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Eliminating racism in the legal profession and the importance of strategic communication

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. We cannot accept discrimination in the legal profession, writes Sach Fernando.

user iconSach Fernando 17 August 2023 SME Law
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As lawyers, we must hold ourselves to a high standard and advocate for the elimination of discriminatory behaviour, particularly if they are being perpetuated by members of our own profession.

Last week, I spoke with Lawyers Weekly editor Jerome Doraisamy, on an episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, about some recent experiences involving senior counsel.

In one case, senior counsel referred to my Sudanese client as a “monkey”, and in another, refused to pronounce my Sri Lankan client’s name because it was a “real tongue twister” for him. My client’s name is her identity, so I could not accept his refusal to even try pronouncing it. I also won’t tolerate my client being called a monkey.


I have been practising now for over a decade; however, in these two cases, I did not immediately respond to the senior counsel’s culturally insensitive comments. I knew that I wouldn’t tolerate them, but I also needed to be strategic in my communication. As a Sri Lankan man in the profession, I also needed to ensure that my response to these incidents would not be viewed as emotional.

I reflected on the situations, discussed them with my team, and then took action.

In one instance, I emailed all parties setting out the phonetic pronunciation of names, and in the other, I debriefed the counsel who called my client a monkey.

Advocating for our clients extends beyond obtaining large lump sums of money for them. It extends to protecting their integrity during the litigation process. If we don’t advocate for their rights, nobody will.

However, advocacy in situations like these is challenging and needs to be done strategically. My suggestions are as follows:

  1. Consider your reputation and act to the highest standard of professionalism. While you may (understandably) experience upset, be strategic in how you respond in a difficult situation. This might mean that you don’t respond immediately, and that’s OK. Take your time to consider an effective response, consult with others and then deliver your message.
  2. Assess the situation objectively and consider the best interest of your client. While you may feel strongly about the situation, consider the timing of your response. It may feel personal, but don’t let your emotions get the better of you.
  3. Discuss the matter with your mentor or senior colleagues. You are not alone. Seniors have often been through similar experiences and can therefore provide guidance. If you don’t have anyone to turn to, call me and use me as your sounding board.
  4. SBI (situation, behaviour, and impact): Clearly set out the situation, the behaviour that fell short of our professional standards, and its impact on you.
  5. Find your advocate/allies in the legal profession. Reach out to your employer, trusted peers, or mentors. If you wish to remain anonymous, your employer may respond on your behalf and set out the firm’s position. In the alternative, a peer or mentor could communicate/advocate on your behalf.
Those of us who are from ethnically diverse backgrounds have worked tremendously hard to be in our positions. We have had to break through barriers/biases/stereotypes to achieve our career success. We have an obligation to help others.

To listen to my episode on The Boutique Lawyer Show, click here.

Sach Fernando is the principal lawyer of Maxiom Injury Lawyers.