Samreen Akhtar knows the challenges facing women from the BAME community in achieving their career goals. Recently a barrister in Essex, Alexandra Wilson reported that she had been stopped three times on her way into a court room with people not realising she was a barrister and mistook her for a defendant or a journalist.
Samreen is also a barrister here in Yorkshire and despite growing up here and working across the county in many courtrooms, she has also faced challenges in her profession because of her heritage.
Speaking to the Asian Standard, Miss Akhtar says that Alex’s and her experiences are not isolated, and it is a concern for those who want to achieve their career goals.
“Reading Ms Wilson’s experiences in court was quite saddening. Unfortunately, the response to Ms Wilson’s Twitter thread suggests that what happened to her is not an isolated incident.
I agree with Ms Wilson’s comments where she states that further training is required to actively challenge, and combat racism as opposed to simply promoting diversity and equality which should be the bare minimum.”
Despite the challenges Samreen has faced, she wants to inspire young members of the South Asian community to join her in tackling the barriers and becoming Barristers at the Bar Council.
Growing up in Huddersfield, the 32 year old recalls how she became fascinated by a case when she was 10 years old and how she followed it religiously in the local paper and bombarded her father with questions about the legal system.
Samreen’ ambitions grew throughout her childhood and she wanted to become involved in law but her first challenge came when she wanted to go into further education.
“Hailing from a Pashtun background, I broke from tradition by studying beyond sixteen. I am fortunate to have parents who champion education and it was with their blessing that I enrolled to study law at my local university, the University of Huddersfield.”
Despite breaking tradition, Samreen had support of her family and being the eldest child of second-generation immigrants, both of her parents played a huge part in her becoming a barrister.
Samreen speaks warmly of how after her dad would get home from his job as a mechanic, he would proofread her pupillage applications, while her mother provided words of encouragement after a rejection letter.
After three years of University and advice from her tutors, Miss Akhtar was set on becoming a barrister, but faced more hurdles in getting into the Bar Council. Her research showed countless “Oxbridge” educated, Caucasian, males getting into the bar. With even less opportunities for those outside London applying.
Undeterred, Samreen applied for the Bar Vocational Course at BPP Law School. They offered her a scholarship and after the course she continued to study with them towards her master’s in law.
The next goal was getting into the bar, but as many as 60 per cent of the Bar Vocational Course graduates struggled to secure pupillage to further gain experience. That was on top of the financial crisis and recession of 2008 where courses and opportunities were shrinking due to financial restrictions.
Determined to succeed Samreen says she did everything to increase her chances.
“I undertook mini-pupillages at eight sets across Leeds, London and Manchester. I ensured that my mini-pupillages would allow me to observe a range of work which proved beneficial as my experiences reinforced my decision to pursue a career at the Criminal Bar.
In addition to mini-pupillages, I undertook marshalling at York Crown Court, work experience at criminal defence firms and delivered classes for inmates at HMP Lowdham Grange as part of the Streetlaw Prisons Project. During the BVC, I volunteered for BPP Law School’s Legal Advice Clinic where students worked with local legal professionals to provide assistance to individuals and charities such as the Manuel Bravo Project.
“Whilst applying for pupillages, I undertook employment first in the banking sector and then insurance. The former assisted me in repaying the cost of my studies whereas the latter resulted in an opportunity with the City of London Police’s Insurance Fraud Enforcement Department. This placed me in good stead when applying for pupillage with the Crown Prosecution Service which I began in November 2015.”
Despite reaching her career goal of becoming a Barrister, Samreen wants to help the next generation follow in her footsteps. The Bar Standard Board’s ‘Diversity at the Bar’ report published in January suggests the number of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic barristers at the Bar has increased to 13.6 percent compared to last year, however when comparing that to 85.3 percent of Caucasian barristers, there is still a way to go.. But as Social Mobility Advocate the 32-year old wants to do more, when speaking to us at the Asian Standard, Samreen said she was more than happy if anyone wanted to reach out to her, she will give guidance.
As part of her role, she wants to advocate that the challenges Alexandra and herself have faced won’t last and if more young men and women join her in taking up the profession then the number of BAME barristers will drastically increase.
When discussing helping young people follow their goals, Miss Ahktar said
“I firmly believe that financial support is necessary to eradicate socio-economic barriers in order to attract a talented and diverse range of candidates to the Bar. All of you have the talent, skill, and capability to excel in whatever it is you want to do. There won’t be an easy, obstacle free, path to achieve your dreams and goals. Instead of worrying and fretting about those obstacles, embrace them. Tackle them headfirst because you have nothing to lose.
“Finally – persevere. You will encounter setbacks and rejections but it’s important to view them not as losses but lessons. In the words of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”.