Have you ever wondered how people get to the jobs they are in, especially in niche fields? I certainly have, and about two years ago, along with the show’s producer, Amy Jansen, I endeavoured to reach out and record interviews with as many lawyers as I could who had made it in the legal profession despite starting from a non-legal background. We undertook this exercise for two reasons. First, we wanted to show aspiring lawyers that the profession was open to people with talent and commitment, and that the perceived legal glass ceilings can be broken. On our journey, we have seen clearly that there is no such thing as a typical, successful lawyer, and no identikit for tomorrow’s lawyer.

Secondly, we wanted to give those who had made it from non-legal backgrounds a chance to tell their life stories and explain how each of them overcame barriers to entry into the profession. In doing so, we hoped they would lay a trail others could follow and those we interviewed would pass on advice about how aspiring lawyers with talent and commitment could successfully make it into legal practice.

But I had underestimated how much laughter there would be on the podcasts. Many of the stories our guests told were full of humanity, humour and not a few well told anecdotes. One of my early interviewees was Rosaleen Kilbane who is the managing partner of the Community Law Partnership, an award-winning legal aid practice in Birmingham. Rosaleen was the first person in her family not to leave school at 16 and told us that the reaction of her father was, ‘Well, you do whatever you want, love, because in a few years’ time you’ll be pushing a pram. So, it really doesn’t matter, you just go and do whatever you want to do.’ So she did, and only become a parent after she was well established as a housing rights lawyer.

The common theme we heard from our interviewees was that anyone pushing their nose to the window of the legal profession from outside has to work twice as hard, be twice as committed and three times as determined to make it as a lawyer – either as a solicitor or as a barrister. One of our guests, barrister Helal Ahmed of Spire Chambers, pointedly explained that while his fellow law students were doing vacation work placements across university holidays, he had to return to work long hours in the family Bangladeshi restaurant. But he says he learned life lessons there which he uses in his professional work to this day.

Dawn Brathwaite told her story as a lawyer who qualified in Trinidad, came to the UK after a few years of practice and had to start all over again at the bottom as she toiled away at a small firm, building her skills and, at the same time, having two young daughters and doing a part-time MBA – so working twice as hard was not just confined to the day job. Dawn became a partner in a major law firm, Mills & Reeve, and was trusted to steer through successful litigation against pharmaceutical companies that has saved the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds.

I also have had the privilege of interviewing Lady Hale, who came from an entirely non-legal background, and the Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, who qualified and worked as an employment lawyer before entering politics as the MP for Tottenham. Each provided insights as they overcame discrimination in their hugely successful careers. Cherie Blair KC gave us a glimpse into her Liverpool upbringing, being brought up by a single mother with an absent actor father – and even possibly with a trace of the scouse accent returning as she described her journey into the law (and with a bit of politics on the side).

I am acutely conscious that we have not interviewed those who knocked on the door of the law and did not find a way to enter. There are many more people who try to become lawyers than those who succeed, and we have not heard the voices of those who found the door jammed. But those who we did interview were generous in saying that their success was often down to a mixture of hard work and good fortune – and that they might well not have made it without the latter. But, on the way, each describes the knocks, the setbacks and how they developed resilience in the face of rejection. Those who are successful today are, judging on the life stories we heard, almost always those who have suffered more than their share of failures.

The top pieces of ‘best advice’

So, what are the top pieces of ‘best advice’ from those on our podcasts? The first, and consistent theme, was that those from outside middle-class, professional upbringings felt they had to work far harder than their peers to get noticed and to get ahead. Getting a first or upper second degree is not enough. Accents, clothes, and understanding nuances about the lives led by lawyers are all seen by those trying to enter the profession as subtle ‘signals’ by incomers to the legal world as to who is comfortable and who is swimming out of their depth. They all described working harder to overcome the temptation by those doing the selecting to choose ‘someone like us’. That is a form of unconscious bias that those who have not grown up in a legal environment still feel strongly they have to work hard to overcome. For those who are now secure in a professional career and are doing the selecting, such as Nitin Rajput at DAC Beachcroft LLP, they told us how determined they were to open the door to the next generation of recruits with talent and commitment but without the right accent, having gone to the right university or without the right suit.

The second message was that those who have grown up on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ should never underplay the soft skill life advantages of those who have a myriad of experiences outside the world of lawyers. Our interviewees told us they were better lawyers because they had years of experience dealing with difficult customers, being talked down to, being ignored by officialdom and understanding what it is like to be at the margins of society, and our conversation with Dr S Chelvan, a committed refugee and LGBTQIA rights activist and Head of Immigration and Public Law at 33 Bedford Row, illuminated how important it is for current lawyers to be vocal about this. Visible representation is so important within the legal professions.

That was as true in commercial work as it was in legal aid practice. They do not need to fake empathy for those who are awkward, powerless or penniless; the message was that there are real advantages in being a lawyer who has lived that life and has the T-shirt. The challenge is persuading lawyers who do not have these experiences that their law firm or chambers will be enriched by someone who does. That is the applicant’s first advocacy task – to show that, for example, having been a child in care is an advantage, not an obstacle. Our interviewees said one of their biggest challenges was to persuade those doing legal hiring that they could genuinely bring something to the firm or chambers that is really different because of their background. Proving it once they were hired was often far easier.

The third consistent message was to not try to pretend to be anyone other than yourself. ‘Be yourself – you are good enough’ was a strong message that our interviewees wanted to pass on to the next generation. Trying to fake being someone you are not will only lead to you being found out. Successful legal practitioners were those who embraced and celebrated their differences and diverse backgrounds.

The fourth message was that students should make the best use of the opportunities they had to network with lawyers, take part in debates and moot, work on pro bono projects and generally grab any opportunity they could to spend time with those in the profession. ‘Don’t be shy – don’t worry about making a fool of yourself, get stuck in’ was a strong theme. Both lawyers in the UK and the USA emphasised that, whatever their background, those students who made efforts to engage with practising lawyers were generally rewarded with wide smiles and a welcoming attitude from those in practice. However huge the social and ideological gulf between a practising lawyer and a student, our interviewees said that the main barriers were often in the mind of the aspiring lawyers rather than in the attitude of the practising ones. The takeway was that networking and pro bono commitment pays off.

Finally, there is also a strong message to those running legal recruitment exercises from our interviewees about assessing potential in candidates from all backgrounds, not just making hiring decisions based on what the candidate had achieved at that stage. Legal recruitment is a long-term investment to develop professional skills over years, not an exercise to put someone on the legal stage tomorrow. Many of our interviewees identified a single individual who saw potential in them at a stage when they were raw recruits, encouraged their professional development, opened doors for them and put them on the road to success. The interviews celebrate the kindness of those lawyers in their own personal histories whose foresight helped them on their journey into the professions.

Some of the stories from our interviewees are nothing less than inspiring and show that for every setback there is someone with the courage to prevail. You can listen to Connie Purdy describing how she overcame serious chronic anxiety as a teenager with a long course of treatment and therapy, and now manages the stresses and anxieties of work as a family practitioner barrister, wonder at Charles Vega who parked a commercial management career in his 50s to retrain as a lawyer, drove thousands of miles a month to get to college to do legal studies and then opened his own law firm at an age when many of his contemporaries were focusing on retirement.

We have more fantastic conversations to share, such as Joel Semakula, a barrister at Landmark Chambers who shares his story as a young Black student from East London who set his sights on the Bar, Alex Pritchard who, still only a few weeks shy of her one-year anniversary of being a lawyer at one of the top AmLaw 100 law firms, demonstrates how sheer determination and passion can help clear a pathway to success, and Reagan Persaud, the UK’s only BAME transgender barrister, who shares her struggles as well as her hopes for the future. All of our guests have stories to tell and some of them are quietly astounding. 


You can find all the episodes on our website, www.legalglassceilings.com, as well as on all the major podcast platforms such as Spotify, Apple, Overcast and Audible. If you or someone you know would like to share their journey to the law with us, please get in touch with show’s producer, Amy Jansen at legalglassceilings@gmail.com