‘There needs to be more change in the profession… and it’s not happening quickly enough’

Rachel Chan, a barrister at 42 Bedford Row, discusses her social mobility advocacy ahead of judging GLP’s first Women and Diversity in Law Awards

Rachel Chan Image courtesy of Rachel Chan

Rachel Chan, a barrister at 42 Bedford Row, talks about the financial hardships those from more disadvantaged backgrounds face when trying to enter the legal profession, in the latest in a series of interviews with the judges of Global Legal Post's inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards

“My parents came to the UK as Chinese migrants and had a Chinese takeaway. Other than my cousins, my siblings and I were the only ethnic minorities in our primary school. We were the first to go to university in our generation.

I decided I wanted to become a barrister in Year 8. I was always interested in law and politics. I had this great sense of injustice about things and I wanted to set the world to rights even when I was child. It was quite a journey because people thought I was aiming too high. They told me I was too ambitious. But my parents had aspirations for their children and didn’t want the same life for us that they had working in the takeaway, which was tough, with really long hours and no time for the children. Perseverance and resilience was important; I couldn’t let one or two people telling me that I’d never make it get to me. I found it actually spurred me on, because I wanted to prove people wrong.

There is so much help available now that wasn’t available when I was starting out

I would encourage those who are doubting themselves to reach out; there is so much help available now that wasn’t available when I was starting out. It’s very easy to doubt yourself and very easy to just say, “well, I won’t bother then”, so you do need to be determined. There were a few teachers at school who were really supportive, and they pointed me in the right direction, because I had no idea and no connections. Then, at university, the people who set up the debating society recommended that I should join an Inn if I was serious about being a barrister, so I joined Lincoln’s where I got lots of support and advice.

The biggest obstacle for me was financial. I had three jobs at university just to support myself. It was really tough financially. That’s why I’m so passionate about social mobility because that financial hardship disproportionately affects ethnic minorities. We don’t have enough diversity in the profession, and it’s exacerbated because of poor pay, especially at the Criminal Bar. This is essential for the future of the Bar and the legal profession. We need to do more, and I don't think we’re doing enough. We need to level the playing field.

As a Bar Council Social Mobility Advocate 2021, I was contacted by a school to do a careers talk. It was a school that was newly built, in a deprived area. The children there had never thought that they could even think about a career in the law. That really moved me because I was inspiring others to aspire and to aim higher. I’m also part of my Chambers’ Equality and Diversity group, and have been helping to lead the way in some of the areas, working with committees to try and bring the issues more to the forefront. I am very active on Twitter and outspoken about issues on diversity. Being a Social Mobility Advocate has actually given me a platform to do that. There needs to be more change in the profession, and my disappointment stems from it not happening quickly enough.”

The Women and Diversity in Law Awards is the Global Legal Post's celebration of those making the UK legal sector more diverse and inclusive. The event will take take place in London on 22 March 2023 and making a nomination could not be simpler - you can find more details here

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