On my first day at law school in 2017, I attended a presentation delivered by Chris White about his organisation, Aspiring Solicitors. He spoke about his experiences in the legal industry, the evident absence of diversity, and how AS aims to make the legal profession more accessible for people from underrepresented backgrounds. For the first time in my academic journey, I left the room feeling like someone had finally taken account of how my background would affect the daunting experience I was about to undertake. It was comforting to know someone understood how my experience would differ, and they wanted to make a change. Yet, throughout my next three years, I would feel estranged from the career that I wanted so much.
There were many events for widening participation within the legal industry held at my law school. For example, we had events from AS and top law firms, which many students from minority groups seemed to be benefitting and thriving from. Yet, when I attended these events, I felt as though I was watching from the background. I lacked the confidence to speak up, and that was only when I could think of what to say at all. I would go, take relevant notes, and scurry out the room in hopes nobody would notice me. Importantly, I did not understand why I felt so uneasy amongst the professionals and my peers who were present. This is what was so debilitating – the comparison culture in itself is a silent oppressor, and I simply could not figure out what was making it so difficult for me to move forward.
I partook in a lot of activities at university to try to make up for the feeling that I was falling behind. I was part of the Pro Bono Group, I was a Student Mentor, a Law School Ambassador, a Law Talker, a campaigner for Amnesty International, and many more. Yet, despite my experiences, somehow for the majority of my degree I was an awkward person, bad at holding eye contact, always feeling out of place. As my anxiety worsened, I kept coming back to the same question. How is everyone else doing it?
The answer is to be found in the intersecting aspects of my identity, which did not fit well with what is expected of your “model” law student or future lawyer. It was not just because I was a first-generation student, or the daughter of immigrants, or because I am brown. It was also the fact I was an ambitious introvert struggling with anxiety.
Although the opportunities were there for students from underrepresented backgrounds, I did not know how to make the most of them. I didn’t know how to network, I didn’t know about the relationships students could build between themselves and academic staff, I didn’t have links into the profession or know how to make them, and this resulted my confidence hitting the floor. However, what further aggravated this was the fact my personality was not exactly advocated at the events I mentioned above. I kept hearing the words “confident”, “outspoken”, “innovative”, the endless search for “thought leaders". Could an ambitious introvert ever reflect that? This insecurity led me to missing valuable events because I thought they were pointless. I refused to believe I could ever stand out; I was quiet, reserved, and preferred to listen than speak. I definitely did not feel like I fit the bill. I remember explicitly feeling like an alien in the crowd on so many occasions, and I wondered why I just could not talk my way through situations like my peers could.
Except I was not the only one who felt that way. I started the conversation with other friends at university who had come from a similar background to mine. Although I could have never guessed that they were going through the same thing (because law students HATE to admit that they are struggling) they were. There were things we were angry about, things that on the surface looked like they were being taken care of. There were networking events, talks, all things which surely would provide opportunities for us – but far too many people I knew did not know how to prep for them, and thus did not know how to make the most of the events either. For example, if a person is an introvert, exactly how do they go about showcasing their personality? Alternatively, if a person has zero legal work experience, but their passion for a legal career stems from an unconventional background and difficult past, how do they communicate this with the right professional, at the right event? This gap in knowledge led to many of us labelling ourselves as lazy or ignorant, when instead, there was an underlying problem at hand.
Cultural backgrounds and upbringing play a heavy part in the careers we take. I saw first-hand my friends and peers deny who they are so that they too can ‘fit’ the law school culture. I forced myself to be someone I’m not – I played the part of the outspoken student, and it actually didn’t get me far. This is not surprising – who would want to take interest in someone who is unauthentic? It is important to be aware of the fact you are going to be influenced by the people around you, but don’t let that change what you think or feel.
Don’t try to fit the cookie-cut-out of what you think a lawyer should be. We are well aware the ideal lawyer is not a white man who was taught at Eton. Equally, different personalities need to be advocated for in the same way. Confidence does not always look like being the one stood in front of a lecture of 300 students making announcements, nor does it have to look like having your face plastered all over law school websites. It can come in the form of talking about your unique experiences, sharing this to others, whilst trembling with anxiety on the inside. Confidence is taking a step to tell people that there is a problem you want fixed, instead of accepting it as the norm. I studied at a state school and received free-school meals, so getting in to UoB was like a dream come true for me three years ago. And yet, I had moments when I felt like I was not good enough. I wanted a career in law because I wanted empowerment, I wanted a voice. Most importantly, I wanted to be the voice for others who struggled to speak up as well. I am sure there are many others like me out there too – and we all deserve to be ourselves. This is when the legal profession will truly reflect acceptance of diverse personalities and backgrounds – when we demand for it.