Ringside seat

Mel Nebhrajani started out at the Bar but was soon hooked on a career where law and politics collide. Here she talks to Grania Langdon-Down about how the ‘diversity story’ should be about the resilience, insight and talent of BAME lawyers – not ‘powerless victims’

Q How did you find life at the Chancery Bar as a young, female and Asian lawyer?

A 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. I don’t think I would have got a tenancy as easily if that hadn’t been the process.

But I found practice at the Bar much harder than I anticipated. The combination of being young, female and Asian wasn’t easy. People often assumed I was the court clerk or an usher. My own clients sometimes wouldn’t believe that I was their barrister. Solicitors didn’t instruct me because my name was too difficult or refused to instruct me for spurious reasons. I was sometimes treated as if I should just be grateful to have been allowed to join the club.

I often felt underestimated, particularly by opponents, which I used to my advantage on more than one occasion. 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.

Q What were the hardest aspects of life at the self-employed Bar?

A For me, the struggle was more about the lack of teamwork and leadership inherent in a self-employed profession – both of which I found mattered to me more than I expected. I found the life of a barrister lonely and 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. I had gone to the Bar to make law and I found myself making people – lots of them – homeless when it was often the quality of the lending decision that was to blame.

Q Describe your route to joining the Government Legal Service (GLS).

A I first went to the Charity Commission for a year, building on the charity work I had done at the Chancery Bar, to test the water. Chambers more than once asked me to return and, at times, I was tempted. But then I was offered a post at the Department for Education and Employment (as was), leading on teachers. After a lot of soul searching, I took it and, after the first hour, I was hooked. The work was challenging and important, it required incisive analysis, creative and novel thinking and political nous.

I can now see that coming to the GLS was a natural step. I had always been fascinated by politics – I come from a family of politicians and lawyers in India who had been integral to the independence movement and the new Indian government.

Q How has your career developed at the GLS and what have been the highlights so far?

A I’ve been in the GLS, mostly in what is now the Government Legal Department (GLD), for 18 years and have had a ringside seat on some of the most exciting and transformative areas over the years. At the Cabinet Office and No 10, I advised on House of Lords reform, human rights, devolution and freedom of information. I did the Bill on women-only shortlists for MPs and kicked off the civil partnerships work before having my first baby. I’ve also led on data protection at the Ministry of Justice when HMRC lost the child benefit data, and had various jobs at the Education Department, from teachers’ strikes and pension reform to academies and free schools, and at the Department for Transport – including airport expansion and merger of the legal team into GLD.

I was recently promoted to Director at the Department of Health which includes many of the most sensitive matters you read about in the papers.

Q What has excited you most about working in government?

A I’ve had an amazing career working with ministers – I still get excited about upholding the rule of law and helping the government govern well. I see us as constitutionally important. If you are interested in where politics and law collide – think The West Wing with British accents; if you want high quality work alongside brainy clients and lawyers; if you want to see subjects you advise on in the media; if you want work that matters to the whole country with big responsibility from early on but with support and nurture, this is the place to be. And if you want to make law every day, this is where it happens.

Q What is your experience of taking maternity leave and juggling work and family life?

A I have four children and taken a year out with each of them. Mostly it was not an issue – though it felt harder in the senior civil service (SCS) as there were fewer role models compared to now. But I was always welcomed back from maternity leave with stretching work – and no assumption made that my career was no longer important to me or the organisation. I’ve had senior colleagues who have really looked out for me – on occasion challenging my own assumptions about myself and my capability, pushing me on. That’s been very powerful. And I’ve tried to do the same for those coming up behind me.

Q You were the keynote speaker at last year’s GLS National Inclusion Week, hosted with the Black Solicitors’ Network. What do you hope people will learn from this?

A The ‘diversity story’ can sometimes be portrayed as one of powerless victims. It isn’t. I do a lot of mentoring for people from many under-represented groups – BAME, LGBT, disabled, women – and what I’ve been struck by in fact is that the ‘diversity story’ is frequently one of resilience, insight and talent, persistence, self-help and energy. Some of the most engaged people I know come from under-represented groups – and they are engaged because they want to see a difference. The trick for any organisation is to harness that power. It doesn’t make business sense to miss out on that energy.

Q What is the GLS doing to improve diversity – and can it do more?

A The GLS as a whole, and GLD in particular, are doing much better on diversity. But there is still more to do – I particularly worry about colleagues with a disability and about attitudes to mental health and there are still pockets of homogeneity. But we want to tackle under-representation and that’s half the battle.

The new diversity networks in GLD are a huge step forward. I’d like to see them have more of a role holding us, as the senior leadership, to account for the organisation’s diversity activity and outcomes – for instance on declaration rates, mutual mentoring and supporting line managers to have diversity conversations. We can’t be afraid of our unconscious biases or shy away from talking about diversity and our protected characteristics.

I was mentored by Jonathan Jones, GLD’s Permanent Secretary, and got on the competitive civil service’s senior leaders scheme, both of which helped refine my thinking and supported my promotion to Director. Part of the interview process for Director was a staff panel made up of representatives from the team I’d be leading and from the diversity networks. That was the first time in a long career that I have ever been interviewed by a person of colour. For me it was an iconic moment. At interview my own approach to diversity and inclusivity was closely tested. That had never happened before and it was refreshing.

I’ve also been involved in looking at the differential progress of different BAME communities in the civil service. One thing that emerged is that attitudes to the civil service in the various communities can be a hindrance. In my own community, ‘boastability’ is an issue – many young people wanted to come and do mini-pupillages with me in chambers because they saw it as having status but they wouldn’t countenance work experience in the civil service. I was told often by my parents’ friends that I shouldn’t join because I would never be promoted. For some it is distrust of the establishment, for others, the perceived lack of financial reward, while others just don’t know what we do. The only way to change those perceptions is to reach out to as wide and diverse a group as we can.

Q How is the GLS responding to that challenge in practical terms?

A A very impressive GLD colleague has set up a cross-Whitehall network for BAME staff at SCS level so that we can help ourselves with role models, coaching and leadership events, support others already in the civil service to progress to the SCS, and encourage others to join the civil service. As part of the civil service leadership, it’s up to us to show people that this is an inclusive environment – you don’t have to pretend to be something you are not to fit in. As one of my colleagues powerfully put it we need people to know that in the civil service: ‘Who you are is what we want.’

Q How important is it to have role models – and is it hard feeling that responsibility?

A It definitely feels like a big responsibility being one of the few BAME civil servants to get to Director. The expectation, particularly of BAME colleagues, as I neared promotion was tangible, as was the sense that it was another crack in the glass ceiling when I was promoted. People spontaneously applauded the news. I was taken aback by that.

Being a role model weighs heavily though – you know your career is being watched. But I’ve tried to see being a woman and from a BAME background as an advantage – I’m a better leader for being a mum to many. It’s developed my emotional intelligence, my handling skills and my powers of persuasion – if you can persuade four primary age children to get ready on time every morning, you can do anything. I have worked part-time and that experience has made me more efficient and better able to understand the challenges of part-time colleagues. I didn’t see maternity leave as dead career time: I reflected on what I’d learned and thought more deeply about what comes next.

Being of immigrant stock, and the first generation born here, gives me a different perspective on the world and I’ve tried to bring that to what I do. Unfortunately, there is often less diversity as you get more senior – I can frequently be the only BAME person in the room. I’ve tried to translate my different perspective into a positive contribution and in turn, I’ve tried to make the most of listening to other viewpoints to challenge my own thinking.

Contributor Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist. This interview was first published on the LexisNexis Blog Future of Law

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Grania Langdon-Down

Grania is a freelance legal journalist. Former Press Association crime and legal affairs correspondent, Grania now writes for The Times law section, legal magazines and legal websites, including LexisNexis.