University: Lincoln College, University of Oxford
Immigration lawyers deal with all legal matters relating to immigration and nationality. The work ranges from asylum and human rights claims through applications by family members and students to advising businesses on securing immigration status for their employees. There is a significant and increasing European law element, and many cases raise important human rights issues. The law is rapidly developing, in terms of both statute and case law, and procedural timeframes are tight. There is a good deal of overlap with social welfare, mental health, prison law, criminal law and civil actions.
“Your supervisor in pupillage can be a critical inspiration in terms of how you practise and the kind of work you do,” says Sonali Naik QC. She explains how working as a pupil under the pre-eminent human rights lawyer Dame Laura Cox – who went on to serve as a justice of the High Court – held her in good stead for pursuing her own career within the field of human rights. After pupillage, Sonali left the Bar for five years to work firstly at the Refugee Legal Centre and then at Tower Hamlets Law Centre, before joining Garden Court Chambers in 1998.
The experience of working in the NGO sector solidified to Sonali exactly what kind of law she wanted to practise: “It’s no bad thing to have worked in different environments before the Bar as I did. It can be quite difficult to come into this area straight from university. When I first started, I was keen to practise in employment and discrimination work, but I soon realised that I really wanted to do immigration law which includes asylum, nationality, detention and deprivation work within the broader bracket of human rights law.”
When asked about the highlight of her career, Sonali has more than one answer: “My first case in the House of Lords was when I was a junior just back from maternity leave – managing to get the case together and winning in those circumstances is a real highlight!” There’s also her first appearance on her feet in the Supreme Court last year, and the case that saw Sonali obtain three interim injunctions from the Court of Appeal to prevent the removal of asylum seekers on charter flights to Afghanistan. “It’s difficult to pick just one highlight because they all have different significances,” she says. “A case could be particularly important for you as a lawyer, or for the result for the client, or because of the personal context, or all three.”
Cases are all about people
It’s the people that Sonali works with who make the job equally enjoyable and demanding: “I like the intellectual challenge of my work, but not just in the abstract. Cases are all about people, their stories, often for very vulnerable people. Being able to achieve just outcomes for them is the greatest satisfaction of the job.”
It can be difficult for aspiring barristers to gain experience working with the kind of clients that you will often encounter in immigration work, Sonali admits. The role requires careful handling and maturity, and the ability to deal with people who are not necessarily like you or who haven’t always had the same type of life experiences or chances as you have. For example, she says: “It can be hard to put yourself in the position of a migrant who has travelled overland for days in the back of a lorry to come to this country. You can only really gain those skills with experience. The most important thing is to listen.”
At the heart of immigration law is being able to identify and diagnose individuals’ legal problems with considerable empathy. Prospective law students should ask themselves why they want to work in this area. “It’s important to, yourself, interrogate the reasons why you want to become an immigration lawyer,” says Sonali. “Is it an academic interest in immigration or asylum, or because you want to help vulnerable people – and what role do you want to have?” This kind of self-analysis is crucial to understanding if you would be suited to this type of work, and if you should become a barrister or solicitor.
It can be hard to put yourself in the position of a migrant who has travelled overland for days in the back of a lorry to come to this country. You can only really gain those skills with experience – the most important thing is to listen.
Looking to the future
In terms of issues affecting this sensitive and sometimes unpredictable area of law, Sonali shrugs off Brexit as the least of her legal worries: “Although Brexit will inevitably have consequences in terms of workload, the main problem right now is the much demoralised and depleted legal aid system that has been under attack from many successive administrations.” The future of a legal aid chambers looks pretty bleak, with it becoming increasingly difficult to take on legal aid work exclusively. “When I started, it was a respected and viable option to do solely legal aid work, but now the challenge is to figure out how to continue undertaking a significant amount of publicly funded work whilst maintaining a sustainable practice.“
The future for those wishing to pursue a career at the Bar is not so rosy either. “It’s more competitive than ever to become a barrister,” says Sonali. “And it’s certainly not a level playing field. There are those who will be much more advantaged in terms of contacts or background. Students should look out for every possible opportunity to get sponsorship, scholarship or financial assistance.” Persistence and proactivity are key. Sonali’s ultimate advice is to remember that it’s not just a job; it’s a profession. “It doesn’t seek you out, you have to seek it.”
Stay true to your principles
Working life has changed for Sonali since she took silk in 2018. Since then, she does less court work and spends more time preparing strategic cases. She emphasises the solitary nature of the job and the importance of self-motivation. It is only now, later in her career that Sonali often works with a team of juniors, and not just on her own with a solicitor. The flexibility of self-employment was also a pull-factor for her in becoming a barrister, despite the time-consuming nature of some aspects of the job. “You have to be prepared to do your own admin!” she laughs. “That’s very different to working in a law firm where you may have your own secretary.”
What did Sonali wish she’d known about being a barrister before embarking on this career? “It is possible to stay true to your principles and not compromise and still succeed… I’ve always done the type of work I wanted to because it was interesting and important to me.”