Looking back on my journey into law is a bit of a funny one, simply because of how early on in my career I actually am – I only qualified in September 2019. However, hindsight is a beautiful thing, not only has it made me realise just how long and arduous a journey it has actually been, but it has also taught me to stop second guessing myself and to start believing it when I say “I am worthy of everything I am and everything I have today”.
I grew up as part of a first generation immigrant family living on a council estate in one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, in the shadows of Canary Wharf, where my parents were simply trying to make ends meet and where my siblings and I were raised on benefits, free school meals and school uniform vouchers. I never for a single second thought that I’d ever end up as an associate at one of the leading international law firms. Things like that just didn’t happen to people like me – or so I thought anyway.
One of the perks (although I probably didn’t see it as a perk at the time) of being an immigrant child is that you’re constantly reminded of how your parents could not pursue higher education themselves because of financial and family constraints. So my siblings and I were always encouraged to work hard at school.
However, when you attend an inner-city state comprehensive with a lack of funding and resources and where teachers doubled-up as social workers and the focus was on getting the students to simply pass, helping the brightest students achieve their potential was not at the top of anyone’s list of priorities. I was confronted with a choice between becoming a product of my environment and falling in line as most people would expect or to fight my own fight, to take charge of my own life and prove everyone wrong. While I knew the latter would be significantly more difficult, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had chosen the former.
Despite all the issues facing my school at the time, that was where I first discovered my interest in law. I decided to take part in a magistrates mock trial competition where I played the role of a prosecution barrister, analysing the law, applying it to the facts of my case and presenting my case before a real magistrate. It was a very nerdy thing to do and I got a lot of stick for it from the ‘cool’ kids, but when I won my case, I realised this was something I was actually good at and something akin to a dream started to form in my mind. Little did I know the number of hurdles I’d have to overcome to achieve that dream.
While my fighting spirit led to me achieve the best grades my school had ever seen, the lack of money in my family proved to be yet another obstacle preventing me from accessing the education I so desperately desired. After my GCSEs I decided that I wanted to go to a college with a strong academic reputation, but at the time, the closest college which met my criteria was two train journeys and two bus rides away.
Nonetheless, I persevered, using the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) provided by the government to pay for my travel and other expenses. However, when the coalition government was formed they scrapped EMA. While £30 a week may not seem like a lot of money to most people, for me it was the difference between being able to afford higher education and not. With money being so tight at home, again, I decided to fight – I worked three jobs for the duration of my years at college to enable me to stay in education and sit my A-levels at the college of my choice.
My hazy dream of becoming a lawyer soon became a goal that I was actively pursuing. Despite not knowing anyone who had gone to university at all, I decided to apply to Oxford for my law degree. I was thrilled when I was invited to an interview at Worcester College. At the same time, I took part in a mooting competition run by the BPP School of Law with a first prize of an all fees and expenses paid place on their LLB course – and by some miracle I won! So there I was holding a free ride to an LLB and offers from various other amazing universities, but when I was informed that my application to Oxford was unsuccessful, I was gutted.
I had another very difficult choice to make – take BPP or the other universities up on their offers, or take a year out and re-apply to Oxford. By now you must have realised that I am not one to take the easy way out, so against the advice of all my teachers, family and friends, I took the year out and decided to re-apply.
Was I scared I’d made the wrong decision? Of course – people like me don’t get many second chances. Heck, we don’t really even get first chances, so I was taking a massive gamble with my entire life. However, when I think back to how I even had the courage to take such a decision, I commend my younger self for being so brave and for having such fearless faith in herself.
When you see your how much your parents struggled to give you a better life, you realise that you came here with nothing, nobody expected you to amount to anything, nobody ever made life any easier for you, so you never really had anything to lose, instead you had everything to gain. And when that letter finally came through the door, I realised that everything I had been through, every hurdle and hardship, was all worth it.
Not only had I secured an unconditional place to study Jurisprudence at Oxford, I was also offered a full scholarship which would cover all my fees and provide me with a sizeable maintenance allowance. It seemed so surreal because, again, things like that weren’t supposed to happen to people like me. I was supposed to be the state comprehensive educated, council estate, immigrant kid who knew where she fell in the pecking order. I wasn’t supposed to buck the trend. I wasn’t supposed to make waves. But I did.
Since then, I’ve graduated, I’ve qualified as a solicitor in a global law firm – Clifford Chance – and I’ve been invited by institutions such as the Russell Group of Universities and the House of Lords to promote the importance of increasing access to higher education and careers in front of huge audiences. And it is only now that I realise the reason why I managed to stay steadfast in the face of adversities, such as a lack of finances, a lack of role models, a lack of pretty much everything that would have made my journey into law a little easier, is because I never allowed anyone to tell me where I belonged or did not belong or what I am or am not worthy of.
I am a survivor of imposter syndrome because I created space for myself in places where historically people like me were not welcome, simply because I believed in my hard work, determination and talent. I had to. The only other option was to live the life others expected me to live and I wasn’t prepared to let that happen.
My message to every single person out there fighting to forge their way into a career they think is beyond their grasp is: keep fighting! You have always been worthy of the future you are building, and as long as you keep believing in that truth, other people will have no choice but to accept it too.
Orin Begum is an associate at Clifford Chance. The full Women Against Adversity series can be found here.