Funke Abimbola

Published 18th June 2015
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.

Funke spoke to First 100 Years anecdotally about her experience in law, and prejudices she faced:

“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.”

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 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 believes strongly in giving back to the community to make a positive impact and improve the lot of others less able to help themselves.