Some question whether ‘special’ celebrations of any grouping’s achievements are the right way to promote diversity. I don’t agree.

Last month was Black History Month, and if you were in the Law Society on Chancery Lane, in the entrance hall and reading room you may have noticed the large pictures and mini-profiles of high-achieving lawyers taken from the Black Lawyers Directory.

I’ve known some entirely well-meaning people who question whether ‘special’ celebrations of any grouping’s achievements is the right way to promote diversity. They ask whether it is helpful to highlight people in categories – surely, so the argument runs, it is better for a woman lawyer, for example, to win an award in a competition open to all lawyers, than simply one that was open to women in law.

I don’t agree, and find history as a discipline helpful here – not least because the same arguments have gone on in the past.

To oversimplify the arguments that have been had in history, they are this: by telling ‘herstory’ (see what they did there?) or writing ‘black history’, haven’t we devalued the role of people already under-mentioned in the big proper history books?  

This argument, misses a point around the way history works. I’m with historian E H Carr, who pointed out that not all facts from the past are ‘historical’ facts. They need introduction or nomination to a sort of club of historical facts – the evidence that historians say helps to explain what happened, how and why.

You have a go at telling a story to see if it can be accepted into the mainstream. And that is the purpose served by celebrating or highlighting the achievements of a ‘group’ within the legal profession.

Back with the Black Lawyers Directory, I recall the first edition was pretty thin. Looking at an old copy with its founder Debo Nwauzu, we joked that someone picking up the original might have thought there were only four black lawyers in Britain, and one of them was Nelson Mandela.  

It now has hundreds of profiles, and there is keen competition to be included. It is for many lawyers part of their ‘introduction’ to that mainstream narrative.  

In a review I wrote of a past edition of the Black Lawyers Directory a few years ago, I said the following.  

‘Too many of the people in BLD’s publication could easily be ranked in the sort of lists that overlap this one – including lists of leading women lawyers and ‘rainmakers’ – but aren’t. With the publication of Black Letter Law there is one less excuse for those who report on, or lead, the profession to fail to include in their dealings senior lawyers whose background is more representative.’

I stand by that. If you don’t know who people are, or what they are doing, you can’t put them in your story.

The legal profession on many fronts is in the process of getting better at that – I think not least because it is in large part hugely receptive to the use of occasions like Black History Month.

This is a thoroughly good thing.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor