‘Take every opportunity as if this is your breakthrough moment’: a barrister’s journey from Tower Hamlets via the Magic Circle

Kawsar Zaman on mentoring’s crucial role in improving social mobility within the legal profession

Kawsar Zaman Image courtesy of No5 Barristers’ Chambers

Kawsar Zaman, a barrister at No5 Barristers’ Chambers, talks about the challenges of pursuing a law career for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and the crucial role of mentoring, in the latest in a series of interviews with the judges of Global Legal Post's inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards

I’m really big on social mobility and socioeconomic diversity. I am a real proponent for working class kids rising through the ranks. I think that’s really important. Ethnicity and other forms of diversity are very important too but socioeconomic diversity is the key one because you could be a very wealthy Bangladeshi and rise to the top but it’s very different coming from a poor working-class Bangladeshi background to do well, so socioeconomic diversity is the most important.

I grew up in a council home in Tower Hamlets in Bethnal Green. I'm the youngest of six siblings and I was the first to go to college, let alone university. I went to the London School of Economics to read law, and then Oxford and Harvard and then went on to work at Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy, and now I’m now at the Bar. So I’ve gone from one extreme to another in life. I didn’t realise how disadvantaged I was until I got to some of these places and could see my contemporaries around me and the support they had, the connections, the networks. It dawned on me how much harder I had to work to get to where I am.

Read the list of more than 300 nominees for the inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards. The deadline for entries is 11 November

I had the support of a couple of organisations, but the key one was The Social Mobility Foundation. When I was 16 they gave me a mini one-week pupilage to shadow barristers Bobbie Cheema (now Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb) and Jonathan Laidlaw QC. They took me to the Old Bailey and showed me what a barrister does and that really inspired me. I impressed them so much on that one-week mini pupilage that they decided to fund me through university. 

So they gave me a £30,000 scholarship, which was unprecedented. I count myself very lucky that I’ve met the right people at the right time at different points in my career. And this is why social mobility is so important to me, because had I not come into contact with those individuals, I might never have been in the position I’m in today. What upsets me is that there are very many more young people who could be in the position I’m in today, but aren’t because they’ve not had the good fortune that I’ve had.

We need to open up more as a profession. Every single solicitor and barrister in the country has the capacity to become a mentor. I’m mentoring 12 individuals at the moment – I find it difficult to say no, particularly those who don’t have connections to reach out to. So I mentor lots of people, I review CVs and applications, because that’s what really gets people in the door. And then it’s really up to them to try and make the most of it. 

My advice to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is to recognise that you will have to work harder than others. You need to prove yourself more than others. And take every opportunity as if this is your breakthrough moment. You just never know when one opportunity might lead to another.

In the run up to the Women and Diversity in Law Awards, The Global Legal Post has been publishing judges' reflections on their careers and how best to promote DE&I in the legal profession. Click on the links below to find out more:

'I was trying to over-compensate for being different': Baker McKenzie's global marketing director on the importance of inclusion

‘Tiny changes can have a massive butterfly effect’: Clifford Chance's UK inclusion head on her D&I story

‘Everyone’s been excluded': Accenture Legal's global diversity head on the power of empathy

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