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From asylum seeker to legal apprentice

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By The Careers Team on

Years of fighting to stay in Britain got Muna Ahmed interested in the law


When Muna Ahmed took her seat last week in the lecture theatre at the University of Law’s Bloomsbury campus it was the latest milestone on an incredible journey.

It began 13 years ago when Ahmed (pictured above) and her family left Mogadishu, the war torn capital of Somalia, and headed to London as asylum seekers. An eight-year legal battle followed as Ahmed, her siblings and mother fought for the right to stay permanently in Britain.

At times, at the mercy of the whims of fluctuating government policy on immigration, it looked like they wouldn’t make it. But in 2008, with Ahmed in sixth form at school in London studying in a language that she hardly knew before moving here, they were finally granted permanent residence, and in 2012 became British citizens.

“It was a long, hard process with many twists and turns. But it means that I got to know the immigration system,” says Ahmed, 23, who hopes to one day specialise in immigration law and help families like her own navigate the asylum process.

We had very different experiences with lawyers,” she continues. “Our first lawyer messed us around. We didn’t know anything about the UK then, so that was a big disadvantage. However, the lawyer who helped us with the application for our visa to stay here was brilliant. She helped us so much. I hope to become a lawyer like her.

Ahmed began taking her first steps in that direction two years ago when she secured a position as a legal apprentice in the social services team at Hillingdon Council in London after spotting an ad in her local job centre. She recalls:

I didn’t expect to get the job because I had no legal experience, but they encouraged me to make an application as I met the criteria, and after an interview I was offered the position.

Since then, Ahmed has been working as a legal assistant while doing the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) entry level course part-time. Having completed that first apprenticeship, Hillingdon Council has enrolled Ahmed in the CILEX level four diploma, which she is studying part-time at the University of Law via its new delivery of the Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services programme.

Alongside six other apprentices, Ahmed will receive formal training for one day per week at ULaw in Bloomsbury with teaching from tutors at City and Islington College, a ULaw partner. On the other days she and the other students will continue to work in the legal services departments at their local authority. And over the course of four years, with certain additional CILEx qualifications and relevant practice experience, they could qualify as chartered legal executive lawyers. At which point they will have the option of going on to become solicitors if they chose to complete the Legal Practice Course.

Ahmed’s typical day begins at 9:30 each morning, where she starts coordinating the day’s case management, building bundles electronically and liaising with fee-earners. Afternoons are usually filled with case administration tasks, opening the post and circulating relevant legal documents to team members. “I am aware of how competitive it is to get training contracts and paralegal jobs, so it is great to be getting this experience,” she says.

This daily exposure to the workings of the law, when combined with on-the-job legal study, is a route into the profession that many expect to grow in the future. Indeed, increasing numbers of London-based international law firms are looking at their own versions of the apprentice route, with Mayer Brown most recently launching an “articled apprenticeship” in association with ULaw that will see future trainees hired straight out of school.

For Ahmed, the challenge of juggling work and study is made even greater by a visual impairment that means she is unable to see out of her right eye and has partial vision in her left eye. As a result, she can struggle to read small print and hand-written documents — a problem which she gets round by asking for information to be sent to her via email. Typically for her, she sees it as an opportunity, and hopes to one day augment her future immigration practice with an employment law sideline to support people affected by similar conditions. She comments:

Like how being an asylum seeker has given me some experience of immigration law, being visually-impaired has given me an introduction to some aspects of employment law. I’d like to use both those experiences to help people as a lawyer in the future.

For now, though, Ahmed is just delighted to be where she is. Certainly, after her schooling was disrupted by problems with her eyesight and she decided not to go to university, she didn’t expect to get the opportunity to become a lawyer. Her message to people considering a similar career path?

If I can do it, and progress, then anybody else can do it. The key thing is not being afraid to ask questions. Being quite a shy person, that is something I have learnt. At first you are very aware that you are surrounded by lawyers, and you think you might ask something stupid. But everyone has been so supportive and helpful.

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