“I was expected to become a secretary”

Meet Shama Gupta, a senior associate and diversity and inclusion ambassador at Freeths. Shama explains how she fought her way out of poverty, why she’s so excited about the new generation of lawyers and why she’s stepped back from her day job as a solicitor.
Shama Gupta is a woman of Indian heritage with long straight black hair. She is smiling and wears a long pale bright blue dress and beige shawl. She stands in parkland next to a large tree.
Photograph: Shama Gupta

The odds were against me from the start. My family migrated when I was two years old to the UK from India. We lived on a council estate and had little money. Because of my cultural background I was expected to become a secretary, marry early, and focus on being a housewife.

But I was a rebel. I wanted to study and learn. The turning point came after finishing my GCSEs, when I was enrolling into a secretarial course. I burst into tears. The admissions tutor said to my father who accompanied me: “You really shouldn’t be making her do this, you know”. I think my father took pity on me and allowed me to go on and do A-levels.

My parents initially refused me permission to apply to university. I worked for a couple of years as an office clerk after finishing my A-levels. My experience of not being able to study further because I was an Asian girl really developed in me a strong sense of fairness and justice, and a determination to prove I could succeed academically.

My parents eventually relented. I was allowed to study at the local university – but living away from home was out of the question. My father did suggest I study law since I wasn’t interested in medicine or maths. I found that I loved the whole ethos of it. It was about justice and fairness and affecting the outcomes of people’s lives. Because of my background, I have a deep empathy for anybody who struggles – financially, with their identity or cultural expectations.

Hard work isn’t everything. I have worked really hard for my career, but personality makes a difference too. If you tell me I can’t do something, then I will try to do it. It also feels natural for me to speak up if I’m being discriminated against or I see someone else who is treated unfairly.

I’m just trying to be a good human being. In 2016, I became a Law Society social mobility ambassador, which was a real turning point for me. I started getting out there and talking about a lot of things – particularly wellbeing and anxiety, because a lot of lawyers won’t get help because we work in a culture of ‘just get on with it’.

I’ve stepped back from my day job as a solicitor. My interests have evolved from legal justice to helping people through social mobility, wellbeing and mindfulness. I’m also focusing on green issues which affect the health of our planet. My firm have supported me to follow these passions by refocusing my career. I’ve taken on the role of a diversity and inclusion (D&I) ambassador, and I work closely with our D&I team.

I think we need to sell change a lot better. There’s a lot of talk about changing the legal industry, but we can’t just expect firms to change because it feels ‘right’. We got to find a better system than the one we’ve got. This means better collaboration and communication and exploring different models. Strategy is also critical to success. At my firm, this includes offering alternative routes to qualification, such as our Legal Assistant Foundation Programme, CILEX, Graduate and School Leaver Apprenticeship routes. We work with external partners and local educational institutions to promote these routes to inspire the next generation of lawyers.

The new generation of lawyers gives me a lot of hope. In the UK, it is difficult to rise when you are a migrant, but a lot of Asians won’t accept they have to stay at the bottom. They are enterprising and ambitious, and they have a lot of pride. That’s why they set up their own legal practices so often. But the field is being levelled now and that is down to a new generation of lawyers putting pressure on and firms like mine leading the way.

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