Book review: People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain

By Hashi Mohamed

Profile Books (January 2020), ISBN 978-1788161121, Hardcover (320 pages)

Reviewed by Malvika Jaganmohan


There is something reassuring (or smug and self-congratulatory, depending on how you look at it) for barristers to be able to say to themselves: we didn’t get to the Bar because of any particular advantage, but because we deserve to be here.

Hashi Mohamed lays waste to the idea of a meritocratic Bar in his book People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain.

This is not intended to be a shining example to those with a similar background to him: a former asylum seeker with unexceptional GCSEs from a failing school in a deprived area who was in receipt of welfare benefits.

He doesn’t feed the myth that if you want it enough, you will eventually reap what you sow: ‘If I genuinely believed that what I have achieved and overcome was possible for anyone, then I would have profoundly misunderstood the overarching lesson of my life.’

Readers are urged to let go of the idea that all that’s required to succeed against the odds is ‘some hard work and determination’. This is what makes the book an uncomfortable read.

While there are parts that don’t add much to a crowded conversation – Mohamed acknowledges that he has explored some ‘well-trodden paths, such as the role of education in social mobility’ – the passages that sparkle are his reflections on the tension between wanting to change the system and becoming part of the system.

Mohamed is pragmatic. In a nutshell: this is a game and here is how best you can play it, when the game is not set up for you to win. The Bar reflects many societal prejudices, whether we like it or not. For people from underrepresented groups to challenge any of those structural disadvantages, they must enter the profession in the first place. To enter the profession, they must play the game. For Mohamed, this isn’t a betrayal of your origins or acquiescence to institutional prejudice, but a realistic understanding of the world in which we live.

For instance, in one chapter, Mohamed admits he is criticised for encouraging his mentees to adapt to the system rather than forcing the system to change for them. In doing so, is he not simply propping up the status quo? His response is straightforward and brutal: ‘Change will come when people with diverse understandings and experiences of the world are truly represented at high levels in society – but it ain’t gonna happen if they’re falling at the first hurdle.’

In another particularly compelling chapter on language, Mohamed writes about ‘code-switching’: adapting your language to your environment to best obtain the result you want. Again, some may criticise him for suggesting that you have to change yourself in order to be accepted or taken seriously. This is tackled head on. ‘Is it fair?’ he asks. ‘No. But it is effective.’

Mohamed goes on to write: ‘I believe that, once we get to a place where young people are trained, prepped, pushed and encouraged to be articulate, where they can deploy a wide vocabulary with a clarity of thought, and are armed with new and exciting ideas, then we might be in a position to reshape the current linguistic landscape in favour of social, cultural and ethnic diversity. Perhaps then we will have found a way of neutralising prejudices instead of playing right into them.’

Who would want to admit that their path to the profession was a combination of hard work, privilege and sheer dumb luck? Mohamed forces us to confront these inconvenient truths:

‘The chance of you succeeding in Britain today is down to many factors: the wealth and profession of your parents; the kind of school you attended; your mental and physical health; and the quality of your early environment, in terms of stability and attention. You’ll need to work harder than you ever imagined – and hope that whatever talents you have… are going to still be needed when you grow up... You’ll need a lot of luck as you go; and let’s hope that, along the way, someone explains the unwritten rules of the world you want to join. And you’ll need to make it through all that with your belief in yourself – and your vision for the future – still intact. And then – maybe – you’ll make it.’

A ‘bit of a mouthful’, he readily admits, but a ‘damn sight more honest than anything with the word “meritocracy” in it’. Next time you feel tempted to wax lyrical about the meritocratic Bar, think again.

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Malvika Jaganmohan

Malvika Jaganmohan is a barrister at St Ives Chambers.