Black British Business Person Of the Year, Segun Osuntokun: “ Fix the system, not the people”

Segun Osuntokun has an impressive collection of books. Last month, the managing partner of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner was named the Black British Business Person of the Year. Meeting virtually, he smiles before pushing himself forward on a spin chair. “As a corporate solicitor, I don’t regard myself as a business person, so to be recognised in this way felt pretty good.” 

Mr Osuntokun did more than pretty good. The awards aim to reward the contributions of black professionals and entrepreneurs across a range of industries including the arts, retail, financial and professional services, as well as the STEM sector. After the event, Sophie Chandauka, co founder of the awards, said that  “they all deserve recognition and congratulations for their accomplishments, and it was our pleasure to honour them.”

His trophy cabinet is full, from The 2018 EMpower 100 Ethnic Minority Executives List presented by the Financial Times Diversity to winning the Inclusion Impact Award at the UK Legal Diversity Awards. “ It’s always nice to win things” he tells me reservedly, “but you get up the next day to face the next challenge. I am pleased that the work of my firm was recognised, especially in the age of the Black Lives Matter.” 

Mr Osuntokun is a changemaker. In June, his open letter published in The Lawyer raised awareness of racial inequalities in the legal sector.  “I don’t particularly relish having the spotlight shone on me” he admits, “but after the events of the summer, I asked myself what am I doing as a visible minority, what are you using your platform for and how are you going to exist in the eye of the storm?”

Only 3 percent of solicitors and 3 percent of partners working in law firms are Black, whilst both black and Asian lawyers are significantly underrepresented in mid to large size firms. Larger firms have only 8% of BAME partners, contrasting with firms with only one partner where the rate of increase from 2014 to 2019 is more than double. In larger firms, just 1 percent of solicitors and partners are Black. “I have a platform and a megaphone, and a choice to either do something with that or do nothing. I decided to use my fortunate position in a constructive way, rather dissimilar to some of our friends across the pond”. 

Mr Osuntkun jokes in jest, but his practical approach inspires. “If not you, then who, and if not now, then when? As a managing partner of a major law firm, I felt visible, and so I felt the need to be vocal. Change is coming.”

But how soon? Research commissioned by the Law Society highlighted a significant ethnicity pay gap, specific barriers to entry, such as a lack of role models and connections, along with “an intersection” of having a disadvantaged socio-economic background. The solutions, they say, would arise in the form of greater targeted action, fairer recruitment practices and the reevaluation of firm’s positions on academic attainment and attendance at specific universities. 

DJS Research, the group behind the data, recommended reverse and reciprocal mentoring to help build more inclusive leadership as well as more data driven approaches such as publishing key metrics relating to representation and the ethnic pay gap. And the culture matters too. Microaggressions based on ethnicity were experienced by nearly all participants, including misidentification and persistent mockery of cultural differences. 

“It won’t just happen overnight. The dismantling of systemic and structural racism dates back to the civil rights movement. You might say these movements are still around given the resurgence of nativist attitudes in many parts of the world. But as momentum builds, different parts of our communities need to engage with the momentum and carry it on. It’s time for big corporate entities to pick up the baton and start running with it.” 

Like a statesman, patience grounds Mr Osuntokun. But still, change is in the air. “You can see it in the ESG agenda and law firms are under greater pressure from their clients to take diversity seriously, not only for business reasons, but also because it is the right thing to do. In 2021, I think that will only continue.” 

Turning to Black Lives Matter Movement, I watch him smile as if he knows my next question.  Controversy continues to overshadow the movement. George Eustice, the environment secretary, recently said that it was “different to what most of us believe in, which is standing up for racial equality”, just days after Millwall supporters booed players for taking a knee in support of the movement. 

“It depends entirely on if you see the BLM movement as political or not. For me, I have no time for that sort of definition. The murder of George Floyd was not a political act. The anger that people feel isn’t politically driven, rather it stems from a deep sense of inequity. I make no bones about aligning myself with that. Everyone’s experiences are different, but that’s the whole point about alliances and allyship. You’re in solidarity with those who are on the outside looking in.” 

As a child of five growing up in Nigeria, Mr Osuntokun speaks openly about his upbringing. “My parents were both medical doctors, which at the time was a good way to make a living. My father was a prominent neurologist who travelled to England for work. By an early age, I was exposed to different cultures and ways of doing things.”

He arrived in England at age 15 to study for his A Levels at a boarding school in Suffolk. “My parents instilled a sense of striving for excellence.” He chuckles, “Or they tried to. I must admit that during my early years I couldn’t quite see the point”. As a black student at a boarding school in 1980’s Britain, his challenges were unlike most. “ I hadn’t internalised any message that because I was black, it was measured as a thing beyond me. My response to casual racism was complete bemusment. I remember thinking, what an idiot, what a stupid thing to think.” 

He loses his smile. “My greatest critic was myself. I had a very strong internal critic telling me to do more and to do better.  It verged on perfectionism, particularly during my early years as a solicitor. It was unhealthy”, he admits, “my parents had very high expectations of me. I internalized these emotions.” 

Racism occurs between individuals, but it also exists within the system. Recent data found that black people are now nearly 10-times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people, whilst not a single police force in England and Wales registered an arrest rate of less than 20 for every 1000 black people. 

The pandemic has only worsened the problem. Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, recently claimed that “impossible to avoid the conclusion that systemic racism shapes asylum policy.”, a stark reality not helped by the disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus on black and ethnic minority groups. 

“People who suggest that we shouldn’t talk about racism in systemic terms and that we have a personal responsibility to fight against it, my response is yes and no. Yes, we all bear a responsibility but there are clear, systemic and structural issues. As I said in my open letter, numbers don’t lie. Tackle the system, not the people”. 

According to Mr Osuntokun, the answer involves listening to everyone. “People bring different experiences and assumptions to the same problem, and recognising that is important. Inevitably there will be differences, but it is through these discussions where the most progress is made. There’s no escaping the way the human mind works. You don’t wake up in the morning and think that if I enter that shop, someone is going to follow me simply because I’m Black. I need to compose myself and project authority simply to demonstrate I belong here. The reason we talk about race is because it has mattered for black people. The moment you refuse to think about it [race] is the moment you think about it. It’s sad, but it’s the reality.” 

Our time is nearly up. Despite the skewed clarity of our virtual connection, his eyes are unmistakably red. Changing the face of the legal sector is tiring stuff. And it shows. 


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Sam Gordon Webb

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September 2021
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