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Your background is an asset - make the most of it

Aspiring BAME students should play to their strengths to stand out from the crowd, say Rabina Ahmed & Dr Tunde Okewale

There’s a perception that in law, as in other professions, the background you come from matters. And that’s right, it does. But these days that can mean many different things. It’s not simply about belonging or not feeling you belong to a certain group, it’s about what you can bring to the table.

So, if your heritage means you can speak more than one language, that’s a selling point, particularly as law firms look to attract global clients. In the same way, your cultural or religious understanding will be an advantage when it comes to cementing client relationships.

Law is not only about technical expertise, it also relies on excellent interpersonal skills, and as globalisation gathers pace, more and more it requires understanding of and sensitivity to different beliefs and customs. Clients are placing great emphasis on law firms that reflect their ideals and philosophy—firms know that, and they are keen to demonstrate it.

Therefore, having the skills and knowledge on the team will help law firms win work—and students should not feel shy about promoting their abilities and insight as valuable assets, both at the interview stage and throughout their career progression. It could be a competitive differentiator—for you and for your firm. Show them that you can help when putting together pitches for new contracts or work streams with global organisations and in forging close links with their representatives.

Given that the path to a successful legal career is less well-trodden by BAME students, a lack of confidence is understandable, but beware of falling victim to ‘impostor syndrome’. Doing so does you a disservice—if you’re talented, you have as much right to choose a law career as anyone else, so don’t be put off and don’t under-value yourself.

Confidence is a skill that can be learnt but you may need to go out of your comfort zone to achieve it. Networking and public speaking can seem daunting to anyone, but the more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes.

Being well prepared is also a confidence-booster. Being on top of your game should prevent nervousness in exams and interviews and enable you to be your best self. Equally, it’s impressive to prospective employers (and clients) if you’ve done your homework well, so you can show a deep understanding of your chosen field, and of the chambers’ or law firm’s cultural make-up, client base and work stream.

Have the self-belief to put yourself forward for opportunities for career development or advancement—after all, if you don’t ask, often you don’t get. BAME students sometimes have to push harder to get what they want—but there will be many people willing to help you. Plus, tenacity is a good attribute for an aspiring lawyer, so it should earn you respect.

Making connections

Is who you know important to get ahead in the law today? Yes—but forget ‘old boys’ networks’, in the modern legal profession we need to forge our own connections. As with clients so with colleagues and contacts, inter-personal relationships are vital.

Take every opportunity to meet new people at work, at networking events, conferences and so on. Anyone—senior or junior—could be a useful contact. Smart professionals know this and will be pleased to meet you, so don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people. Join professional groups and get involved with their activities. Be aware also that there is a growing collaboration between universities, law firms and the Law Society to maximise the opportunities for BAME students through specially-targeted events.

Attending events is also a great way to build your skills and there are many to choose from. You’ll hear the words ‘Continuous Professional Development’ a lot during your career, but it’s more than just a point-scoring exercise. BAME students sometimes miss out on opportunities other peers might have had, so take every chance that’s offered to go on courses, workshops or seminars to plug any gaps and to develop specialist skills or knowledge that will give you an edge.

Remember your calling

A legal career can be challenging for everyone at times, but given that extra effort is often required from BAME students and lawyers, a genuine love of the law and interest in its application is essential to keep you motivated and engaged. It really is a calling. This passion should spark creativity and innovation in your approach. Your cultural background can also feed into this too, helping you see things differently and bring a fresh way of doing things.

Too many people from BAME backgrounds are still missing out on the opportunities a career in law provides and the legal sector is still missing out on some incredible talent. Addressing this is win-win for all concerned. So, while there is clearly still more that law firms and barristers’ chambers can do to encourage a broader spectrum of applicants and enable them to progress to the highest levels, at the same time BAME students owe it to themselves not to hold themselves back. Your career is waiting for you: go on and grab it with both hands. 

Rabina Ahmed is a financial services disputes solicitor at law firm TLT, and Dr Tunde Okewale MBE is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers.

This article was originally published in New Law Journal

Watch some highlights from our recent BAME Student Legal Conference, where our panel speakers share their tips on overcoming barriers.