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Black History Month Q&A: Naomi Tarawali, Cleary Gottlieb

In celebration of Black History Month, Cleary partner Naomi Tarawali shared her perspectives on her legal career during a recent conversation with Legal Business.

Did you always want to become a lawyer?

No, absolutely not. It was a little bit of an accidental path of discovery for me. When I was deciding on what I wanted to study at university, I couldn’t really decide on the subjects out of the A-Levels I was studying, so I started thinking about other things. I looked into law and, I thought, ‘Oh, this sounds interesting’. So unfortunately, I’m not one of those people who always knew I wanted to do this, but I do like it now.

Tell us a bit about your journey from trainee to partner.

When people ask me why I moved to Cleary, it was just curiosity on my part. I really enjoyed the disputes work but wanted to see if I could do a broader range of work, with different people and at a different firm. Cleary was a really great move for me, both professionally and personally. When you train at a firm and stay, there are so many benefits but there’s also some growth that can come if you choose to move at some point.

How can the legal profession be more inclusive and diverse, and what steps can be taken to increase the representation of black lawyers?

It’s a big question. I always start these answers by saying it’s important to recognise that lots has been done, but we’re not done. I have increasingly come to the view that there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer – it depends on the firm, people, and environment. There just aren’t that many senior black lawyers. But the senior black lawyers that do exist, I’m always really impressed by the way they pull juniors up. They don’t do the typical thing of pulling up the ladder and it’s always been inspirational to see. But it doesn’t work if we leave it up to that group of people to improve things.

There are two things that could be done. Firstly, think about how you improve diversity in recruitment. In your recruitment processes, there’s lots of tools out there and there’s not really an excuse for not being thoughtful about it. Secondly, if you get diverse lawyers in, you need to think about how you’re able to motivate them, retain them and make them feel like it’s an environment for them to stay and thrive in.

Have you encountered any specific obstacles or biases in your legal career related to your race, and how have you overcome them?

The short answer is ‘yes’, but the interesting thing about this question is not always knowing. There may have been a decision made, or you may have had certain opportunities or not. It’s really challenging to be questioned about why that might have been, and some people will never have to face that question. The difficulty is thinking: ‘Was this about my race? Or because of something else, like my age or because I’m female?’

I don’t think there’s an easy way to overcome that. Two things have really helped me. Firstly, having supportive mentors and seniors, who have really invested in me and spent time encouraging me. Secondly, a showing a little bit of grit and trying harder to stay here and hopefully make a space that’s easier for someone else who has similar issues to come into. It’s not a simple fix but that’s what I do in my small world in the grand scheme of things.

What advice do you have for aspiring black lawyers who want to enter the profession?

Do it. I know that’s overly simplistic, but if you look and don’t necessarily see yourself represented at various levels of the profession, then I would say try not to let that put you off. It looks a lot different today than when I started. I’m hopeful that in another 10 to 12 years, it’s going to look a lot different again than it does today. And part of that is because there are people who have been able to say, ‘I really deserve and want to be in this space’. You may not see people who look like you, but you will be able to find people who will stand beside you and understand aspects of you. You might need 10, or even 15 people to invest in your journey but you will find people to encourage you along the way. So, I would say if you’re keen on the field, do it and try not to be put off by the current state of affairs. It’s evolving, and you can be part of that evolution. This might sound a bit overly positive, and I don’t mean to downplay what are really very serious issues. But part of the solution is encouraging people to come and encouraging people to stay.