Interview : Funke Abimbola, Award winning lawyer
Photo : Funke Abimbola, one of the most senior black lawyers in the UK
FUNKE HAS WORKED AS A CORPORATE LAWYER BOTH IN THE CITY AND WITHIN REGIONAL LAW FIRMS. SHE JOINED ROCHE IN 2012 AND IS A RECOGNISED LEGAL EXPERT. A ROLE MODEL TO MANY, SHE REGULARLY SPEAKS AT DIVERSITY EVENTS AND IS A REAL CHAMPION FOR UP AND COMING TALENT IN THE LEGAL SECTOR. IT’S BEEN QUITE A YEAR FOR FUNKE, SHE WAS RECENTLY AWARDED A POINT OF LIGHT AWARD BY THE UK PRIME MINISTER AND SHE’S JUST BEEN PROMOTED TO THE NEWLY CREATED ROLE OF GENERAL COUNSEL AND HEAD OF FINANCIAL COMPLIANCE AT ROCHE. SHE’S ALSO A JUDGE FOR OUR UPCOMING #THISISME AWESOME100 AWARDS – LUCKY US!
Are there still barriers that prevent or make it harder for women to progress up the ranks in the legal profession?
Absolutely, barriers still do exist for women lawyers and progression to the more senior ranks.
Unfortunately, societal conditioning means that women are not encouraged to be assertive or to self-promote yet this is very important to be successful in business. Women are judged very differently and less favourably when they demonstrate those behaviours (compared to men) so are less likely to put themselves forward. We struggle to be effective networkers yet networking is a core part of career progression as it improves visibility. I do a lot of work supporting women lawyers through the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division and our main focus is on networking. Women lawyers can also be very confused about what form of leadership style to adopt.
Another issue is that, because carer responsibilities tend to fall more on women than men, women are far more likely than men to need to work more flexibly. Yet the concern is that, by asking to work flexibly, you would be considered to be less committed to your job and, therefore, your career. So many women lawyers simply do not bother to put in a flexible working request and end up leaving law firms altogether, a real loss of talent and potential. Sadly, career progression within law firms is still all too often linked to those who are seen as being free of personal commitments and always available to clients. Women lawyers really lose out because of this.
How can we remove these barriers?
Focused leadership coaching and mentoring for women lawyers is key to upskill women and help them to be more assertive, to promote themselves more and to network more effectively. The work with the Women Lawyers Division is a good example of this. I also coach and mentor women lawyers at all stages of their development and my main message is that they need to be more bold and courageous in pursuing their goals.
The business model and culture in law firms also needs to change. There should be more of a focus on driving value for clients rather than looking solely at chargeable hours as being the value proposition for clients. A focus on chargeable hours rewards inefficiency, in my opinion. As a client to law firms, I do a lot of work influencing other senior in-house lawyers to push for this change.
Agile working needs to be fully embraced without any stigma attached to it. Men are increasingly just as likely to want to work flexibly as women. There is so much technology available to enable agile working and there is no reason to be present in the office at all hours to meet client needs. Truly driving a cultural shift along these lines would make a real difference for women lawyers.
“Unfortunately, societal conditioning means that women are not encouraged to be assertive or to self-promote yet this is very important to be successful in business.”
Men have a role to play in this too?
Yes, men certainly do have a role to play in this. I do not believe we will see true progress without gender balance – engaging men is a core part of the solution to the problem and I am fully committed to UN Women’s He For She campaign because of this. Men and women need to be sharing carer responsibiities, for example.
I also know that research shows that those male leaders with wives who work and those who have daughters tend to be more supportive of women in the workplace. Those men less comfortable with female leaders (and, unfortunately, there are still plenty of them out there) need to be supported in over-coming their personal biases surrounding this.
Have you ever experienced or witnessed racism?
Yes, I did experience racism when I was entering the legal profession. Despite a good law degree, stellar grades and only needing to secure 6 months pre-qualification experience (usually, the Law Society requires 2 years training before you qualify), I struggled to secure the 6 months’ experience. An element of this was, undoubtedly, due to the fact that I have an obviously African name. I decided to cold-call the corporate partners at law firms directly to secure interviews and was able to get the 6 months’ experience that way. Once they heard me on the phone and met me in person, it was a different story.
I also experienced racism when I went for a job interview for a corporate solicitor role. The receptionist assumed I was there to interview for a secretarial position, simply because I was a black woman. She was very embarrassed when I explained that I was there to interview for the solicitor’s role. This is more unconscious bias than racism but assumptions were made about me simply because I was a black woman. Similarly, having started working at one firm, I remember meeting an IT colleague for the first time who assumed that I had to be a paralegal and was visibly surprised when I confirmed that I was a senior solicitor.
Photo : Funke was named ‘Inspirational Member of the Year’ at our 2015 Inclusive Networks Awards
Is enough being done in schools, in sport, in our communities…in the working environment…to tackle racism?
There are certainly a number of organisations that exist to try and change perceptions and mindsets around this. For example, I am a speaker for Speakers4Schools, focusing on providing motivational talks to state school children. My talk is always about my personal leadership journey and race issues are a part of that. However, there are so many deeply ingrained societal issues linked to racism that I do wonder if the government is struggling because of this.
There are different race issues faced by each ethnic group, for example. Law Society statistics confirm that, even within the BAME community, African solicitors are three times less likely to progress to partner compared to their Asian colleagues.
My solution would be to establish a government-backed diversity organisation focusing not only on race but also other barriers posed by under-represented groups. Each diversity strand would have multiple initiatives focusing on school children, University/higher education students, entry-level candidates, qualified professionals etc.. I would see this organisation working closely with the Department of Education and other government departments, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, charitable organisations and social enterprises focused on each diversity strand and cohort. There would be partnering with organisations that focus on providing work experience to disadvantaged students. For example, I would dearly love to see the legal profession’s PRIME initiative made more broadly available outside the legal profession – it is a great model that works, securing valuable work experience for school students within the legal profession.
Unfortunately, I am not sure that such a co-ordinated initiative exists and am regularly frustrated by the duplication of effort in some areas and the way in which other areas of need remain unmet.
You’ve been bestowed with many awards over the last few years, a huge achievement. What role do you think reward and recognition initiatives like the National Diversity Awards, Inclusive Networks Awards and Precious Awards play in moving diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace and beyond forward? What do awards mean to you?
It has been a real honour and the awards mean a lot to me because they always highlight the core issues that I am championing. This visibility is essential in influencing change. Each award nomination or win generates a lot of publicity, creating more opportunities for me to speak out on the diversity issues that I am wanting to change. They increase my influence and make me an even more credible diversity campaigner. More visibility leads to more opportunities – I have met so many inspiring people at various awards ceremonies and have learnt a lot from them and vice versa. Importantly, the awards recognitions are a real encouragement to me.
I do all my diversity work on a voluntary basis on top of a demanding full time job and being a mum and often question the impact I am having because of the limited time that I can devote to my diversity work. Receiving awards has made me realise that I am making a huge impact and must continue with my efforts, a real source of encouragement to me as I juggle all my commitments.
“There is so much technology available to enable agile working and there is no reason to be present in the office at all hours to meet client needs. Truly driving a cultural shift along these lines would make a real difference for women lawyers.”
You contribute to lots of events by speaking and sharing your journey and insight…
Yes, I do a lot of public speaking and really enjoy it. I wasn’t born a natural public speaker but my father encouraged me to become one from a young age. I went to a school that took part in a lot of public speaking competitions and started doing that from the age of 13. I also had elocution lessons (encouraged by my dad) as he recognised that they way we speak can significantly change perceptions and lead to greater influence. Public speaking is a crucial part of being visible so I would encourage anyone who is a nervous public speaking to attend a course on how to speak effectively in public. I had a team member who was an outstanding talent but hated public speaking and, because of this, did not get the visibility he deserved. I encouraged him to go on a public speaking course and the transformation was extraordinary. He became a lot more confident because of this. So there is much to be gained from being a confident public speaker.
Do you ever have self-doubts professionally and personally?
I do have doubts very regularly. When I have my doubts, I will often seek the counsel of a wise friend or family member. Sometimes, speaking to my 13 year old son can also really help to put perspective on things! I have had many obstacles and challenges throughout my life and the support of family and friends has been invaluable in helping through difficult times. Sometimes, no amount of advice from loved ones can eradicate the fear that often accompanies those doubts so I have learnt to be very bold and courageous. I often ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ and this approach has served me well.
If you could be teleported back to spend ten minutes with your 16 year-old self, are there any words of advice you’d give yourself?
Not to worry so much about what people think of me and to just be myself. There is a wonderful quote about simply being who you are and saying what you feel because ‘those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind’. This would have been a great philosophy to follow as a paranoid 16 year old!
“I also experienced racism when I went for a job interview for a corporate solicitor role. The receptionist assumed I was there to interview for a secretarial position, simply because I was a black woman.”
What’s your most cherished possession?
My son’s baby album, including pictures of him when he was just hours old. My son is now 13 and continues to be a joy to behold. Key family members were at the hospital when he was born and the look on their faces holding him for the first time is priceless. I often look at that album if I’ve had a tough day and it really lifts my spirits and reminds me of what is important.
What’s your favourite place to relax and switch-off? Do you easily switch off from work?
I love just being at home as much as possible. My day job and diversity work with so many speaking engagements means that I have a lot of visibility and social interaction with many people on a daily basis. This requires a lot of energy and I really need downtime in the evenings and on weekends because of this. I do find it easy to switch off as long as I’m not constantly checking work emails in the evenings and on weekends!
FUNKE’S FAVOURITE :
“The 33” by Jonathan Franklin, because it is such an inspiring story about the 33 miners who were stuck underground after a mine collapsed in Chile and their rescue from the mine.
“A room with a view” because you can’t beat a decent period drama that begins in beautiful Tuscany.
Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa because of my love of Italian opera.
Prime Steak and Grill in St Albans because they serve the best steaks ever!
A large, cold glass of Pinot Grigio blush because it is so relaxing.
Sweet treat :
Anything chocolate flavoured, preferably a warm chocolate sponge with ice cream because this is real comfort food.