When I first embarked on my legal career, I never thought for a moment that the profession I so eagerly wanted to join and belong to would also be the profession in which I felt trapped.
After a successful career spanning 20 years, its only once I left that I truly recognised my failings, as well as those of the profession.
Allow me to set the scene.
I came from what we now call a socio-economically disadvantaged background. I grew up in a council estate up to the age of 10, with parents who not only dreamed of but worked tirelessly to change our future. My father ran a corner shop and my mother looked after the home and the children, which was no easy feat, I am one of eight girls. That’s right, eight girls.
Education, education, education was our parents’ mantra and it served us well, but it didn’t come easy. My mum tells us stories of her early struggles with schooling, language and cultural barriers. It was my ‘big’ sister, only two years my senior, who attended parents’ evenings and reported back what the teachers had to say, which wasn’t particularly complimentary in my case. I was a failure at school.
I was engaged at 16, left school at 17 and got married. Let’s be clear though, this was an arranged marriage, not forced, and my parents insisted on me continuing with my education. Despite my poor exam results, they believed in me, as did my husband and sisters, all of whom went on to carve successful careers themselves.
And from there, my struggles with fitting into the Scottish legal profession began.
Despite college qualifications, I wasn’t able to secure a place at university to study law. Notwithstanding the fact that I had many other skills and experiences, the universities insisted on traditional higher grades. Therefore, with a new-born baby in tow I re-sat my highers. Five highers later and I was accepted to university. For me, that was a massive win. I could have stopped there.
I wasn’t your typical student. I was 22 years old, and I didn’t fit in with the ‘young crowd’ nor the ‘mature students’. I didn’t do much socialising. I had a family to support and care for, which barely left me enough time to study. Add to the mix a Muslim culture which didn’t approve of girls going out, meant university life wasn’t a lot of fun. Despite that I successfully completed the first year of the LLB, whilst also pregnant with my second child.
The following year was going to be a struggle, as my pregnancy progressed and life at home became all the more demanding. I sought guidance from my then director of studies and suggested to him that I defer a year. His response wasn’t encouraging. He suggested I’d be better staying at home and looking after the children. He also said that he thought that law wasn’t for me. I was upset, I cried, but I also vowed to complete the degree in spite of his advice. Although, looking back perhaps he had a point. Perhaps a career in law really wasn’t for me, a married Muslim mum.
I went back to complete my degree once my son was a year old. My husband was very supportive, but it was tough. With two children under the age of five and many demanding, stereotypical, Asian wife and mother ‘duties’, meant my studying often suffered. I lived with my in-laws and none of the other females were career-oriented, which meant they really didn’t understand my drive nor the pressures.
By the end of the degree, I was exhausted, and finances were tight. I had no workplace experience, no role models to look to for guidance and no idea where I wanted to go next. I decided to work before doing the diploma. It was my best decision yet. I worked as a parliamentary researcher and later as an advisor. This enabled me to gain much-needed experience, whilst also saving some money to see me through the diploma.
Two years later, I went back to do my diploma and many, many applications for traineeships later, I struck gold. I got offered a traineeship with COPFS, my dream job. My parents were so proud, a public lawyer in the family!
I joyfully told my fellow students. One suggested I got the role because I was coloured, a woman and a mother. ‘You tick all the positive discrimination (as it was then known) boxes, Naeema!’ Sadly, I believed him and fell into that diversity trap. Am I too diverse? Is that my appeal? Do my skills, experiences and endless all-nighters with crying babies, meeting assignment deadlines account for nothing? Then I got a second offer and gave a huge sigh of relief. There’s more than one organisation that believes in me. Perhaps I did get the role on merit.
My role as a PF depute gave me many opportunities and advantages but it was hard work and a steep learning curve. Apart from one other trainee, there was, sadly, a lack of relatable role models, particularly in senior positions. Despite the organisation’s efforts, I didn’t have a real sense of belonging. With transferrable skills in hand, I moved to the private sector, still longing and seeking to belong. I rose up the ranks and continued to look for acceptance. Why? Because when you’re the only person of colour and a woman, acceptance is so important, belonging is what you strive for and praise is what you seek. Therein lies the problem. You want to be like them, you want to fit in, they want you to fit in, and yet you feel you never really do.
You’re left looking through a semi-opaque window. From time-to-time things seem to clear and you find yourself steadily moving up. You’re promoted to solicitor, then senior solicitor, then associate and then partner, but just when you think you’ve conquered it, the mist reappears, and you doubt yourself. Why? Because you’re not truly yourself.
I work hard, harder than anyone else I know. Why do I do that? Because the voice in my head is still telling me I’m not good enough. That I don’t fit in.
Perhaps if I’d learned earlier to stop doubting myself, to filter out the voice in my head, to be myself, to speak up, as a person I’d be stronger. Those are my failures.
And what of the profession? Have a look around you. How diverse is your team? What does your leadership resemble? Ask yourself the question, what are the profession’s failures?
We don’t all need to fit. We don’t all need to be the same. What’s important is to be ourselves and to allow others to learn about our differences.
Naeema is a solicitor with over 20 years of experience in the legal sector. She has experience in both public and private organisations. Naeema commenced her career as a PF Depute and most recently was a partner in a top ten Scottish law firm.
Naeema is the founder of Diversity+, a newly formed business which aims to improve diversity and inclusion in the Scottish financial and legal sector.
Naeema is also a co-founder of SEMLA (The Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyer’s Association).
Naeema can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org