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Young lawyers: Levelling the playing field

Young lawyers: Levelling the playing field

By Muluka Said



More needs to be done to combat unconscious bias in regards to candidates from low socio-economic and diverse backgrounds.

  • Dialogue about diversity and inclusion needs to take place inside and outsideHR to drive substantial change
  • There is an unvoiced stereotype of ineptitude in regards to law students from diverse backgrounds and the margin for error is constantly being narrowed. 
  • Students who identify with diverse backgrounds possess skills and qualities that are generally not taught in traditional law curriculums.

“Watch carefully the magic that occurs when you give a person just enough comfort to be themselves.” – Atticus, Love Her Wild

In today’s climate there is a willingness to embrace diversity and create a culture against exclusion. Law firms and legal employers must carry an unyielding commitment to provide opportunities to students from low socio-economic and diverse backgrounds. Law firms should pay attention to their entry hires to drive social change and improve the diversification of the legal profession. 

Meeting diversity targets may serve as a beacon for acknowledgement but it does not encourage employers to confront deeply embedded biases against students of low socio-economic status and migrant backgrounds. Dialogue about diversity and inclusion needs to take place inside and outside of HR rooms to drive substantial change. More is needed to eradicate the prevailing culture within the legal profession.

Growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, there was a cloak of invisibility around my African peers when accessing pathways to law. This extended to my years in tertiary education. African students were continually frustrated by the lack of opportunity to obtain internships and clerkships. Despite our growing numbers, graduates of African backgrounds with formidable legal skills and perseverance are not commonly seized on by legal employers. There is an overarching theme for us to work extensively to be noticed and strain to be impeccable in our everyday surroundings in the legal field. There is an unvoiced stereotype of ineptitude around law students from diverse backgrounds and the margin for error is constantly narrowed. We are forced to navigate this and an increasing concern over our employment prospects through the lens of tokenism.

As a first-generation law student from a migrant background, I often engage with intensity to conversations about challenges faced as an African Australian in the legal field. 

Born in Djibouti, my parents migrated to Australia with the hopes of attaining opportunities for their two children. Settling in a new country was difficult, especially for my French-Arabic speaking father who was not able to gain employment with his Bachelor of Communication, which he obtained in Syria. I remember being 10 years old, watching my father clean bathrooms at a prestigious Melbourne private school, and making a conscious promise to uphold the integrity of his sacrifice. Fuelled by pain, frustration and daily encouragement by him to succeed, in those moments I realised that I wanted to be a lawyer.

University generated new possibilities for exposure in the field I wanted to pursue. With little experience and a rise in confidence, I began the daunting process of applying for internships to increase my marketability. The first piece of advice I was given was to lean into my challenging background and highlight my sense of grit and adaptability. Being a proud African I resisted the idea of being defined by my disadvantages, motivated by rigid ideals of wanting to gain certain positions based on merit. Sadly, the harsh reality of being a person of colour entering the legal field began to settle in, stoked with uncertainty and heightened awareness of unconscious bias across the legal sector.

There is a significant under-representation of diversity in the legal field. For instance, my first encounter of meeting a senior associate of similar appearance was Azmeena Hussain during my time with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in 2018. It was refreshing to see a woman of colour with seniority, allowing me to accept that there is an attitude for optimal representation, even though it is a slow-moving narrative in the legal sphere. 

Another defining moment was the launch of the African Australian Legal Network in 2018, which showcased the need to foster young legal talent of African descent and be given opportunities to engage and experience inclusivity in the legal community. These small series of events propel change and force the legal profession to diversify.

I learnt valuable lessons in this journey, namely to embrace challenges and to take pride in being a minority, unapologetically yearning to bridge the gap with my gravitas and perseverance. There is an importance in listening to and appreciating the unique perspective law students of low-socio economic and migrant backgrounds bring to the legal field. We provide a realistic curve to the industry and introducing diverse graduates to the field makes law more relatable to the wider community. 

Students who identify with diverse backgrounds possess skills and qualities, which are generally not taught in traditional law curriculums. We are able to project a voice for equality and extend support to the next generation of law students. But we must enter the arena to assert such positive change. ■

Muluka Said is a Victoria University law student completing Honours.

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