‘At one time I had 15 different roles. I still have many now. I can’t put them all on my CV – it would be too confusing. HR systems can’t cope with my having done more than one role at any one time,’ explains Isabelle Parasram OBE whose CV includes, over the years: practising barrister in her own chambers, Vice President of the Liberal Democrat Party, trustee of a think tank and educational charities, school governor, NVQ assessor and much more, including now joint CEO of national network Social Value UK (SVUK).

‘SVUK envisions a world where organisational decisions improve wellbeing, equality and the environment,’ she tells me. ‘We support organisations to better account for the value they create, or degrade, to motivate changes in the way they do business. We achieve this through our growing membership, our tailored programmes of events, training, and networks and wide-reaching advocacy work. My role mainly involves advocacy, especially on critical UK issues, such as levelling up, the cost-of-living crisis and COP 27. I have to be politically neutral but that doesn’t mean that I have left politics, the law or education behind.’

Its work became even more topical when a minister was reported to be advising local authorities to use the Social Value Act 2012 to terminate their contracts with Gazprom and other Russian companies.

Isabelle was recently awarded the OBE for political and public service. ‘As I said at the time, the award is given to an individual but it represents the work of so many, including my highly deserving volunteer teams and colleagues.’

Her parents came over from Trinidad in the 60s as part of the Windrush generation. The third of three children, she was born here. ‘I grew up in Forest Gate, and was educated on both sides of the London/Essex border. I would go with Mum to Green Street Market to shop for fresh ingredients for dishes such as tomato choka, chicken curry and pumpkin talkari. Trinidadian food, the best in the world! Mum was working at the Trebor factory on the night shift. Staff were given the broken sweets to take home. Dad was a local government officer for Brixton and then Hackney. Later Mum became a secretary for Tower Hamlets Council.’

At age 10 Isabelle went back to Trinidad with her family; then, five years later, returned to the UK for good and sat her GCSEs. ‘At that time many Trinidadian schools had a higher standard of education than UK schools, so my education didn’t suffer.’ These moves were bookended by periods of ‘informal fostering’ and concluded with her mother coming to be with her in London while her father remained in Trinidad. ‘Essentially, my family was split up. My early experiences shaped my compassion for children who lack a secure foundation in life.

‘For us education was crucial – the gateway to a better life. That’s why I am so passionate about making a great education accessible to everyone. I now take a different approach to education from the view my family had at that time. I see education now as more holistic. I would love a world where intelligence and ability were measured and nurtured in a different way. Success in life is not about qualifications and certificates. It’s about experience. People learn and demonstrate knowledge in such different ways. The rigid system we have doesn’t reflect or appreciate the diversity of society.’

Following maths and science A levels, Isabelle studied law at King’s, London. ‘There was a cachet for Trinidadian parents from doing science; and law was viewed as a respectable profession. I had always been a passionate advocate from childhood with a strong sense of justice, fighting for people who lacked a voice. For me law was a natural home. At school I loved public speaking competitions and drama. My favourite performance? Acting as the glamorous Lady Raeburn in the musical Salad Days, particularly the fun scene where I was having my hair done while trying to have a very important phone conversation.’

She steels herself to admit it but ‘I hated studying law at university. I’m more of a pragmatic learner, whereas law courses tend to be more theoretical. My least favourite subject was – ironically – contract law, which I now deal with regularly as a CEO.’ Favourite subject? ‘Employment law: it’s practical; everybody can understand it and is impacted by it. I far preferred my year at Bar School, where the teaching was experience-based. Nonetheless, I think I gave the trainees in my chambers a more realistic view of legal life than I even got from Bar School. I now mentor leaders and aspiring leaders. That’s how I have channelled my love for passing on what I know.’

She was called in 1995. ‘I was attracted by the advocacy. But after pupillage I found life at the Bar too unpredictable. And I wanted something that offered me more context within a business.’ She immediately moved to the employed Bar, and three years later joined the then Department of Trade and Industry. ‘Government legal work had a good reputation, and offered me variety, career moves, training, the opportunity to work for the good of society. My parents were immensely proud that I was working for the British government. I started as a legal adviser in energy but after a time was keen to move across to prosecute white collar crime. I wanted to be at the coalface. My boss in energy used to say to me, “Think about all the coalminers. You are at the coalface!” Prosecuting was absolutely my favourite job. I had my first child – a daughter – while in that role, followed by my three sons. During my time in the Civil Service I was selected for training as an ‘emerging leader’ and gained people, strategic and change management experience, a fantastic boost towards what came next.’

She left government for self-employment in 2010. Two years later she was setting up Greycoat Law. ‘People had been coming to me and asking for advice that I didn’t have the capacity to give. So I decided to set up my own chambers. The flexibility I gained enabled me to work part time and manage a growing family. I achieved a fantastic work-life balance and continued to build my career while engaging in public service. I did extra qualifications to become a direct access barrister authorised to conduct litigation, as well as the Pre-Application Judicial Education programme [PAJE]. I worked with members of my admin and associate counsel team on each case. Our specialisms included employment, company/commercial, civil litigation and personal injury. My previous experience of white collar investigations was a good foundation for conducting human resource investigations and a #MeToo investigation for the Lib Dems.

‘I liked the direct access side – it meant engaging with clients at a human level. If needed I instructed associate counsel to do drafting and attend court, mainly sole practitioners. Many on my team had caring responsibilities. This meant that we were available at ‘non-conventional’ hours; clients liked it. It is tough being a sole practitioner – the hardest and loneliest role I have ever had. It would be good if the Bar Council could offer sole practitioner members advice and guidance on matters such as ethics, regulation and wellbeing holistically rather than in silos. This could open up a whole new career path for so many who might want a portfolio career. The market is ripe for willing and dedicated people. If they don’t do a good job, they don’t eat. There are some great sole practitioners out there. They don’t always have the resources to market themselves, and the people who shout loudest aren’t always the best.’

In time the regulatory burden started to work against the flexibility offered by Greycoat Law. ‘I am now in the process of mothballing it and taking a sabbatical from private practice.’

How did she get into politics? ‘In 2015 I was asked by one of the mums in the school playground – a member of the newly-formed Women’s Equality Party – to apply to stand as a candidate in the London Assembly Elections.’ She stood but was unsuccessful. However, ‘I quickly found my barrister skills to be helpful in politics: measurement of tone and language, speaking off the cuff; dealing with the unpredictable; absorbing large amounts of information quickly. My favourite occasions for advocacy involve turning up when I don’t know what I am going to be asked about. I am told by my political mentor it’s a rare quality, but I love it. An example from as far back as my schooldays is giving votes of thanks in public speaking competitions, working to make them interesting, personal and where appropriate funny. I tell aspiring leaders it’s the key to public speaking. Make eye contact, show passion, observe others, study how they use their body language, copy great advocates, learn from your mistakes. Stuff like this you don’t get from books.’

The following year Isabelle shared a platform at Oxford University with a Lib Dem MP. Through her Isabelle was drawn into the party and progressed to become party Vice President in 2019. ‘The Lib Dems have fantastic training and mentoring schemes. I was attracted by the party’s values and its acceptance of a wide range of ideas. As a result of the party’s smaller size, there is more of a family atmosphere. As VP I sat on the party’s governing body – the Federal Board. Because I was the first person to be specifically elected to the role of VP, I was given carte blanche to shape the role as I wished. I became involved in community work and social justice and stood twice for Parliament. Unsuccessfully, but what valuable experience! There was a baptism of fire in terms of media exposure – Sky, BBC, ITN – and a call on my stamina and resilience to push my boundaries and keep going until I got a straight yes or no from everybody who I thought could help me, whether voters, donors or others. Some people think they have done enough by sending someone an email. But it’s not enough. There is no limit to whose door I will knock on. And on the darker side my experience of dealing with toxic clients also proved useful.’

Advice to people starting out at the Bar? ‘The law is so diverse. Keep searching for that area that makes you want to get out of bed every day. It’s there! It may not be one that others regard as glamorous. Career fairs attract the bigger organisations. Don’t overlook the smaller ones. Be prepared to change direction to develop your career. You don’t have to stick to a particular sector forever but be wholehearted in everything you do.’ 

Isabelle can be contacted at www.isabelleparasram.com

© Redcoat Photography

Isabelle, who was appointed Special Investigation Counsel by the Federal Board of the Liberal Democrats in 2017 to review the handling of sexual impropriety complaints within the Party, is pictured delivering her findings at the spring conference 2018.