Three lawyers share their views on what’s behind the lack of racial and ethnic diversity and reveal what some law firms are doing to improve the situation.
“WHEN you go around in the big law firms and say, ‘There are no black lawyers,’ no one is shocked about it, and for me, that is the most shocking thing,” says Renata Shaw, an intellectual property lawyer in Brazil, when we discuss recent findings that reveal how few black lawyers there are working within Brazil’s most well known law firms.
Research done by the Center for Studies of Labor Relations and Inequalities (CEERT) – conducted alongside the Legal Alliance for Racial Equity and São Paulo-based global law school FGV Direito SP – found that 19% of law firm employees were black, with 10% identifying as women and 9% men. Looking at the senior levels, 11% of white employees within firms were partners, while the number of black partners stood at under 1%. These percentages were calculated using data collected from nine of Brazil’s leading law firms, which are all members of the Legal Alliance for Racial Equity. The data was gathered in November 2018 and the findings were presented in March 2019.
Robson de Oliveira, a senior lawyer at the firm Demarest (which is a member of the Alliance), tells us: “The Census conducted among employees of nine major Brazilian firms was a major step forward in addressing racial issues in Brazil and achieving equity and equality. One of the main barriers to confronting racism in Brazil has long been the lack of visibility of the black population and the gulf that separates it from opportunities, whether in the labor market or in other spheres of society.”
These findings become even more significant when we consider that Brazil has a majority black population – with 50.7% of the country (97 million) categorising themselves as black or mixed-race, compared to the 47.7% who identified as white, when the country conducted its last population census in 2010. More recent statistics show that 56% of Brazil’s approximately 208 million people identify as black.
“One of the main barriers to confronting racism in Brazil has long been the lack of visibility of the black population and the gulf that separates it from opportunities, whether in the labor market or in other spheres of society.”
Renata Shaw (speaking broadly about the legal market) believes the reason for the lack of black lawyers is that people find it hard to talk about the issue, and without acknowledgement nothing can be done to change it. Reflecting on the current level of representation, she says: “These numbers are due to structural racism, which is a difficult thing to talk about. When you talk about it, people feel that you are talking about them personally and that’s not what this is about.” She continues: “We are talking about a structure that excludes black people from moving up and we need to discuss how this happens and how this structure keeps excluding black people. We need to discuss public policy and how we can find ways to allow black people to be included. These are tough discussions, but we need to have them.”
Shaw’s belief that Brazilian law firms in general are not doing enough to address race is something Sanjiv Kapur agrees with. Kapur, American by birth with Indian heritage, is a partner at US
international law firm Jones Day, and readily acknowledges that it is rare to see even a black secretary in a law firm in Brazil, let alone a black lawyer. And although he praises Brazil as a country that’s “open, friendly and proud of its diverse mix of people,” he also explains that it’s a country that hasn’t been forced to face up to its issues concerning racial inequality, in the same way the US had to following the civil rights movement:
“In the US and other places, racism and racist animosity expressed itself in very graphic ways to the point where most educated people couldn’t stand it, and something had to change,” he says. “But Brazil’s problem is that it didn’t have the racial hatred that you saw elsewhere, which actually went on to prompt change. People have kind of gone along with the fact that we have a segregated society, but because we don’t hate each other, it’s seen as okay.”
However, it would be unfair to say that there is absolutely no discussion going on about improving racial diversity in the legal field. There are indeed law firms that have been putting initiatives in place to help address the issue. Demarest is one such firm, and as one of the oldest and most respected law firms in Brazil and Latin America, this is a good sign. Its diversity and inclusion efforts include running internal events and campaigns, as well as internal training that’s focused on racial diversity and raising awareness against racism. At the moment 14% of its employees are black.
“We are talking about a structure that excludes black people from moving up and we need to discuss how this happens and how this structure keeps excluding black people.”
Having worked his way up into a senior position at Demarest, Oliveira has become a role model for aspiring black lawyers. He regularly speaks at events and to the local press to promote racial diversity in the legal industry. “I do this because I want to change people’s mindset when it comes to black people,” he says, “so that others will not suffer in the same way I did, in having to prove more than everyone else that I was good enough.”
Oliveira and Shaw had different journeys into the law profession. Shaw reveals that she hasn’t experienced what is one of the biggest barriers for young black people who want to pursue a legal career: accessing a quality education. “My mum is a doctor and my father was a classical musician, so I had a very good education. I am an exception. I come from a good background. I also speak English and I’m confident,” she says.
In contrast, Oliveira tells us that his “family were very poor. I started working when I was 10-years-old because my father lost his job due to problems with alcohol, and I haven’t stopped working since.”
Oliveira grew up in the outskirts of São Paulo, among areas with marked levels of poverty and neglect. He started working as nursing technician to support his family, but wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. Therefore, he had to keep his job as a nurse to pay for law school; he worked from 7pm – 7am and then would go straight to school to study after his shift. He attended the Centro Universitário das Faculdades Metropolitanas Unidas – one of the best private universities in the country – and had to pass a tough entrance exam to secure his place. “I had to lock myself away and study, and even after I got in I had to constantly prove myself – prove that I deserved to be at that university,” he says.
In Brazil it is not the private, but the public higher educational institutions, funded by the federal and state governments, which tend to be of a higher calibre. These institutions are free, but, as Oliveira discovered, it is still very difficult to gain a place due to how highly competitive the entry process is. Among the applicants are those who have had a private-school education and tutoring – bestowing upon them an obvious advantage.
“I had to lock myself away and study, and even after I got in I had to constantly prove myself – prove that I deserved to be at that university.”
The Brazilian government has attempted to level the playing field in this area by using affirmative action initiatives such as the ‘Law of Social Quotas’, which was passed in 2012. It reserved half of all places at public universities for graduates from public high schools. This quota was then broken down further with half of these places then reserved for students whose families earn $443 or less a month (less than one-and-a-half times the minimum wage). In addition, another percentage of the spaces in both categories was reserved for black, brown and indigenous students – this percentage was determined by looking at the ratio of white to non-white citizens in each state.
Other programmes have subsequently been developed. One of the main ones is Incluir Direito, which is an award-winning joint project between some of Brazil’s top firms and São Paulo’s Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie; it has been designed to enhance minority students’ chances of working at a major corporate law firm by providing them with a university place and complementary upskilling and training. Oliveira’s firm, Demarest, is one of the sponsor firms for this programme. And while Brazil and its legal industry still has a long way to go – like many countries and their respective legal sectors – the presence of these steps indicates that the journey towards change has started.