Thursday, 6 April 2017

A good news story

Here is the story of Mel Nebhrajani. She has an Asian immigrant background. She started out as a Chancery barrister and is now in the Government Legal Service. The link is to an interview about BAME lawyers, diversity, under-represented groups etc etc. "Heard it all before", you might think, "minority woman starts out in the unwelcoming private sector and is only welcomed in the public sector". But no - this is a very different story. Read more below.

Life is fractal. So, for example, in the world of education, university graduates might be regarded as a bit snooty by non-graduates, and then there are those universities that are regarded as more snooty than other universities, and then within the top universities there are a couple of old ones that have a bit of a reputation for learning and rowing - but even within Oxbridge there are colleges that look down on other colleges, and subjects that look down on other subjects.

It's the same with professions. Being a lawyer is a pretty old-fashioned, fusty kind of job. Within lawyers, being a barrister is the more fusty end of the profession. But within barristers, Chancery barristers are commonly regarded as the most fogey-ish of the lot. If you are looking for a barrister who regularly wears three-piece suits and uses Latin then you're probably looking for a Chancery bod.

That takes us back to Ms Nebhrajani. This was her experience:

"I qualified in 1994 and did my pupillage at the Chancery Bar, which was then far from being diverse. Part-way through I applied for, and got, a tenancy at a traditional Lincoln’s Inn chambers that had only ever had two women and no one of colour. But it was prepared to be forward-thinking and it ran a name-blind application process. The top four candidates were all women, with two of us from ethnic minority backgrounds. [...]

Judges often wouldn’t pronounce my name – and made a point of saying they wouldn’t try – but, interestingly, I never felt underestimated or overlooked by them in court.

[...] although I was virtually never without work – unusual in itself at the junior end in those days – I didn’t like worrying about whether the work would dry up or what its quality would be. And the final straw for me was when I was appointed to do all the mortgage repossession work for a mortgage company. It was very lucrative but soul destroying.

So, a traditional Chancery chambers (in 1994 - that means a lot of three-piece suits and Latin) ran a name-blind application process which produced a hugely unrepresentative but pro-diverse candidate shortlist; judges (if you were a judge in 1994, you might have been born before the War) never underestimated or overlooked her (she did better than many white men there); she was unusually successful in her professional life ("virtually never without work – unusual in itself at the junior end in those days"); and she even got herself a lucrative line in financial services work. And all that was more than 20 years ago. She had the First World Problems of any barrister with an unusual surname: why do they get my name wrong so often (not a worry for Smiths and Patels)? Will the work dry up?

In short, this is a success story. The inner citadels of British professional prestige and tradition were open to merit a generation ago. You might not know it from the rhetoric, but things are really not too bad here.

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