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I bought a Gucci handbag and pretended to like rugby in a bid to fit in with my magic circle peers

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Career success shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of being yourself, says City lawyer turned career coach Husnara Begum

Law isn’t a suitable profession for a wheelchair user. Sorry, we can’t offer you a place on our law degree programme because our library doesn’t have wheelchair access. It will be great to get more Indian trainees into our firm because India is the next big thing (for the record I am not Indian!). How will our clients react to working with a disabled lawyer? You don’t look or behave like a typical disabled person. I hope you’re not speeding in that wheelchair. And my all-time favourite: you only got a training contract with a magic circle firm because you’re an Asian female who uses a wheelchair and the first in your family to go to university — are you sure you’re not a lesbian as well? This is just a small sample of the barrage of negative and inappropriate comments I’ve had to put up since starting my journey into the legal profession.

Granted most of these examples date back to the early and mid-1990s. This was before disability discrimination laws officially came into force and when City law firms were dominated by middle aged, middle class, Oxbridge-educated white men. Since then progress has been made across the profession to attract trainees from a broader mix of backgrounds and initiatives such as contextual recruitment are definitely a move in the right direction. But focussing on recruiting trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds doesn’t go far enough. Efforts now need to shift towards retention. I know from my own personal experience of training as a magic circle lawyer that the world I grew up in where 13 of us lived in a three-bedroom terraced house in one of the poorest areas of Luton could not be any further removed from the shiny gleaming offices occupied by City law firms.

I may have had the academic credentials to succeed but when it came to ‘fitting in’ with the other trainees in my intake and more significantly being taken seriously by partners I had yet another mountain to climb. This one was bigger than anything else I had encountered and with no safety harnesses in place I realised that if I didn’t quickly adapt my personal image, the way I interacted with colleagues and clients and absorb myself into middle class hobbies and pass times I would never reach the summit. So, to avoid crashing to the ground I ditched the hand me downs I inherited from my older sisters, treated myself to a Gucci handbag, removed the go-faster stickers from my wheelchair, swotted up on Shakespeare, feigned an interest in rugby (to be honest I still don’t understand the rules), and even bought my first ever CD in classical music.

To be fair I scrubbed up pretty well but couldn’t help thinking that all this came at a hefty cost. I was losing my true cultural identity and it all felt a bit fake. Indeed, when I look back and reflect on my early years of working in the City, the recurring question I kept asking myself is why was the onus on me to change? Why didn’t the lawyers around me learn to adapt instead? Indeed, that is precisely what one black trainee I was speaking to recently asked me when we discussed what new entrants to the profession, who hail from less privileged backgrounds, can do to create positive first impressions. Understandably, that particular trainee’s response was why don’t partners have a go a listening to RnB or hip hop rather than expect me to get excited about Glyndebourne (yes I did have to look that up) or a Midsummer Night’s Dream? And why do most social activities put on for trainees and vacation scheme students involve excessive amounts of alcohol?

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So, who should the responsibility lie with? Is it acceptable for partners to expect rough diamonds to arrive at their offices polished or should law firms embrace a culture that celebrates diversity? Personally, I think we should all do our bit. Heightened self-awareness that gets you thinking more carefully about how you are perceived by colleagues and clients irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or disability is an important attribute commonly possessed by high achievers. As is the ability to be more versatile. Indeed, I’m now quite the expert and feel just as confident putting a white male partner ten years my senior at ease when running a media training session as when I discuss the latest make-up trends with my teenage nieces. I also feel proud telling stories about my Bangladeshi heritage and how our cuisine differs to what is typically on offer at an Indian restaurant. And most recently I turned up to an awards dinner wearing a sari and much to my surprise rather than sticking out like a sore thumb I received so many compliments. And the best bit was not having to fork out a fortune on a new cocktail dress.

That said, firms also need to up their game to ensure work is allocated fairly because the exposure a trainee or junior lawyer gains to key clients, partners and top deals will have a huge impact on their career progression. Sadly, very few firms have got this right with work still being unfairly distributed to ‘pet’ trainees/associates. Unconscious bias training maybe a solution in this context, but this is yet another thorny issue for law firm diversity professionals with many telling me that there is insufficient research available on whether it even works?

Mentoring is widely accepted as a highly personal and effective intervention that can enhance the career development of underrepresented groups and is increasingly being used successfully in the context of gender diversity. But, as well as the cost, offering mentoring to trainees who have been recruited via diversity initiatives may not be as straight forward because firms potentially run the risk of offending such individuals for being ‘singled out’ as needing additional support for not being the ‘right type’. What’s more, aren’t the trainees perfectly within their rights to ask why they should change and not their senior colleagues?

Husnara Begum is a career coach and outplacement specialist with a particular focus on working with final seat trainees and junior associates. She was previously a legal affairs journalist and a solicitor at Linklaters.

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111 Comments

Anonymous

‘Unconcious bias’ is the modern-day original sin, it can’t be measured in any significant way.

(52)(10)

Anonymous

Decent wind-up article Tommy, 8/10.

(9)(5)

Anonymous

Popped rugby shirt collars

All aboard the banter bus

(19)(0)

Anonymous

Who says it has to be measured? The whole idea is that you examine yourself to consider whether you are guilty of it. Practically everyone is to some extent – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but if you identify it you can combat it.

(14)(3)

ZONE 1

“guilty”

(4)(2)

Anonymous

“Guilty” of something that is “unconscious”.

Geez Louise…

(6)(7)

Anonymous

Guilty simply means having done something that is wrong or illegal.

Personally I consider discriminating against people who aren’t like me to be wrong.

You might not think that is wrong.

(10)(0)

Barrister

It can. People with non-Anglo names have been shown in studies to receive fewer interviews. Some orchestra now do “blind” auditions ( you play behind a screen), to address the fact that Anglo men were getting all the jobs. I regularly recommend 2 junior barristers in my chambers. One is an Anglo male, the other a Female with a Lebanese name. She is the better barrister. Guess who the solicitors ring most? I’m considering just recommending her….

(1)(0)

ZONE 1

Complains about being marginalised due to characteristics, then marginalises “middle aged, middle class, Oxbridge-educated white men” due to their characteristics.

(100)(55)

Ano

Middle class Oxbridge men are literally not marginalised you sad person.

(88)(60)

Anonymous

They just were. By the author. Can’t you read?

(46)(28)

Anonymous

There is no such thing as reverse racism, you absolute pillock
She did a good job of discussing how the onus is on both the firm and the trainee to accommodate each other in a healthy environment

(32)(45)

Anonymous

You’re right, it’s just racism.

Way to ruin a point by making the exact same error on the people you are accusing.

Anon

I’m sure they’ve been deeply affected.

(23)(5)

Anonymous

As a middle class white man, if you’re triggered by this you’re utterly pathetic.

(56)(15)

Donna from Archives

Ladies and gentlemen, our hero has arrived.

Your virtue is unrivaled, m’lord.

(30)(5)

Anonymous

Unsure how not being triggered by a minority woman writing an article makes me a white knight but you do you.

(8)(1)

YourAverageLawyer

Straw man argument. There was no argument put forth to suggest that, by virtue of you not being “triggered by a minority woman writing an article” you qualify as a “white knight”. The issue is that you are calling other people pathetic, for taking issue with the article, but only if they’re a white middle class man? You might argue that reverse racism or reverse discrimination does not exist, but an ad hominem argument isn’t very reasonable, and it devalues your opinion. Also, you’re misleading everyone by arguing that readers are getting triggered simply because a minority woman wrote an article, implying racism or bigotry of some sort. The annoyance is aimed at the woman due to apparent hypocrisy on her part, attributing certain characteristics to all WMC Oxbridge educated men, with no fine brush.

Anonymous

We are not “triggered”. That is for you self-pitying snowflakes. We are, however, tired of your moaning and bleating.

(17)(18)

Anonymous

Maybe we need to put some kind of warning on articles by women and ethnic minorities so you could avoid them and keep your blood pressure down?

(13)(2)

Anonymous

No, the poor use of statistics and wanton self-pity is quite amusing. It is the banal regulatory bleating and virtue signalling that is the bigger problem.

Benny Goodman

Appalling to assume that this author is representative of women and ethnic minorities simply because she is a member of those groups.

Wrong

This article does no such thing. Your sensitivities may be inferred it, but your search for victimhood is misplaced.

(5)(0)

Barrister

It can. People with non-Anglo names have been shown in studies to receive fewer interviews. Some orchestra now do “blind” auditions ( you play behind a screen), to address the fact that Anglo men were getting all the jobs. I regularly recommend 2 junior barristers in my chambers. One is an Anglo male, the other a Female with a Lebanese name. She is the better barrister. Guess who the solicitors ring most? I’m considering just recommending her….

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I spent all night watching Love Island, but did not find any stories there. Nothing interesting on RoF or Eve’s vlog. What do I do? What do I do? Will continue watching Love Island. Maybe something legal will come up there.

Tom

(23)(0)

Anonymous

Legal journalist’s life is hard indeed

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Over the years, I have seen plenty of aspiring solicitors and barristers do anything and everything they can to assimilate into the gelatinous blob that is lawyer culture, or perceived lawyer culture. Elocution lessons, taking up clay pigeon shooting and fencing, chipping away at their personality in order to fit a mould. Provided one excels as a practitioner and isn’t completely anti-social, the rest, to my mind, is irrelevant.

(50)(2)

Twickenham shooting range

Unsure why you are dissing clay pigeon shooting. Nothing quite like getting a shotgun and shooting things with it.

(15)(4)

Anonymous

I’m not at all dissing it. I am pointing out that some people partake in it principally because they feel it will help them fit in, or gain access to the “right” sort of people.

(5)(1)

SmallTownLawyer

The joke

Your head

(1)(1)

Anonymous

“Nothing quite like getting a shotgun and shooting things with it”

Try telling a judge that….

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Clay pigeon shooting? Now that is a red flag in itself. If one is not going on a proper shoot then going for the grubby cheap option is worse than doing nothing. And the settings on the chokes at these places are a joke too.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Elocution lessons rofl lmao

(16)(1)

Anonymous

I had to buy a £2500 Armani suit, £9000 Rolex watch, and take coke on a weeknight to fit in.

(51)(2)

Pat Bateman

I like to dissect girls. Did you know that I’m utterly insane?

(16)(1)

Anonymous

Why the cheap suit and watch?

(26)(1)

TheHorolawgist

If you’re not wearing a suit from a Savile Row tailor (I have 3 bespoke suits from Kilgour, but Gieves and Hawkes are equally good) then please reconsider. Also, please don’t be boastful about wearing a Rolex. Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre are the only watchmakers that still consistently make fine watches. Don’t wear an Audemars Piguet. These watches are for footballers with no taste. Even worse are watches made by Richard Mille and Roger Dubuis. These watches are for boxers with a similar lack of taste. I own a Vacheron Constantin (Historiques Cornes De Vacheron 1955 Chronograph), but I saved for a while to buy this for myself.

(7)(7)

Anonymous

Vacherons are the way to go, but I have always preferred the simplicity of the Patrimony range. But that’s because I tend to find chronograph faces too. The added mechanisms add little usefulness over the disruption to the sense of elegance of the plainer face.

(5)(2)

Barrister

Just look at your phone, it tells the time.

(1)(0)

The Horolawgist

Patek Philippe*
Now you’ve gotten me spelling Patek Philippe wrong you absolute cretins. Try not deleting my comments next time so I don’t have to write a whole comment again, and then words autocorrect because Apple doesn’t recognise the names of French watchmakers.

(0)(0)

The Horolawgist.

Oh my fucking God.
*Now you’ve got me spelling Patek Philippe wrong.

Fuck you Legal Cheek.

(2)(0)

The REAL Horolawgist

“Apple doesn’t recognise the names of French watchmakers”

French!? Swiss old boy, Swiss.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

The thing with working at law firms is that it is not wholly dissimilar to other companies – Fit In or Fuck Off.

It sucks. If your work is up to scratch but you don’t subscribe to the expectations of the personality they think you should display then it is career suicide.

Agree that disabled lawyers are a tiny minority. A lot more BAME lawyers have come through in recent times but so few law firms encourage physically disabled lawyers to join them.

(20)(3)

Grey Head

Yes, fitting in from trainees in any profession is critical – not only do you need to get on with colleagues but, more importantly, your clients. You’re a fee earner ffs.
Too much bull today about respecting heritage, etc. This is a job to make money and that’s it.

(15)(2)

Anonymous

Great article but tbf you should love your rugger!

(8)(7)

Anonymous

“What’s more, aren’t the trainees perfectly within their rights to ask why they should change and not their senior colleagues?”

No. The individual fits the mold established by the mass or he can find somewhere else to work.

I have a passion for miniature painting, that doesn’t mean I am going to try and prove everyone should like and accept it. If 90% of the office likes rugby, then I shall try to learn more about rugby.

You want to be unique and special, go do an arts degree. Not Law. Especially not Corporate Law.

(46)(14)

Anonymous

Here here. Damn art and geography grads ruining the legal profession.

(22)(7)

Tarquin Wombleby, DPhil

It’s “hear hear”, you illiterate vulgar peasant.

(39)(0)

Egészségedre

It’s “hearken to me”, you inerudite boor.

(7)(1)

Anonymous

What kind of miniature painting?

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Warhammer 40k stuff. It actually came up in interviews several times and didn’t block me from getting my job in a MC firm but I’m still aware that my colleagues may not like it. To each their own, but at the same time, I know they’re a lot into golf, so I got back into it as well.

It would be silly of me to try and force the firm to take up my hobbies. On the other hand it makes sense to get a sense of a common subject of discussion.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Who gives a fuck what your hobbies are

None of my MC colleagues have hobbies as far as im aware. Spend too much time in the office

(4)(3)

Warhammer Fantasy dude

Out of curiosity, which firm are you at? Have you found many people interested in the hobby?

I myself have been in love with the idea of Warhammer (though primarily fantasy I have to admit) for many years now but haven’t found the time, or money (the law firm job will change that at least), or consistent gaming group to take it any further.

I imagine I’d be more than pleasantly surprised to come to my first day on the job and find someone else who’s active in the hobby. 😀

(1)(0)

Anonymous

11:11, That was also my point, more or less. To each their own hobbies or passion, but if there’s one that is shared by a vast majority of the office, you do ought to at least learn about it somewhat to fit in, whether you like it or not.

Fantasy Dude, I’m with CC at the moment. As far as I’m aware for now I’m the only one but again, I tend to keep it to myself and suspect anyone else in the hobby would do the same. There are still some fairly true stereotypes about smelly neckbeards being the main population of the hobby after all. Don’t want to be associated with that.

As to you BoB, to each their own really. Ask any mature player they’ll admit in a heartbeat that the game itself is not a “good” one. The main aspect shared by many is the practical part, the painting, the modelling, that kind of stuff. At this point the game itself is an added bonus.

Warhammer Fantasy dude

Nothing worse than a smelly underground gaming club on a Friday evening haha, especially if youre not into MTG and are looking for that one poor soul who is looking at other niche games.

I dont know how it is in 40k, but I have been tangentially following the news around fantasy. Ive heard most people are pretty disgruntled about the crap they did with age of sigmar, theyre trying to bring it closer to 40k (round individual bases and all) likely cos fantasy itsnt as much of a money cow? Anyhow I know some enthusiasts made their own version, called 9th Age, and theyre basically redesigning the game by keeping everything thats good about it from previous editions and fixing some stuff which GW has been ignoring for literal decades. Good thing im not an IP lawyer, thats a time bomb waiting for a lawsuit if ive ever seen one.

Has 40k also gone to hell? Or is it still (reasonably) balanced / fun to play?

Bob

I am an historical wargamer and miniature painter. I would persecute someone for admitting to involvement in Warhammer, which is a poor wargame with cartoonish figures. All designed for children with too much money.

(6)(3)

Anonymous

A right old twat is what you are mate. And JSYK saying “an” before “historical” makes you sound like a pissed peasant with a lisp.

Trainee Legal Executive

Tyranids FTW

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Xenos filth.

Anonymous

The small kind.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Insightful article

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Hi Husnara, nice of you to join us.

(15)(2)

Husnara Begum

That wasn’t me. I’ve been in meetings all day. Anyway, not sure how to take some of these comments. Most are just ridiculous or pointless and trivialise a topic that needs to be examined properly and sensitively. I’m not claiming to to be a victim or indeed a hero. I simply want to highlight the importance for creating a profession that is a true reflection of society. Most junior lawyers will not have the courage to speak out.

(14)(8)

MC Associate

Sounds like you just can’t handle the savage bantah

(6)(8)

Spaffman & Throbbin

Cool story brah.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Leftist trash. I’m an ethnic-minority trainee, and even I would never be so entitled as to insist on ‘the firm changing’ rather than changing myself…

(26)(22)

Not a fan

That is not what she literally meant so clearly you’re not a magic circle trainee bc your reading comprehension skills are in the gutter

(18)(1)

Husnara Begum

I didn’t say that. Suggest you read the article again. I clearly state the onus should be on both sides.

(9)(3)

Tugg Speedman

Savage, top bantz old boy

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Lol given how international most city law firm intakes are, do most trainees even come from rugby playing countries?

(9)(2)

Anonymous

There’s some truth to this – and magic circle firms might well attract a certain class of people who have had a fortunate ubringing and education and who care less about money per se and more about being at a prestigious British institution with a global brand – but people also need to be less sensitive ffs. If you have been to university in this country and then law school there is no reason why you should feel so different to your peers and not feel at ease in their company. It’s less about material possessions and more about knowing how to behave, be personable and build rapport with people. You can practise all of that at university etc.

(15)(2)

Anonymous

If you don’t like the rules of the clubhouse, don’t join the club. There are plenty of other places you can go.

Also, if you genuinely *did* buy a Gucci handbag and feign an interest in Shakespeare and classical music, you really are a first-rate pillock. Nobody hates people from poorer backgrounds; people have quite sizeable issues with pretentious humbugs.

(26)(15)

The good ole days

Who needs to feign an interest in classical music and shakespeare? Head and shoulders above the contemporary filth that drowns our air waves.

(10)(0)

Anonymous

And next she will be saying she can’t read Classical Greek!

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Listen to James Blake, if you’re like alternative music.

(0)(0)

Grey Head

If she was on Magic Circle pay, why was she living in Luton with 30 people?

(11)(1)

Anonymous

She was too busy buying Gucci handbags and playing rugger innit blud

(15)(1)

Husnara Begum

Yes I did do all the stuff mentioned in my article but I’m no pillock or idiot. This is a true account of the pressure someone from my background often feels. But guess its hard to imagine for those who haven’t had to deal with this @hit.

(15)(2)

Anonymous

You felt the pressure, but it wasn’t applied by anyone but yourself. No one told you or expected you to go and buy a Gucci handbag. No lawyer cares if you wear Gucci or understand a sport. You were fearful that you wouldn’t be able to relate or engage with the other people at the firm, due to your lack of previous life experience, so decided to take action. This action was the wrong action, may I add?

(2)(10)

Anonymous

Putting aside the usual comments, great article. Hit the nail on the head. Worth a read by MC Partners/recruiters

(14)(43)

Anonymous

Hi Husnara.

(23)(7)

Anonymous

Yes, shows why one should have more cultural questions in intake process. This one had to Google “Glydnebourne” for goodness sake. Imagine what that sort might say in front of a client, even if one forgave any accent.

(5)(2)

Husnara Begum

Being au fait with opera or ballet doesn’t equate to being a good lawyer in the same way that having a posh accent doesn’t mean a candidate/trainee is academically more capable or indeed a nicer person to be around. It’s easy to get top grades when mummy and daddy pay for private tuition. So ask yourself who is more brilliant – the pupil who went to the state grammar in a deprived London borough or the one who went to a fee paying school?

(16)(9)

Anonymous

Soft social skills are of high value in a client-facing businesses and the capital owning-classes that tend to be best most profitable clients most often come from the upper socio-economic strata. For solicitors there is a cap at about 120 IQ above which there is no evidence of added value for added IQ. So put two alike candidates next to each other and provided they meet the IQ value ceiling then it always makes better economic sense to pick the privately educated one. One can have a few from the other side of the tracks for the ghastly university of life clients.

(5)(7)

Anonymous

Try some of the old steel or mining towns where they don’t have magic circle mentorship programmes for school kids, the schools are less well funded than London, there is structural unemployment and there are so few employment/cultural/extra-curricular/educational opportunities compared with London.

London students have a lot of advantages compared with the rest of the country so your comment seems unnecessarily London-centric.

(6)(3)

Anonymous

Bollocks of course, now that there is the internet.

Anonymous

I honestly think being yourself gets the most respect. Over time. And once you prove you can do the work. You can’t walk in on day 1, do and act however you like and expect people to be cool. But if you impress with your work, people generally let the other stuff slide.

(27)(1)

Anonymous

You hit the nail right on the head. Ethnic minority sol here, trained at a Home County regional, partners were a gaggle of rugger bugger / sailing / other white person hobby types. I was generally disinterested in most of it, but guess what, nobody gave a shit because I kept my head down, worked hard during my TC, billed well and kept clients happy. Suprise, suprise – ended up being retained, stayed around 5 years thereafter and formed good relationships with management in spite of having little in common on a personal level. I really wish other BAME (ughh that term) practitioners would stop bitching about this…

(14)(3)

Anonymous

Welcome to the club, son.

(6)(0)

The poet

Another ‘look at how well I done’ victim. I have all that and more and have had a screamingly wonderful life – Man up-move on- and move out!

(15)(6)

Hugh

Great article – can totally understand the author’s decision to get more into rugger – nothing like a day spent at HQ with the boys.

(6)(2)

Anonymous

‘legal affiars’ – spellcheck????

(1)(0)

Anonymous

You are absolutely benefitting from the culture that this article was about

(3)(3)

Anonymous

Tough. Either learn how the better bred behave or stop moaning. Nothing worse than a working class hero in victim mode.

(15)(10)

Comments are closed.

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