An interview with Laura Durrant: Diversity, equity and inclusion in the business of law.

Burford Capital’s Hannah Howlett and Chief Executive Officer of the Black Talent Charter Laura Durrant discuss the Charter’s mission and how to move the needle regarding diversity in the legal profession.

Hannah Howlett: Laura, thank you for joining us today. To start off, before becoming CEO of the Black Talent Charter, you were head of litigation at RBS and a partner in the litigation practice of White & Case. We know there's a diversity gap in law, but do you believe there's an even bigger diversity gap in commercial disputes in particular, and if so, why?

Laura Durrant: That's a very big question, and in some ways, it's not until now with the Black Talent Charter, that I'm taking a bit of a step back, that I'm really equipping myself to answer it. I trained, qualified and worked for many years in the commercial litigation, investigation and regulatory sector. And it's fair to say that the diversity gap was quite obvious and apparent. I saw more diversity coming through with my generation, since I started in the early 2000s. A lot of those people I knew and worked with no longer work in law, so I saw first-hand the stay gap. Looking up when I was junior and looking across as I became more senior, the gap is very apparent as it relates to Black partners and senior associates for lots of reasons—and there's increasing research on this.

If you look for example at the commercial bar in England, you have a disproportionate number of Black lawyers working in the lowest paying areas, for example criminal justice and immigration. One can speculate about the reasons for that, but I think we need to understand a lot more on an individual and on a collective, systemic basis what those barriers are, and that's one of the things that we at the Black Talent Charter want to do.

HH: Could you tell us a bit about the Black Talent Charter and how it works?

LD: The Black Talent Charter was conceived in 2019 by Harry Matovu KC, who is a senior barrister, and Michael Eboda, who set up and runs Powerful Media Ltd. and is responsible for the Black Power List. They perceived that there was a lack of focus specifically on issues related to Black talent. Come 2020, with the murder of George Floyd, everyone began to focus in a way that they hadn't previously. A bit like the Women in Finance Charter, the idea at that stage was to focus attention on Black talent specifically and require organizations who were signatories and supporters to sign commitments.

This has evolved quite a lot since then because it's fine to sign commitments, but it is a really difficult agenda that no one organization can solve in isolation. It's really complex, the history of race, the way that we've mapped race onto social, political, economic realities, et cetera. The Black Talent Charter is about being a hub of best practice, ideas and collaboration, with no intention to overlap with anything that's already going on in the sector. Rather, it is to afford signatories new answers to what might work, opportunities to collaborate and a needed focus on the Black talent within organizations. The Charter also gives Black professionals opportunities to meet each other and network. I certainly have found that powerful throughout my career; networking with people with shared experiences and building networks in that way. So doing that and just giving people focused opportunities and really exciting programs. We want to do all of that and commission research and work with the academic world. We have huge ambitions. The last bit of it now, is still asking people to sign commitments, but really making sure that they are nuanced and right for their individual organizations and how they want to proceed, because we have small signatories, very large signatories and signatories spanning the world and there are complexities to that. We're going to work alongside signatories to make sure that they're being really challenging in the context in which they operate.

HH: You are obviously aware of the 1% study. What are some of the key findings of that from your perspective?

LD: Yes, and Extense did a brilliant job with the 1% study (which found that fewer than 1% of partners at firms with more than 10 solicitors are Black). I think it was very well-characterized to get the right kind of attention, and you can't argue with the data. One percent compared to three-plus percent in the general UK working population is unacceptable, and you could really see the differentials in terms of the way that different races, ethnicities are represented in law firms.

The core finding was: It's not good enough and there aren't enough ideas to affect change, despite certainly 10 years of focus generally on race, if not 20 in some organizations, but what has been done so far has not worked. It has not translated into partnerships.

A lot of firms are working with organization Pirical[1] on work allocation. And there are lots and lots of complex factors that were drawn out by that report including profile, work allocation and bias in systems around sponsorship. There are complex issues here that need to be looked at. I see that as a really important wake-up call for the legal sector to the extent it needed it.

HH: Which it definitely did. Finally, in your view, what kinds of diversity and inclusion initiatives are needed to move the needle in professional services and in particular, in Big Law?

LD: It's a really good question. There's a lot that's been going on, certainly over the last few years, and I think we have moved if I look at my career. I've been working for 20 years now, and we've moved from celebratory events during things like Black History Month and Pride Month to more challenging discussions, bringing people in to discuss different moments in time and to shine light on different areas. We've had unconscious bias training, I've attended quite a lot of that in my career, and we moved into more overt anti-racism training. I perceive that certainly post-2020, we're now in a world of allyship training, and the fundamental thing is: That's not going to be enough unless you see, accept and fix the wider systemic problems. All of that is absolutely necessary, but there has to be a much more concerted effort to help organizations understand what will evolve their culture in a way that works for everyone so that they can recruit, retain and promote the best people for the job that represent the society they exist within fairly, while supporting a much wider ecosystem of ideas and organizations working in this space.

There's been huge amounts of work over the years in the charitable sector, and I'm the trustee of an organization called Action for Race Equality. Action for Race Equality has been operating for 30 years across multiple sectors, particularly the education sector, and you've got lots of different organizations that all come at this from different directions.

That's why the Black Talent Charter wants to be a hub for collaboration and best practices—so that we can come up with some new ideas that are much bigger than any one organization.


Laura Durrant is CEO of the Black Talent Charter. She was formerly Head of Litigation, Regulatory and Investigations at RBS and a partner at White & Case.

About the moderator

Hannah Howlett

Vice President

+44 (0)203 995 1364

Hannah Howlett is a Vice President on Burford’s asset recovery team. Prior to joining Burford, she was a litigation associate at Peters & Peters Solicitors, where she specialized in civil fraud matters.