By Rioghnach Theakston
Orin Begum is an aviation lawyer at Clifford Chance. She joined the Magic Circle law firm in 2017, after graduating from Worcester College, Oxford, where she studied law on a full scholarship. The success she has achieved is impressive in its own right; given her beginnings, it is even more so. Orin moved to the UK with her family from Bangladesh, aged three. By the time she was ten, she had attended five different schools. She grew up on a council estate and worked three jobs to support herself during her A-Levels, before being offered a place at Oxford. As a working-class, first-generation immigrant Muslim woman, Orin has worked tirelessly to make the higher education system and legal industry more accessible for marginalised groups through mentoring, lobbying and campaigning for social mobility. Beyond her legal career, Orin writes and performs poetry; she has been featured by the BBC and shortlisted for the Merky Books Young Writer’s Prize 2021.
As part of Women’s History Month, Orin met the President of OWLSS to discuss her career and the challenges women face in the legal industry – and, above all, what they can do to overcome them.
Thank you very much for joining us, we are very excited to have you here today. The first question we wanted to ask you is based on the broad topic of your education and background. How would you say that your background and your journey have shaped the lawyer you are today?
All immigrants, especially children who are first generation, are constantly trying to figure out where they fit and where they belong. Even though my primary education was really disruptive, I do not think it hindered me in any way. It gave me experiences that make me a person who can find their feet anywhere. It has made me really adaptive in terms of my legal career and education.
I think that, especially given the general climate with Covid, Brexit and the shift of focus in the legal industry to things like ESG, those experiences and that ability to be adaptive have really helped me. I am an aviation lawyer, so you can imagine how much of a shock Covid was to the system. It affected our work, and we have had to adapt to that. I think that that ability to be flexible and to not be set in your ways is a good skill to have – especially as a lawyer in the 21st century, in this digital age of globalisation.
The lived experience of having Covid and its impact on all of our plans, journeys and career choices is mirrored in being an immigrant to this country. Along the same vein, are there any key, defining points of your journey to this point?
One of the key things for me was my application to Oxford. The first time I applied, I was not successful. I really had to think to myself, ‘Is this something I want badly enough that I would be willing to take a gap year, risk all the offers from other universities that I already have, in order to reapply?’. I took advice from friends, family and teachers, all of whom said that it would be stupid to risk my offers from elsewhere, just because I wanted to go to Oxford. In the end, I made the decision that felt right to me. Even though everybody was telling me that I was wrong, I did what I wanted to do and I went with my heart. To this day, I do not regret that decision. I got in the second time round, on a full scholarship at the college of my choice. That taught me the power of resilience, and the power you have when you trust yourself.
It was a difficult decision to make. When your family is telling you to do something, you want to listen. But, deep down, there is something telling you to go with your gut. This is one of the key pieces of advice I have tried to keep throughout my career since. If you really have a gut feeling about something, go with your gut. Make an informed decision, but take that risk. Especially as a first-generation immigrant, my parents are very risk-averse. And it is rare for first-generation immigrant children to get the opportunities I have had. My parents did not understand why I would gamble with the amazing opportunities I had already earned for something even better. But I was going for what I thought I deserved. For me, going with your gut, trusting yourself, and being resilient in the face of adversity is really important.
It was the same with my training contract. I applied for a vac scheme with Clifford Chance and didn’t get it. I was heartbroken because they were my first choice. But did I let that deter me from applying for a training contract? No. I felt it was something I really wanted and I thought I was good enough, so I went for it. Had I not, I would not be where I am today with such a great, internationally acclaimed team. None of this would have happened, had I given up at the first hurdle. You really need to trust yourself, especially as a woman in the legal industry. There will be so many people telling you that you can’t, and the only person telling you that you can is going to be yourself. If you are going to believe those people, you are not going to get very far in the legal industry. You have to really believe in yourself. I think a lot of women need to remember that. Be resilient. Be persistent. Do not take no for an answer. A lot of our male counterparts would not. All of those experiences of rejection have made me more stubborn to succeed and that is what has really pushed me to get to where I am today.
Many of the students who will be watching this will be current or aspiring Oxford students. It can be quite difficult to apply to Oxford and imagine attending, given the issues there are regarding diversity and inclusion. How did you make Oxford your space, despite not being the stereotypical Oxford student on paper and what advice do you have for people of similar backgrounds?
Oxford was a huge culture shock. I grew up in a council estate in East London and went to a state comprehensive. When I got to Oxford, I felt like I was in a completely different world! In the beginning, it did get to me. I felt like I didn’t belong. I told myself, “You got in on a fluke, you’re ticking their diversity box. You’re not good enough in and of yourself.” That is completely the wrong attitude to have. But I think that a lot of us do that.
I made Oxford my home by bringing my whole self to Oxford. I could not leave it behind and I could not pretend for three years to be something I am not. I remember my first Michaelmas term. It was one of my first Eids away from home and I felt really upset about not being able to celebrate with my family. So, I decided to have an Eid party with some of the friends I had made. We went out and bought henna; I dressed up and we had food and drinks in the kitchen in our first-year accommodation. It was amazing! I brought all of myself to that experience and I shared myself with other people. Being as authentic as I could to myself, to who I truly am, is what made Oxford feel like home.
Never censor yourself. For example, I used to really shy away from telling my supervisor that I pray five times a day. When they found out, they wished I had told them so that they could make things easier for me. Censoring myself put me in a difficult situation; had I just been honest, it would have made my life easier. The whole point of this – of one hundred years of women in law – is to make sure that women have it easier in law than in the past hundred years. The only way to do that is for us to be honest about what we need to succeed and what our requirements are. To do that, we need to bring who we are – our entire, authentic selves – to every experience we have. Friendships, careers, education – it should all be based on who we actually are, not who we’re pretending to be.
It is well-known that women are underrepresented in the legal field, particularly women of colour and women from different socioeconomic backgrounds, among senior positions. Do you think you have ever encountered any barriers and if so, how did you overcome them?
I would not say that I have experienced any overt barriers to progression. Then again, I am very junior in my career. But I have overheard conversations to do with sending someone on secondment as opposed to someone else equally qualified, because she is a recently-married woman and might be having a baby. Those kinds of conversations are had everywhere really. It is a shame, because no-one asked the woman if she would be interested. This kind of issue is not even unconscious bias – it is conscious bias.
The people who are having those conversations, maybe they don’t think it is about bias; maybe they think it is about business. But if you are thinking about business, you have to think about the people running your business. The people who are running your business are your lawyers; the people who put in the effort and the hours. You need to think about them and their progression as well.
We don’t live in a perfect society – far from it. I think it would be stupid of us to think that there is no sexism at work. The best way to overcome such barriers is to acknowledge that they exist. We need to talk about them and our male counterparts must help us. They need to call out sexist behaviour. It is all well and good women calling out that behaviour, but women have been calling out that behaviour for decades and what has happened? Nothing. We need our male counterparts to stand up for us too.
Sexism, like racism – like any other kind of discrimination in a professional setting – is rarely overt nowadays. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. When you feel uncomfortable or like you are being treated unfairly, speak up. Even if you think you are rocking the boat or being difficult, or it makes you look a certain way, speak up. Generations of women have fought for us to be able to speak up and they have sacrificed so much for us to have that right. We would be doing them a disservice – as well as ourselves – if we stayed silent. This is not the time nor the place to be silent about discrimination, about bias, about not having the same opportunities as your male counterparts because you are a woman.
In order to overcome barriers, we need to band together. Women need to support women. I have had experiences where I have not had the support of my female colleagues – just because I am a woman, because apparently there is only so much room for women at the top. We need to make more space for women, not less. In order to do that, women need to be supporting women. As I said, there are enough people out there trying to tell us we can’t. Are we going to tell ourselves we can’t, as well? That is ridiculous. Whenever I see more female trainees coming down the line, I always make an effort to reach out to them and offer them help or advice. We need to be pulling people up on our coattails, not shutting the door on them.
So, men need to support women, women need to support each other, and women need to not be scared to speak up. Once you are scared into silence, you stay silent and that is not the world I want my daughters or my granddaughters to be raised in. As hard as it is for me, I know that my living this struggle will make their lives easier – and that is what I intend to do.
Having just passed the hundredth anniversary of women working in law, there is a huge momentum looking at the journey of women in law moving forward. What is one area of the legal industry you would like to see reformed?
When we pitch for clients, one of the questions we sometimes get asked is, “What is your diversity and inclusion situation like?” What I would like to see, is sometimes law firms asking their clients, “What are your diversity and inclusion statistics like?” I think of Clifford Chance as leading in diversity and inclusion on all fronts and I feel they have gotten further than most firms in addressing those issues. I would like to see firms like Clifford Chance addressing the type of clients we choose to work with. If we say that diversity and inclusion is important to us, should that not be important to us when we are taking money from clients? Ultimately, are the types of clients we choose to work with not a reflection on us?
From a business perspective, it might not be the most profitable thing in the world, but I think it is a question that should be posed nonetheless. I want to work with clients who I can identify with, who I can see are dedicated to making people like me get as far up the ladder as possible and not just putting a Black person or a brown person on their marketing materials and saying, “That’s us done.” or saying, “We had two Black people or brown people made VP last year, that’s our diversity and inclusion done.” I want to see true dedication to that cause. I want law firms to ask that question, and not be scared to ask that question. Law firms are a business, I completely understand that. But, statistically, those businesses that take diversity and inclusion seriously are more profitable in the long run. So, I am also talking business here. We should be working with people who identify with our diversity and inclusion policies and goals. If we are really taking it seriously, we should be taking it seriously with our clients too. So, in the next hundred years, I would be curious to see if we ever get to the stage of asking our clients, “What is your diversity and inclusion policy like?”
What advice do you have for female-identifying students who want to pursue a career in law as you have done?
For people who identify as women, the biggest piece of advice for me is what I said at the beginning: follow your gut. Do not take no for an answer, if you know you are good enough. Going with your gut, I equate it with going with your heart. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I think that we should listen to our hearts far more often. I think that people often downplay going with your heart as a very feminine thing to do. That is all I have done my entire life. My head has told me one thing; I have listened to it, I have heard it out, but I have said to myself that I will go with my heart because that is the right thing for me to do.
Being resilient in the face of adversity is so important. Women are very resilient in the face of adversity; what brings us down sometimes is that we make excuses for the behaviour of other people. Because we do that, we relate any rejection that we face to ourselves. Self-development is important, and you should ask for feedback when you have been rejected so that you can develop. But, sometimes, accept that maybe you’re just not the right fit. There is nothing wrong with you; you are just not for that workplace.
Do not be afraid to try again also. Do not feel that, because you tried something once and it didn’t work first time round, trying again makes you second best. Trying again just shows that you have taken on board what has happened, improved yourself, and gone back to have another shot. What are you going to lose from that? Nothing. If anything, you are giving yourself another chance.
Do not be so harsh on yourself. As women, we are so harsh on ourselves. I think you should take your mistakes seriously in the sense that you should learn from them, but you should also not let them play on your mind. What I think we do is let mistakes play on our self-esteem. Mistakes are made by human beings because human beings are fallible; we were made fallible – not perfect.
All of that advice is to myself, first and foremost, because I still struggle with those things in a world where you are side-lined from the beginning because of how the legal industry has been set up for decades. You are fighting as soon as you are through the door. I want to say it gets easier, but it does not. It is still a fight, but just remember why you are doing it. You are doing it so that the women who come after us have to fight a little less, and that is really important.