Koser Shaheen

Key factsKoser Shaheen

Experience: 5 years PQE

Specialism: Corporate law

Firm: Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP 

Koser's story

Despite facing some serious challenges, I made it to where I want to be. I was taken out of school aged 11 and had no GCSEs or A levels. In the past, I worked as a mushroom picker, cleaner and clothes packer because I had no qualifications.

I didn't give up. I won a place at university when I was a 32-year-old single mother, gained a first class degree and went on to complete my training contract at a prestigious law firm.

I am the eldest of six children and was born and bred in Birmingham. I had no education as I didn't go to school after I was 11 years old. I had to follow a set pattern for my life that had already been fixed. I had an arranged marriage at 18 and my daughter was born two years later.

Having no education meant that my career options were limited. I worked as a mushroom picker, cleaner and packed clothes as none of these jobs required any qualifications.

After doing these manual jobs for a few years, I managed to get a job as a revenue assistant because I passed a numeracy test. It felt disheartening at times because I knew I had so much more to offer.

My life took some twists and turns and by the time I was 30, I was divorced and a single mother. I remember feeling angry and frustrated and started asking myself 'what do I want from my life?'

I realised I wanted an education. I wanted a degree. I wanted certificates to prove I wasn't stupid; that I was clever and that I could do something worthwhile with my life. I wanted to have a career and so I applied to do a degree in law at my local university in the West Midlands.

I didn't have A-levels or GCSEs because I had left school at such a young age. This meant I couldn't apply to university in the usual way and I had to have an interview with one of the lecturers, Dr Ewan Kirk.

During my interview I explained my situation and how much I wanted to pursue an education and professional career. Dr Kirk's response was that, while he would have loved to offer me a place, I didn't meet any of the criteria required to undertake a law degree. I knew this might be my only shot at getting where I wanted to go and so I laid out my situation.

'Ewan,' I said. 'Look at me - I'm a 32 year old single mother. I have no education. I want to be a lawyer - help me!' I promised him that I'd get a first and that I was willing to work as hard as it would take. After two hours of persuasion, he finally agreed that I could have a place on the course.

My first assignment was an essay. I remember thinking, 'what is an essay? How do I structure it? What is meant by an introduction and conclusion?' I had never done any kind of academic assignment before - let alone a legal essay! My starting point was absolutely zero, but I loved it from day one.

I worked extremely hard at university. I went to every lecture and seminar. My daughter was patient and my parents encouraged me. I got a first in my first year, a first in my second year and graduated with the highest first class degree in my university for that year.

Everything that came out of this leap of faith was positive. I became more self-confident and more focused. I finally felt free because I was in a position to do something rewarding with my life.

I was still living in Birmingham when I was offered a training contract in London. I asked my daughter whether I should go to London and whether it was the right thing to do. Her response was that if I didn't follow my dreams now, then I never would.

She encouraged me to go and supported me by letting me be who I needed to be. My parents looked after my daughter during this time and never once made me feel guilty for pursuing my career. My daughter is now a graduate herself and we are closer than ever.

Before I went to London, I typed 'girl in head scarf law firm London' into Google. I wanted to find out whether female lawyers at City firms wore headscarves.

I didn't want to lose my identity, I wanted to be proud of who I was and where I was from, while being in a corporate law firm. It was liberating walking into an international law firm, feeling confident that I could be who I wanted to be, in every way. 

Koser's advice

I wanted to share my journey into the legal profession so that people who have been in situations like mine can see that it is possible to achieve anything in life. I am proof that it is possible to join the legal profession against all the odds. If you want to join the profession and are prepared to work for it, then it's yours for the taking.

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