Having racist abuse hurled at you in the street. Downplaying your culture to fit in. Facing repeat microaggressions in both your professional and personal life. Being a lawyer of South Asian heritage can come with a range of challenges that many others in the industry may never have to confront.
But these are just some of the grievances and experiences that, until recently, Reed Smith partners Nathan Menon and Nav Sahota felt they couldn’t even discuss, despite the sector ramping up D&I efforts.
According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s survey of the legal industry in 2021, 12% of the U.K.’s legal workforce is Asian. This is higher than the national population, where the figure stood at 8.9% in 2020, research by the Office for National Statistics showed. However, there there is a feeling that there is still a lack of diversity at the senior levels in Big Law.
As South Asian Heritage Month comes to a close in the U.K., Menon and Sahota describe their experiences and how they have been shaped by them. They include the often subtle antagonisms that South Asians in law still face, the importance of having diverse role models, and what more firms and the industry at large can do to combat race issues.
Sahota’s childhood was characterised by a vibrant culture and a sprinkling of Bollywood stars. The real estate partner’s grandparents moved to Birmingham from Punjab in the fifties. Her grandfather, with his friends, launched and helped to run cinemas in various parts of the Midlands, bringing Bollywood to the U.K. cinema scene.
“They used to get amazing Bollywood stars staying with them,” she said, recalling meeting Indian cinema greats Sridevi and Anupam Kher during her childhood.
But, on entering the legal profession in the early 2000s, Sahota didn’t always feel like she could be herself, saying there was no one who looked like her. One of very few ethnic minority lawyers in London at the time, she had a hard time understanding why she felt she was being discriminated against.
“When I joined law, I would often think: Am I being discriminated against because I’m a woman or because I’m South Asian? I could just feel that I was pretty discriminated against but I couldn’t really figure out why,” the real estate partner explained.
She recalled being “overwhelmed” at joining a profession where very few peers and leaders looked like her. Microaggressions she faced included the assumption that, as a South Asian woman, she’d prioritise family over long-term career aspirations, which she said has put her on edge, and carrying the burden of “otherness”.
As a result, she found herself suppressing parts of her identity in the workplace as a junior lawyer, opting not to discuss her cousin’s weddings or religious festivals she went to during her weekends.
“I’d iron it out and be generic,” she added, “to make my difference less different”.
Joining Reed Smith as a senior associate from Dentons in 2010, according to LinkedIn, Sahota was made up to partner in 2019.
Sahota’s focus is mainly in the hotel and leisure and financial services sectors, with longstanding clients including Indian-born British businessmen the Reuben Brothers. In 2018, she advised the duo on their £300 million purchase of the Burlington Arcade from New York property group Thor Equities and European private equity firm Meyer Bergman.
Today, Sahota believes leadership is more representative. Her key advice to junior South Asian lawyers is to lean on fellow South Asians in the industry, as nowadays there are many more mentors, sponsors and clients that can offer guidance and support.
Growing up, racial abuse was a common occurrence for Menon. Being called the ‘P-word’ when walking down the street as a university student is just one of countless examples.
“Every time I get on a plane, whether it’s a business trip or personal holiday, it’s always an additional security check,” he explained. He feels that many people do not appreciate that South Asian professionals, be it lawyers or in other areas, regularly experience racism.
“It’s real and it hurts,” he said, reflecting on his experiences.
The murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Abery in the U.S. made Menon reassess his own relationship with race, mirroring the movement in the legal industry where conversations on racism and inclusion were being heard—sometimes for the first time.
He explained that it was “an awakening in terms of me being open and talking to people about my experience as a South Asian, and making clear to them why I held certain beliefs or why I did things a certain way”.
Menon has been with Reed Smith since the start of his career, joining as a trainee in 2013 and being promoted to partner in January. Alongside his London finance work, he advises India-based clients including Indian infrastructure company GMR Group.
While promotion of diverse talent is gaining traction, Menon says that momentum mustn’t wane.
“It can’t just be a flash in the pan. It needs to be part of a wider plan to ensure that there’s a pipeline of those candidates that can get to those positions.”
Recruitment, retention and promotion of diverse talent has long been at issue in the industry, but Raphael Mokades, founder and director of diversity recruitment specialist Rare, said in June that firms have been more successful in “diversifying their trainee intakes” in the past two years. The process will, however, “take a few years” before we see diversity at more senior levels.
Now, Menon hopes that junior South Asian lawyers feel “comfortable and confident being their authentic selves in the workplace” and advises young lawyers to “be proud of their heritage and culture” as well as seeking out professional and cultural bodies to network with people from similar backgrounds.
South Asian Heritage Month is taking place between July 8 to August 17.