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The Government Legal Service (GLS) hosted a networking and recruitment event for BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) lawyers to mark the start of National Inclusion Week. Grania Langdon-Down interviewed Senior government lawyer Mel Nebhrajani who says the ‘diversity story’ should be about the resilience, insight and talent of BAME lawyers and not portrayed as one of ‘powerless victims’.
I qualified in 1994 and did my pupillage at the Chancery Bar, which was then far from being diverse. Part-way through I applied for, and got, a tenancy at a traditional Lincoln’s Inn chambers that had only ever had two women and no one of colour. But it was prepared to be forward thinking and it ran a name-blind application process. The top four candidates were all women, with two of us from ethnic minority backgrounds. I don’t think I would have got a tenancy as easily if that hadn’t been the process.
But I found practice at the Bar much harder than I anticipated. The combination of being young, female and Asian wasn’t easy. People often assumed I was the court clerk or an usher. My own clients sometimes wouldn’t believe that I was their barrister. Solicitors didn’t instruct me because my name was too difficult or refused to instruct me for spurious reasons. I was sometimes treated as if I should just be grateful to have been allowed to join the club.
I often felt underestimated, particularly by opponents, which I used to my advantage on more than one occasion. Judges often wouldn’t pronounce my name—and made a point of saying they wouldn’t try—but, interestingly, I never felt underestimated or overlooked by them in court.
For me, the struggle was more about the lack of teamwork and leadership inherent in a self-employed profession—both of which I found mattered to me more than I expected. I found the life of a barrister lonely and
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