to ensure that I was up to speed on the group and its goals – the same goals which have been very important to me from the minute I went to university and realised that those from an ethnic minority are very underrepresented in this industry. After turning up at my first meeting, I was encouraged by the opportunity to meet new people that are not in my team nor would I necessarily cross paths with very often and I genuinely love being able to engage with a group of people that are equally as passionate about broadening their networks from a diversity and inclusion perspective – not to mention that on a more personal level, being part of the group has been very reassuring to my early days of imposter syndrome!
Has the group achieved what it set out to do?
BC: We have achieved a lot. One of the things which I am most proud of is the introduction of the bursary to encourage social mobility for students beginning their law degrees. I think there is still so much to do, not because the group has so much energy and ideas and there is so much backing from Sidley in terms of time and resources we have a lot more that we can achieve.
“I hope that as the firm continues to employ lawyers from a diverse range of backgrounds, the group continues to grow.”
What does the future of the group look like? What do you want to achieve going forward?
RC: The group has almost doubled in the time that I have been a part of it and I can only see us going from strength to strength. I hope that as the firm continues to employ lawyers from a diverse range of backgrounds, the group continues to grow – the more perspective we have from a range of ages, backgrounds and ethnic minorities will only strengthen our ability to build on our existing initiatives and ensure we are tackling some of the mobility and access issues that the industry faces. Going forward, I would love to continue to think bigger and encourage ideas from everyone in the group – or outside the group!
How do you feel Sidley Austin is doing on the diversity front overall?
BC: I think that we are doing quite well, both on a European and a global scale. The idea of diversity and taking measures in order to increase the racial makeup of a firm is something which is more established in the States but the UK has been slow in this regard. But the murder of George Floyd and the increased focus on this globally definitely prompted all organisations, including law firms, to look at the diversity of their existing staff and also how they attract potential candidates. This is new to firms and I think the good thing about Sidley is that they are extremely receptive to our ideas and have been more than willing to commit resources to help us achieve our goals.
RC: I have worked in a number of firms and can appreciate that diversity and inclusion is a complex area to navigate. That said, Sidley has made me feel like being both diverse and inclusive are very high on the firm’s agenda, in a true and genuine way. It can often feel as if firms are engaging in a box-ticking exercise or fuelling their D&I efforts with a view to impressing clients or attract talent and, whilst there is a huge array of benefits to being more diverse and inclusive, it really feels like what drives the firm to put so much effort into this area is because it is the right thing to do for our industry and also the people in it.
What advice would you have for others who are looking to set up a similar network?
BC: Cliché but I would advise to just do it, most large law firms have significant budget for this and sometimes it is not a case of them not wanting to set up a network they just may not know how to so would appreciate the staff getting involved and leading the charge.
RC: Be receptive, open-minded and honest. Some of the issues that come up in the diversity and inclusion realm can be very awkward for people to openly talk about, so my advice would be to discourage anything that might make someone feel that they can’t be honest about their experiences – it is important to embrace the good with the bad so that we can constantly improve on the basis of feedback provided.
“It’s key to start that conversation (even if it is initially uncomfortable).”
KD: I think it’s very simple – go for it! Ethnic minority issues are often deemed to be the most sensitive and there is sometimes a stigma attached to talking about the issues. In my career, I have often heard phrases like “I’m colourblind” or “I don’t see colour” but I want people to embrace my differences – it’s an asset, especially with law being such a global and people-based business. To my mind, until we talk about these issues and challenges, we can’t address them and so it’s key to start that conversation (even if it is initially uncomfortable). I’ve always been quite outspoken about these matters and involved in the ethnic minority networks at the firms I’ve worked at and I don’t think it’s ever been a hindrance in my career.