Zayd Ahmed

Zayd Ahmed


Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.

My parents came to the United Kingdom from Bangladesh, at a time when the country was in a civil and political war and was stricken by poverty. They moved to the United Kingdom to study and to embrace the opportunities provided by the government to live a better life.

In practical terms, what they had envisaged did not come about. My dad dropped out of school at the age of 12 to work and my mum was forced to leave school to support the family at home. They worked hard so that I had the opportunity to make something of myself.

Growing up was tough. We didn’t have much money, which often meant I couldn’t take part in certain school activities. Nonetheless, I was the first person in my family to go to university (the University of Sussex), to graduate and complete a Master’s degree.

I never had aspirations to become a lawyer. My interactions with lawyers were limited and I did not fully understand the importance they played in ensuring a just society. It wasn’t until I witnessed my first criminal trial, in which I was a witness, that I realised that I wanted to become a barrister. I wanted to be a voice for those afraid to speak for themselves, and thus the long journey to qualify as a barrister began.

Did you face any obstacles along your journey to becoming a barrister and how did you overcome them? Have any of them persisted since becoming a barrister? 

Being a barrister from a BAME background, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I faced many obstacles.

The first was being told that I was not “good enough” to get pupillage. I went to many networking events, pupillage workshops and spoke to various employers. The most common thing I would be told was that I would not be able to compete with those from Oxbridge or similar universities. And it is true if you look at the top criminal chambers, many of the people that get pupillage and tenancy are from Oxbridge. But that didn’t put me off. I knew I needed something more to make me stand out. And that’s where my years of work experience in criminal law paid off.

The second was funding. Some students can’t fall back on their parents for financial support. Since the age of 16, I have always had a part-time job. This is so that I can afford to pay my rent, buy my legal books (which are extortionate) and do the best I can. The effect of this is that time is taken away from my studies and this had a direct impact on my results. Balancing a 25-hour per week job whilst doing your core reading, attending lectures and seminars and drafting essays is not an easy task.

It did not get easier when I did the BPTC. You had to pay a hefty £18,000 which I could not do without working and taking out a loan. These barriers make you think twice about entering the profession.

The final barrier was being told by barristers and judges “do something else”. Being told that the criminal Bar is dying and that you should think about another career was hard to hear and it did make me question whether I was doing the right thing.  But I knew that money was not the reason I wanted to practise as a barrister, I simply wanted to help people and the best way for me was to pursue my ambition of becoming a barrister.

What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister?

To be truthful there weren’t many opportunities. The BTPC in my view did not encourage or support me in wanting to become a barrister. I would say it did the opposite. I believe the Inns of Court also need to do more to try and provide encouragement to student members.

In terms of work experience, I would encourage aspiring barristers to try and obtain as much and as varied experiences as you can. I worked for the police and several criminal defence firms. This helped me understand the practical side of the criminal justice system as well as being able to understand the processes, procedures and pressures solicitors and police officers deal with day to day. Overall, it helps not only with client care but also in building relations with instructing solicitors and the CPS, a key skill in order to succeed at the Bar.

At the Bar, the most important thing to success is self-belief. I always had the belief in myself that I was doing the right thing and that I will get to where I want to be.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?

The most rewarding thing for me is being able to go home after a long day, look in the mirror and say I made a difference. Knowing that I secured a ‘not guilty’ verdict for someone innocent, who had done nothing wrong and who felt completely alone and abandoned by the justice system, or defending someone who made a terrible mistake and allowing them to improve themselves and to make up for what they have done. There is no feeling like it.

How do you use your experience of coming to the Bar from an under-represented background to support those seeking to do the same, and/or why is it important for barristers to contribute in this way?

The most effective way is to be seen and heard. I try and show those from non-traditional backgrounds that if I can do it, so can you. I have given talks at schools, colleges, universities and law society about the importance of non-traditional students becoming lawyers. It is important because we need lawyers who people can relate to and who understand the difficulties in life. We need these lawyers to become judges, open doors for others and restore confidence in the judicial system.

What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?

The Bar needs to do more. The main challenge is the underrepresentation of BAME people at the Bar. More needs to be done to encourage and support those from BAME backgrounds to not only get pupillage but to also support them once they are junior barristers and throughout their journey at the Bar

How can this be addressed? The Inns need to support the Bar in understanding the strengths of being different and diverse.

We also need more representation in those making the decisions and passing judgment. I often find myself trying to advocate my client’s case to someone who is so far detached from my client’s shoes that it would be impossible to sympathise and understand my client’s actions.

What advice would you give to someone from an under-represented background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?

  1. Work hard and don’t give up. There is nothing wrong with gaining work experience before securing pupillage. The work I have done with the police and defence solicitors has made me understand things that many barristers of 20 years’ Call do not appreciate or even consider relevant.
  2. Be yourself. If you are from a BAME background, use that to show why you are deserving of pupillage. Don’t be afraid of being different, be afraid of being the same as everyone else
  3. Ask for help. There are so many barristers, like myself, who want YOU to succeed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.