Funke Abimbola

Funke is a black, female, single mother and the solicitor leading the UK & Ireland legal team of Roche, the world’s largest biotech company. She is currently the most senior black lawyer working in the UK pharmaceutical industry. Her legal expertise has been recognised through multiple awards and other recognitions including being the only female finalist for Most innovative European in-house lawyer (2014 Financial Times Innovative Lawyers Awards). She has overcome significant obstacles in progressing her career due to the narrow view of black women in UK society, especially single mothers. She is determined to improve the lot of those following her and recently won Career Woman of the Year at the 2015 Women4Africa awards. Persistent and tenacious, when entering the legal profession 15 years ago, she was advised to be less ambitious as corporate law was “too competitive for a black woman”. Instead, she cold-called the corporate department heads at the top 100 UK law firms and the heads of the top UK in-house legal departments with a “sales pitch” about herself confirming what she could offer as a trainee, resulting in several interviews and entry-level job offers. Importantly, she is a recognised diversity champion within the UK legal industry. She is an active member of the Black Solicitors’ Network and Women Lawyer’s Division of the Law Society and has been an Association of Women Solicitors member since 2000. Relentless in her pursuit of diversity within the legal profession, Funke has made it her mission to promote diversity to the best of her ability across all fronts including gender. She is personally supporting a report on social mobility issues within the legal profession, due to be launched later this year, a follow up to Alan Milburn’s 2012 “Access to the professions” report commissioned by the government. She also recently established the Women Leaders in Life Sciences Law network, the only international network dedicated to developing future female leaders working as lawyers within the life sciences industry. She mentors and sponsors under-represented groups into roles in various organisations and is a strong role model showing that it is possible to achieve against the odds. She featured in the Diversity League Table Publication (DLT) (with Chukka Umunna, MP for Streatham and Shadow business secretary), a reflection of the work she has done to promote diversity within the legal profession over several years. As key note speaker at the DLT launch, she called for quotas and the need for flexible working which contributed towards many leading law firms setting diversity targets and establishing flexible working committees to enable retention of legal talent. Funke is a Professional Ambassador for Aspiring Solicitors (an organisation that supports/ promotes diversity within the legal profession) and has been nominated for several diversity awards (2014 National Diversity Award nominee; Finalist for 2014 European Diversity Awards and Diversity Legal Awards (diversity champion of the year award category); finalist for 2015 Tesco mum of the year award). She judged the “Excellence in Diversity & Inclusion” award category at the 2014 Law Society Excellence Awards and will be judging the inaugural 2015 We are the City “Rising Star” awards. She is regularly invited to comment and speak on diversity issues within the legal profession and in the media generally. She is also a diversity commentator for the BBC. Funke participated as a member of the Legal sector focus group for Project 28-40, launched by Opportunity Now in November 2013 and the largest ever UK survey of women at work (http://opportunitynow.bitc.org.uk/). She believes strongly in the importance of education and its impact on diversity and is a past governor of both Uxbridge College and Sandridge School. She regularly provides inspirational talks to state school students as part of Speakers4Schools. A former director of City Growth Luton (government-funded economic regeneration project in the Luton area), she also supports several charities, including Cancer Research UK and is a Friend of that charity. All her diversity work is provided on a voluntary basis on top of a demanding, full time job and being a single parent. She believes strongly in giving back to the community to make a positive impact and improve the lot of others less able to help themselves.

Anecdotes – First 100 Years Project Race

I found it extremely difficult to secure an entry-level position when I finished the QLTT (now QLTS) transfer test and needed to gain experience before qualification. To get my foot in the door, I drew up a list of the top 100 law firms specialising in corporate law and did the same with the top 50 in-house teams. I then proceeded to cold-call the heads of department at all 150 organisations. This lead to several interviews, including one with a major, fully listed PLC. At that interview, the head of legal (who is English but whose partner is of Asian descent) asked me if I thought my race had been a factor in me not getting interviews with other organisations. That was, honestly, the first time I had even considered race as being something that could inhibit my progress. Thankfully, I was offered a role by her and was able to qualify as a solicitor in-house. Soon after qualifying in 2000, I vividly remember waiting in reception for an interview at a top 30 City law firm for a corporate solicitor role. I reported into reception, telling the receptionist the name of the corporate partner who was interviewing me for the vacant role. The receptionist remarked, “How odd. I didn’t realise that he was looking for another secretary!” I calmly told her that I had no idea about his secretarial situation either but was there for the solicitor role. She was visibly embarrassed when I said this and did apologise but this is a good example of the barriers posed by unconscious cultural bias.

Gender

Fast forward to October last year (2014) when I was challenging a male, senior equity partner at a top 30 City law firm on why they only had one female non-exec on their senior leadership team. His response was that none of the female partners at the firm were good enough to lead, this despite the fact that there are a number of female partners at that firm who are recognised leaders in their field. It is incredible that these views still exist in this day and age but, sadly they do. Further on gender, I was in negotiations with a firm for a corporate solicitor role about 10 years ago and mentioned the fact that I was a mother. Soon after that conversation, negotiations cooled significantly and, eventually, the offer was withdrawn. When I asked the firm why things had changed, the reason I was given was that the firm was “looking for slightly different experience”. I am convinced that the reason was because I revealed that I am a mother but was unable to prove this at the time.
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