Growing up is hard work at the best of times; however, growing up as woman of colour made me the determined and resilient person that I am today!
I grew up in a predominately white neighbourhood in Southampton. I was one of the very few ethnic minority background pupils at the all-girls secondary school that I attended. I was far from timid, which was often misunderstood as bullish and arrogant. However, in a strange sort of way, that was my defence mechanism to get noticed and be accepted.
Like many, I had my fair share of run-ins with my tutors who often said that I wouldn’t amount to much as they did not view me as an academically minded student. I was placed in lower sets for many of my classes without being given the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t too long before I excelled in my classes and proved to my tutors that I was good enough to be in the top sets. If truth be told, it was probably the words “you wouldn’t amount to much” that gave me the incentive to prove everyone wrong! Through sheer grit and determination, I was elected deputy head girl in my final year of school and left school with a handful of top mark grades.
My careers advisor once said that I was “aiming too high” when I told her that I wanted a career in law. This prompted self-doubts and I often found myself questioning who was right. Her or me? I persevered and forged ahead with my chosen career path anyway. I completed university in 1999 and was accepted on the Legal Practice Course at BPP the following year. It then became very apparent that I needed to start getting the ball rolling and apply for a training contract. Most of my fellow peers had already been accepted for a training contract at magic circle law firms and the pressure to be on par was overwhelming.
There was a point in time when I was submitting between 10-20 applications a week and sending my CV to more or less every law firm in London and southern England. It was demoralising after the 100th rejection letter! I doubted whether a career in law was for me and whether my careers advisor was right after all. I regularly questioned how some of my white friends had secured training contracts, yet, I was receiving rejection after rejection. This is particularly so, as my results weren’t any different from theirs. We all attended the same law school and had similar A Level results so why wasn’t I given a look-in? Naturally, I thought, was it because I was Asian?
This prompted me to put the issue of race to the test. I applied for a training contact at one particular law practice in London. A few weeks after submitting my application, I received a letter with the usual lines, “I am afraid we will not be taking your application any further”. Those lines were etched in my brain. I remember feeling very angry, hurt and confused at the time and so I decided to resend my CV to the same firm a few weeks later. This time however, I changed the name on the CV from Bijal Patel to Beatrice Patterson. No other information was changed. To my shock, I received a telephone call the following week asking me if I would like to attend an interview. If this wasn’t an example of discrimination or unconscious bias at its best, I don’t know what is! For obvious reasons, I declined the interview.
If we now fast forward to today, with 15 years post qualification experience under my belt as a solicitor and working for a large City law firm, the lesson to all is, never give up! Do not let someone’s perception of race, colour, age, gender or any other differences, stop you from reaching your goals and ambitions in life.
Bijal Patel is a senior solicitor at DWF.