'Who are you with the most unpronounceable name?' Zepz's GC on her life and career in a changing profession
While attitudes are changing, argues Lara Oyesanya, the legal profession must work harder to tap a 'huge diverse talent pool'
Zepz group general counsel Lara Oyesanya talks to Ben Edwards about the need for law firms to think differently about diversity, in the first of a series of interviews with the judges of Global Legal Post's inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards.
“I grew up in Nigeria and was educated at the University of Lagos, I hold a law degree, as well as a master’s degree from the Ahmadu Bello University and attended the Nigerian Law School. I practised for four years at the Nigerian Bar and came to the UK in 1986 with my husband who is a surgeon and wanted to become a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I worked for British Railways Board as a common law barrister before taking my exams at the Law Society and ended up becoming a senior solicitor at British Rail. We then moved to Manchester where I worked in private practice at Hammonds, but it was too much of a straightjacket for me, I preferred working in-house and running my own cases. I worked in-house for a number of companies—Lex Autolease, RAC, HBOS, BAE Systems, Barclays, Klarna, Contis and now Zepz (the parent company of payments brands WorldRemit and Sendwave), where I am group general counsel and chief legal officer.
Over the course of my career, the legal industry has changed. I remember very early in my career appearing before a judge who looked at me and said who are you with the most unpronounceable name—I just smiled and looked straight back at him and said my name is Lara Oyesanya, as you will find on the sheet of paper in front of you. Often back then people just assumed I was a secretary, they couldn’t imagine a black woman was a solicitor let alone handling her own cases. However, I always remember another judge—Mr Justice Bingham, who has since sadly passed away—when he pronounced my name, he looked at me and said I do hope that was the correct pronunciation. He was very respectful. So there were mixed attitudes. But it’s not as bad now as it used to be.
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To improve social mobility and boost the numbers of those from underrepresented backgrounds, it’s all about the early years. You need to start at primary school and secondary school level and talk to people and make them realise that they can do it. So education is important. Law firms also need to better understand people from more diverse backgrounds. Law firms are running initiatives but they tend to get people of colour or other diverse people to run them, which is not quite the right perspective—that suggests it is the responsibility of people from diverse backgrounds to solve the problem. So law firm leaders who want true diversity and social mobility need to understand the differences and not put the responsibility on somebody else.
There is a huge diverse talent pool out there, but they are not always given the opportunity. When firms are recruiting, they often have three criteria—can this person do the job, will this person do the job, and will this person fit in? We need to change our perspective on the last one—do we really want somebody who fits in, because that just means they want somebody who looks and thinks the same as them. You need diversity of thought and different approaches and ideas. We’ve got to give that diverse talent a chance and the opportunity.”
The Women and Diversity in Law Awards is the Global Legal Post's celebration of those making the UK legal sector more diverse and inclusive. The event will take take place in London on 22 March 2023 and making a nomination could not be simpler - you can find more details here.