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Mel Nebhrajani C.B., Government Legal Department’s (GLD) Director of Litigation reflects on her experience as a woman in law.
People often ask me how I hold down a demanding job as a senior lawyer while being a mum to four children. I don’t have any special formula or particular magic – it can be messy and complicated – but the lessons I have learned along the way as a woman from an under- represented background, and as a mum, have helped me progress. I’d like to share them with you.
Intersectionality – the combined effect of protected characteristics – can have a profound impact in holding people back. I have certainly felt its effect at various points in my life. Frankly, there were times when I felt like giving up in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Role models who look like and are relatable to me, have been few and far between.
But I’m very pleased I hung on in there. To anyone reading this and wondering if they can juggle family and career, perhaps coming from an under-represented background with no role model in sight and possibly on the point of giving it all up, please read on.
Love what you do and who you do it for
I think to truly thrive at work, your values have to align with the organisation you work for. I am lucky enough to do a job I love. I started life as a Chancery barrister, when being a young Asian woman was not a winning combination; those characteristics were then rarely to be found at the Bar. I encountered racism, sexism, sexual harassment and even (on one memorable occasion) violence with a racial edge. But there was more to my feelings of not fitting in than that.
My parents came from India to work for the newly created NHS, instilling in me a real passion for public service; becoming a government lawyer was like coming home. In an instant, I was surrounded by colleagues who shared my values. They also had amazing brains, delivered high profile and exciting work in the public eye, making the law and contributing to the good of the nation every single day. To me that was – and still is – priceless, motivating me through the darkest times and enabling me to succeed. As a politics junkie, working where law, policy and politics come together is truly, to coin a phrase, a legal high!
I have worked on fascinating and ground-breaking constitutional issues – devolution, House of Lords Reform, freedom of information, human rights – with ministers of every hue across many departments. I have been proud to help make our society more equal, particularly leading the Bill that enabled women-only shortlists for elections, supporting more women into politics and kicking off the work on Civil Partnerships. As Legal Director at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), I led the legal work on a range of important issues from NHS, Social Care and Mental Health reform, to the tragic Charlie Gard “best interests” case and gender identity litigation. Most recently I have led the department’s legal work responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, while supporting delivery of EU Exit. Last November I took up the post of Director of Litigation, leading 600 outstanding colleagues – the largest Group in GLD – litigating the most important and high-profile issues of the day.
No one succeeds alone
It’s ok to find things hard but when you do it’s important to get help – perhaps from a mentor, coach or sponsor, or from networks. I took a year off with each of my children and juggling childcare while progressing my career was challenging even with a husband who split the responsibilities with me. I was lucky enough to have senior colleagues who recognised my abilities and understood that I might need support to overcome additional hurdles. They pushed me to challenge my assumptions about myself and my career. They also cheered me on, encouraging me to apply for talent programmes to accelerate my development, and celebrating my successes.
I have learned the power of networks and I’m proud to say that in GLD ours are thriving and energetic. I am Director Champion for the Parents’ Network and we have been doing critically important work to identify and support parents through the pandemic. We’re also breaking taboos surrounding difficult topics such as baby loss, infertility and adoption. I have shared my own painful experience of losing my son late in pregnancy and I act as a buddy for colleagues who have suffered miscarriage and stillbirth. While I found speaking and writing about his death very difficult, it was the right thing to do. As a result of our network’s focus on this issue, we have produced GLD guidance to support bereaved parents, their line managers and colleagues. The network is also working with others across the Civil Service to help people through this terrible grief which is all too often hidden.
Always help those who are coming up behind you
It’s so important each one of us realises, as we climb the mountain, that we have a duty to make the path easier for those climbing up behind us – and not just the ones who look like us, but the broadest range of people we can. We can make all the difference to a new generation of lawyers and in doing so, we become more educated, inspired and energised. I am lucky enough to lead, mentor and sponsor many people from under-represented groups, often different from my own. At GLD we talk of mutual mentoring because learning is a two-way street. Sometimes the rhetoric suggests that anyone from a less-represented background is weak or a victim but that’s not my experience. I can confidently say that these are the very people who are amongst the most focused, dedicated and intrinsically resilient – often because of the hurdles they have overcome. It takes guts and determination to succeed against the odds, and although those from less-represented backgrounds might need support to succeed (who doesn’t?), it is these colleagues who can be the real heroes of – and powerhouses in – any organisation.
Mel Nebhrajani was highly commended for her public service in the Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2020 and appointed a Companion of the Bath in the 2021 New Year’s Honours List.