106 Communications

6th Sense

106 seconds with… Funke Abimbola, Managing Counsel for Roche UK, diversity champion, speaker and proud mother

February 2015 | 106 seconds, Diversity, Law, Sectors

Funke read law at Newcastle University and worked as a corporate lawyer both in the City and within regional law firms before joining Roche in 2012. She is a recognised legal expert and award-winning solicitor and regularly speaks at conferences both in the UK and overseas. As a Professional Ambassador for Aspiring Solicitors, she mentors and supports aspiring solicitors from under-represented groups. She supports the pipeline of women solicitors by giving talks and supporting other initiatives that address concerns raised by the Law Society’s Women Lawyers Division. She is also a speaker for Speakers4Schools, providing free talks to state school students and is a regular BBC commentator on diversity. She supports various charities through fundraising including Cancer Research UK and Rennie Grove Hospice.

You’re a great champion of diversity.  What’s your story?

I was the only Afro-Caribbean solicitor at all the law firms where I worked which, considering I worked at 2 City firms, is quite shocking. Joining Roche was like a breath of fresh air – I experienced a truly diverse work environment for the first time in my career. I have been at my most innovative, creative and impactful in my current role and put that down, in no small part, to working for a diverse company. I am determined to see this diversity more widely reflected within the legal profession as a whole.

As a black woman in law, have you ever felt that your race and gender have been barriers to progression?

Race was definitely an issue at entry level. With an unusual African name and despite a British education, I did struggle to secure my first entry level role. I ended up cold-calling the heads of various legal teams to get my foot in the door.

What about when you became a mother?  How did that affect your career?

It became a real challenge doing transactional corporate work involving very long hours when I had to drop my son off at nursery in the morning and then pick him up by a certain time in the evening. Flexible working simply did not work within the City firm I was with at the time. I eventually left the City for a regional firm and was able to enjoy a better work life balance there whilst still working full time.

The legal profession is making a lot of noise about becoming more diverse.  For you, what’s the key?

The key is to tackle both the entry level barriers faced by all entrants from under-represented groups as well as the retention challenges following qualification. Initiatives that broaden access at entry level are key – for example, specifically supporting bright state school students from unconventional or deprived backgrounds. Setting targets is a core part of retaining talent post qualification: once a target is set, firms can then start working on the support structures they need to put in place to meet that target. Unconscious bias training is instrumental in supporting more open recruitment techniques.

You devote your time to many different events and causes, run a successful in-house team and have a family.  How do you do it?

It’s a constant juggling act. I regularly review what I’m doing, have to be super organised and have become an expert at prioritizing what’s really important and saying ‘no’. Time is a precious resource and I am very careful to spend my time wisely.

Finally, if you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be?

A very unhappy doctor! I come from a family of doctors and was expected to read medicine. Thankfully, I managed to persuade my father otherwise!

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