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Overcoming the odds – from council housing to solicitor advocate

An advocate for social mobility in the legal profession, Ben Brown was raised by a single-parent family and grew up in a council house in Mansfield. We asked him about his journey to qualifying as a solicitor.

Ben Brown

Born as a third-generation Ukrainian immigrant from a family of coal-miners, Ben attended a local state comprehensive school followed by an ex-polytechnic university. He was told by a teacher at school that he “wouldn’t get into university”, that he didn’t “have the right background to become a lawyer” and to set his sights lower.

Fast forward a few years and Ben is now a solicitor advocate employed as the crown counsel on the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. He's responsible for conducting all criminal prosecutions within the territory and for advising the Saint Helena Government on matters of criminal law. Before taking up his post, Ben worked as a criminal defence solicitor with Bhatia Best, one of largest criminal defence firms in England and Wales.

In this interview, we ask Ben about the challenges he overcame, his views on social mobility within the legal sector and his advice to talented and tenacious prospective solicitors.

What was your journey to becoming a solicitor like? When did you know you wanted to become one?

A good friend of mine quite literally embarked on his legal career days after watching Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Elle Woods actually inspired him to apply for the GDL [graduate diploma in law]. A few years later, he’s now a first-rate lawyer. Sadly, my story is not quite as anecdotal.

I remember attending a careers advice event in my first year of secondary school. The school had been considering offering a GCSE Law course which was practically unheard of at the time. I had virtually no idea what a lawyer was before attending that event, beyond what I’d seen on American courtroom dramas. I certainly had no desire to be one. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I had to choose between GCSE Law or Food Technology. I chose law – I’m now a lawyer but a terrible cook.

My law teacher was an inspiration. He was an old-school criminal defence lawyer who’d retired from practice and did a bit of part-time teaching. I remember during the first lesson explaining the legal profession to us; summing up succinctly with “essentially, I got paid to argue”.

I managed to obtain a reasonable grade and applied to take an A Level in law at my local college. My A-level tutor was equally inspiring. Thanks to him, I obtained an A* and achieved almost 100% on the criminal law module. It was at the point of opening those results when I knew that I wanted to become a lawyer.

A few years later, I was lucky enough to undertake a year-long placement as part of my undergraduate degree. Far from the typical work experience of photocopying and making tea, I had the pleasure of being exposed to fantastic-quality legal work at Bhatia Best. I shadowed advocates at court on a daily basis and was inspired by several truly excellent lawyers.

It was towards the end of that placement year when I realised my criminal-law calling. Criminal defence lawyers are often derided as doing the devil’s work, but those people don’t appreciate the passion for helping those who would otherwise be unable to help themselves.

You mention in a LinkedIn post that a teacher you had in secondary school told you that you: “wouldn't get into university”, “didn't have the right background to be a lawyer” and that you should “set your sights lower”. How did this impact you, and what obstacles did you face?

Despite being a thoroughly disgraceful thing for any teacher to say to a student, that teacher probably inadvertently contributed to my motivation. It did initially knock me back, but it spurred me on to prove her wrong.

There was – and still is – a perception that the legal profession is not for those from working-class, polytechnic backgrounds. It’s a thoroughly elitist mindset that is still, unfortunately, prevalent. I am proud of my background and know many excellent solicitors, barristers and judges who all came from working-class backgrounds and who attended comprehensive schools and ex-polytechnic universities. Sadly though, they still make up a very small percentage of the profession.

My former teacher’s comments have stayed with me and still motivate me to encourage others from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue legal careers.

How do you believe your experience would have been different if you received encouragement for your ambition?

It’s not accurate to say I had no encouragement. Thankfully I had an excellent mother who kept me on the path to success. She has been, and continues to be, a source of motivation throughout my career.

I’ve had plenty of wobbles on the way to where I am now, and quite a few second thoughts throughout my journey as to whether or not I’d eventually make it, but my mother’s encouragement and support has helped keep me motivated, even through the most challenging of times.

Is there anything you would change anything about your journey?

I wish I’d spent far less time worrying that I hadn’t got the right background, the right education and the right results to succeed. Looking back, those were unnecessary worries and a pointless distraction.

What advice would you give to prospective solicitors who might feel disheartened that they’ll make it?

If a working-class lad from a council house in Mansfield can become a lawyer, then anyone can. Don’t be put off by fears that you haven’t got “the right background” – whatever that means – to become a lawyer. Your background is irrelevant. The best thing that you can do is work hard, keep going and take absolutely no notice of naysayers.

It’s probably advice that will be shunned by many, but I found that academic results will only take you so far. Don’t place overwhelming reliance on academic success. Being a good lawyer is just as much about you as a person as it is about your results.

Polish up your CV, sell yourself and apply for as much work experience as possible. Take little notice of adverts that say “previous experience preferred”. Apply anyway. With lots of dedication and a little bit of luck, you’ll be fine.

How do you think colleagues in the profession can help promote and progress socio-economic diversity and inclusion?

Negative attitudes, and barriers towards social diversity and inclusion, sadly permeate every level of the legal profession. Although some steps have been taken in improving the position, we still have a long way to go.

Following my LinkedIn post, I’ve taken up offers to speak to schools and colleges, to try and impart some guidance and inspire new budding lawyers to enter the profession. I’m also looking into setting up an organisation or charity to promote schemes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to obtain work experience.

The legal profession needs to move away from this archaic mindset and promote the idea that a person’s background has no bearing on their success as a lawyer. I would ask my colleagues across the sector to contribute to a more modern, inclusive and diverse profession in any way that they can.