Knowledge management attorney, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, London

I was a civil servant for around 10 years. But I found out how captivating law could be when I sat as a lay member on an employment tribunal. So I decided to do a law degree rather than stay in a safe and predictable civil service job.

I was born and brought up in a ‘ghetto’ in Birmingham. I didn’t go to school after the age of 11. I enrolled to study an LLB at Birmingham City University after I turned 30. The admissions tutor refused to offer me a place so I promised him a first. He said: ‘You haven’t got A-levels Koser, how can you promise me a first?’ After a two- to three-hour interview he finally relented and offered me a place. I got the highest first in my year.

I originally wanted to be a barrister. I did several mini-pupillages in London, but it wasn’t how I envisaged it to be – I found a barrister’s job very solitary. I had also made an ad hoc application to a single law firm. I found most online application forms asked for A-level grades, and as I didn’t have any, it was fate that Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer was the first portal I found that let me go through and fill in the application form without providing grades.

I did my training contract and qualified into corporate (capital markets) at Freshfields. For someone like me, growing up the way I did, it was an unforgettable experience. The intensity and pressure of working towards tight deadlines was addictive. Working tirelessly with high quality clients and amazingly capable lawyers has made me the lawyer I am today.

My family-orientated reasons to move to non-transactional work have not dimmed my passion for the law and the work/life balance at Cleary has enabled me also to realise my other passions. As a member of the firm’s diversity committee I am very active in co-ordinating our involvement in numerous events, partnerships and initiatives.

The hardest challenge I’ve faced is getting over my own stereotypes, accepting myself for who I am and believing myself to be equal to those around me. I think this was because I was a latecomer to law and also because I was the only lawyer wearing a hijab in the whole office. Perhaps I felt more pressure because I was easily identifiable.

I’m the general secretary of the Association of Muslim Lawyers. Through that I get many emails from girls who wear hijabs asking about my training contract and my job, and asking for advice because they’re thinking of applying but are scared that the firm will see the scarf not them. If you don’t put barriers up for yourself, no one else will do that for you. And if you break barriers, you’re opening doors for others to follow.

Positivity is on the horizon. I see greater efforts by the legal industry to work towards better integration and diversity. With increasing opportunities in the emerging markets, there is a growing need for lawyers who are au fait with these markets and the language and culture. I’m happy to see that all law firms, irrespective of size, are becoming increasingly diverse and are realising the potential of no borders and no boundaries.

Interview: Monidipa Fouzder