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LCN Says

Your background shouldn’t be a barrier to reaching your goals

updated on 24 October 2023

Reading time: four minutes

The legal profession has a long way to go before it’s truly representative of the population it serves and it’s still playing catch-up when it comes to recognising the benefits diversity can bring.

For aspiring lawyers from traditionally underrepresented groups, that can mean there are additional obstacles to entering the profession. However, the law is an amazing career for those who have an enquiring mind and your background shouldn’t be a barrier to reaching your career goals.

As a Black British woman of Jamaican heritage, raised by a single mother in social housing, and as a law lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University where more than half of the students are from households where their parents didn’t attend university, I know it can be tough. But I also see that bringing your own character, perspectives and experiences to the workplace can be a huge benefit. What I say to my students is think about what you bring to the workplace, not what you don’t.

Social capital

My background and route to being the head of law was anything but traditional. For me, that meant I wasn’t always aware of the social norms at play in the legal world. I want my students, many of whom have had a similar start to their journey as I did, to be aware of the social norms that are still part of working in the legal or other professional industries.

Unlike their peers, they’ll have to learn to navigate what others take for granted. It can start with little things like dress code or small talk. Some of our students have never had to own a suit until it’s needed for an assessment or work experience opportunity, or they may struggle to fit in when it comes to small talk, such as the language used, mannerisms and even down to discussing extracurricular activities they may never have engaged with such as tennis, rugby, skiing or running (for fun!).

It's important to be aware of this when embarking on your career but it shouldn’t mean compromising who you are. In fact, who you are and your life experiences bring ‘social capital’ that can help bridge divides and foster cooperation. Social mobility is a key agenda item for many organisations including universities, but it doesn’t always address the emotional conflict that can be felt by a first-generation graduate. Social mobility shouldn’t just be about lifting people out of one culture and dropping them in another, and you shouldn’t have to compromise your own sense of identity – instead, it can work in your favour.

Magic circle firm commits to social mobility objectives – find out more via LawCareers.Net’s News.

Experience and work-ready skills

To give our students the best chance of succeeding we ensure there’s a significant focus on work-ready skills, such as project management. Many of our law lecturers have an industry background and we work closely with partner firms to give our students the practical and transferable skills needed by the profession to apply the law to real-life situations and problems rather than simply relying on a theoretical understanding of the law.

I recommend building on this by gaining as many real-life experiences as you can. This is the best way to understand what’s going on around you. That might mean work experience in a legal environment, paid part-time work, volunteering or travel.

How do I figure out which law firms value diversity and inclusion?’, read this Oracle for LawCareers.Net’s advice.

Engaging in new experiences is not only fun, but it also enables you to identify trends and patterns and be in a better position to see how you can add value in any given situation or workplace. I’d say that always being on the lookout and making the most of these kinds of opportunities has been a key factor in my success.

I’ve recently come across the ‘love not fear’ concept. Living through fear, we do what we think is safe, we doubt ourselves and pass up new opportunities. Living through love, we embrace challenges as opportunities. You’ll meet different people, explore unchartered environments and learn new things. That doesn’t mean things will be easy, but it does mean having the courage to be vulnerable and move beyond our comfort zone. As a student, think about how, in addition to the academic side of law, you can build the skills and experiences the legal industry is looking for. Increasingly the profession is recognising the value diversity can bring in terms of fresh perspectives and powerful experiences. Be confident in knowing that your background, character, and identity can work in your favour and play a key part in your success.

Alicia Virtue is head of law at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). To find out more about studying law at ARU, visit the university website.