INTERVIEW: Brick Court’s Zahra Al-Rikabi on her journey to the Bar and shifting her mindset for success.

Contributed by
13 Jan 2020

“I FELT like I lived under a bit of a rock,” says Zahra Al-Rikabi when we meet at her chambers, Brick Court. She pauses to reflect on her years studying law at Oxford and admits that she “let lots of opportunities go. I think in a way I just didn’t feel entitled – there was almost this sense that ‘I’ll take a little bit of what’s on offer, but my place is to stay here.’ Obviously, there were all of these much more entitled students who then kind of took everything else – which is not a criticism of them.”

Al-Rikabi partly attributes this reticence to her upbringing: “You grow up in a culture where being egoistic or anything that comes across as self-praise is really frowned upon. When you’re brought up humble, you just don’t know how to sell yourself.” The challenge, she recalls, of compiling a personal statement for university was that “just having to write about myself was such a painful process – it felt so unnatural.” Her teacher, concerned by the result, exclaimed “What is this? This isn’t you! You’re not coming across.”

These words had a marked effect on Al-Rikabi. She subsequently sat down to revise the statement and thought “No I’m not exaggerating, I’m not lying. It’s okay to present yourself in the most positive light, to see you at your full potential rather than the embarrassed version of you, the version who doesn’t want to take up too much space and shine too bright. I think there’s a lot of work to be done with people on that level, to just say to them that it’s okay for you to take up that space and that slot that’s available.”

While Al-Rikabi may not have always felt entitled to a successful legal career, it’s clear that her desire to do so was in fact there from a young age. Personality-wise, she feels a legal career always suited her: “In a family context, if I felt like someone wasn’t being treated fairly then I’d step in and speak up for them. I did that for my friends at school – I always felt that fairness was really important.”

“…it’s okay for you to take up that space and that slot that’s available.”

A much broader international context also influenced Al-Rikabi’s veering towards a legal path. Both of her parents are refugees from Iraq; her family lived in Syria for the first nine years of her life before moving to the UK. “We always interacted with an Iraqi refugee diaspora. There were several stories that I grew up with that were about injustice, oppression and tyranny. I just grew up with this really sharp sense of wanting to establish fairness in any way that I could.”

That sense crystallised for Al-Rikabi during the advent of the Iraq war as she completed her A-Levels in 2002. “There was the lead-up to the war, and suddenly this kind of fantasy that my community grew up with – this ‘when we/if we go back home’ outlook – became a real possibility. A whole generation of young Iraqis my age was suddenly thinking about what other skillsets we would need, so there was a real surge in young people studying law, politics, finance and other subjects that felt important for state building.”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m justifying the war,” states Al-Rikabi emphatically, “because I was one of the people who marched against it. At the same time I couldn’t ignore the fact that if we were going to go ahead and remove Saddam Hussein, what that meant was this possibility of change and the prospect for us of meeting our extended family back in Iraq. It was a very confusing and difficult time, but it did hold a lot of hope. It was 2002 when I sat down with my parents and said, ‘I think I’m going to study law.’”

Al-Rikabi’s original plan was to complete a PhD in public international law and then practise that area of law in Iraq. The acceptance letter from New College, Oxford, set her on her way as an undergraduate, but at the same time Al-Rikabi knew that this was an unusual step: “I didn’t know any Iraqi girls who had left home to go and study at university – my friends lived at home and commuted in.” Al-Rikabi’s parents had supported her decision to apply for Oxford, and with the arrival of the acceptance letter they “were so happy there wasn’t even a discussion about whether I would go or not!”

“You just grow up with this really sharp sense of wanting to establish fairness in any way that you could.”

What was Oxford like? “It’s definitely a different environment,” Al-Rikabi admits, though she also highlights that she had a good few years at the university. “I guess I was a bit like a fish out of water because my surroundings were so different to what I was used to. Visibly I was different to the other students as well; I think there was one other postgraduate student who wore a headscarf at New College.” She did, however, have various friendship groups, including those comprised of fellow law students, members of various clubs and a group of other Muslim women who gathered from the different colleges. Al-Rikabi also points to the heavy drinking culture at universities during the early to mid 2000s as a barrier to inclusivity: “The entire city wasn’t really geared up for a change from that.”

The prominence of alcohol in events organised by visiting City law firms at the time was also something that Al-Rikabi became acutely aware of. “Most of the events that I can recall were ‘Champagne and Chocolate’ nights, and at the time I was quite black and white about these things so I just didn’t attend if the focus was drinking-oriented. I’m sure the City firms have upped their game since then, but I think it genuinely hadn’t occurred to them that not everybody would want to come to something that’s called ‘Champagne and Chocolate’ Those are the subtle ways that people can fall through the cracks and not feel included.”

After deciding that the City law firms and the Bar weren’t areas of particular interest at that point, Al-Rikabi decided to continue her academic career by studying for an LLM in public international law. Soon, however, the disconnect between theory and real-life developments that were occurring in Iraq compelled Al-Rikabi to interrupt her studies. She travelled to Iraq to work with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Legal Advisor at that time. “I absolutely loved it,” Al-Rikabi beams. “I remember keeping an eye out for the lawyers on a delegation and seeing how they interacted and what their role was. I came back with the clear idea that I wanted to practise.”

The experience also gave Al-Rikabi clarity on her perception of ‘home’: “I was asked in Iraq where I was from – this was the first place where I was supposed to blend in completely and not be asked that question about where I have come from, but they were like ‘Well you’ve at least grown up somewhere else.’ I had finally gone back home but it didn’t actually feel like home, and I realised that it had never been home for me. I actually remember flying back into Heathrow and thinking ‘Well I’m coming back home.’”

“I think it genuinely hadn’t occurred to them that not everybody would want to come to something that’s called ‘Champagne and Chocolate’.”

All of this confirmed in Al-Rikabi’s mind what she would do next: pursue a career at the Bar. The potential of continuing to dabble in academia (“I thought these barristers are also professors and lecturers at various universities”) combined with the prospect of conducting advocacy (“I knew it was in my innate nature”) and the flexibility of self-employment were all draws.

By the time Al-Rikabi applied for pupillage she had a two-year-old daughter and was “thinking quite seriously: ‘Will I be at a disadvantage? What will happen during pupillage if I can’t work all hours or be here all hours?’” But these initial reservations did not stop Al-Rikabi in her tracks: she secured her pupillage at Brick Court among some remarkable circumstances that demonstrate her resourcefulness and unceasing determination: alongside raising her daughter, she was also completing her BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course) part-time, working at the Law Commission for England & Wales in the public law team and taking on FRU (Free Representation Unit) cases to improve her advocacy skills (oh, and she also succeeded in earning a major scholarship from one of the Inns of Court).

How on earth did Al-Rikabi manage all of this? “It was quite a lot of juggling and negotiating,” she laughs, “but I thought ‘Okay, I really need to do this,’ and I can do so by persuading everyone to be on my side!” But there is a serious point to this: Al-Rikabi did negotiate with the Law Commission to reduce her hours and the days over which she completed them, showing how important it is to confidently and completely believe one is justified in opening up a dialogue in order to manage various demands.

The transition to and overall experience of pupillage were also positive experiences. “It was a hard year,” Al-Rikabi explains, “but no one expected me to routinely be here after 6pm or work weekends. With the assessments we were given clear days to do them and the process was designed to give us more than enough time.” A transparent and blind marking system also made Al-Rikabi feel that she was being given the same chance as her fellow pupils. “It was really important to me that the process was going to be fair. If you felt you had to go around schmoozing various people then it would create a lot of anxiety, but the process here was pretty straightforward.”

“It was quite a lot of juggling and negotiating…”

After gaining tenancy, the security of pupillage is taken away, Al-Rikabi explains. “Pupillage is in some ways a sheltered experience in that the buck stops with your supervisor – once you’re in practice the buck stops with you.” With that comes the freedom and responsibility to make your own decisions, and to balance work and life commitments.

A year after gaining tenancy, Al-Rikabi decided to have another child. “It’s never an easy decision trying to figure out how you are going to plan your family, but I decided that I’ll have my children early on in practice and I’ll juggle around that. Other women decide to work really hard during their first few years of practice and then have children further down the line.”

A conversation with one of Brick Court’s senior clerks at the time, Deborah Anderson, helped Al-Rikabi to come to her decision. “I sat down with her and said, ‘What shall I do?’ and she said, ‘Pick a time that works for you and don’t even think, will my practice survive this?’ There are moments when someone says something to you and you think ‘oh yeah’ and have a cognitive shift – Deborah was good at giving me those. She would say, ‘You are a businesswoman, not an employee, and it’s up to you to go out there and create whatever practice you want.’”

Al-Rikabi certainly took this advice on board. “It comes back to having confidence in your own ability. It’s a combination of knowing yourself and what you want, and then feeling entitled to go out there and achieve that.” Ultimately Al-Rikabi realised that “there was absolutely nothing stopping me from going out there and talking to people and saying here is what I can do and here is my track record.”

For Al-Rikabi, the crucial point here is not to think of “diverse characteristics that you have as an obstacle that you’re carrying around and having to neutralise. You can actually view them as an asset that gives you a unique selling point in a very crowded and talented market. It was a few years ago when I thought ‘Hang on, I can speak Arabic and I have this cultural awareness and proximity to lots of countries in the Middle East that have lots of disputes – this is potentially a really thriving line of work.’”

“You can actually view them [diverse characteristics] as an asset that gives you a unique selling point in a very crowded and talented market.”

Looking at the Bar more broadly, Al-Rikabi is pleased to see the transition to “doing meaningful work and not just paying lip service to the idea of diversity.” However, she underlines the need to be specific when it comes to looking at diversity issues across the Bar; she highlights, for example, that issues at the criminal Bar and the commercial Bar will be different. For the latter, part of the approach will involve looking at the number of women applying for pupillage. “We want to get the message out there that actually the commercial Bar is a place where women are thriving and managing to balance family and work life really well.” Al-Rikabi has given talks individually to students but has also been part of events organised by sets of chambers and charities.

For the criminal Bar, a strand to address would be working hours and how they can impact those trying to raise a family. That is true, Al-Rikabi adds, “for any area of practice where people need last-minute help. The criminal Bar is the most obvious example, because people get arrested at all times of the day, but at the same time in immigration your client might be about to be put on a plane and flown out of the country unlawfully, so you’ll need to do a last-minute injunction.” Of course, Al-Rikabi flags the relevance of personal preferences to do such work: “That may be the meaningful work that someone wants to do, and that motivates them to make it work for their family and for them.”

While Al-Rikabi points to various diversity initiatives across the Bar (such as the Temple Women’s Forum and the collaboration between four top commercial sets – Fountain Court, Essex Court, One Essex Court and Brick Court – to “talk to young women about applying to the commercial Bar”), she is also keen to highlight increasing collaboration between the Bar, City law firms and corporate clients. She explains how Barclays organised events with the law firms it instructs to boost the number of female barristers representing the bank on cases. “I attended one at Simmons & Simmons, where the idea was to introduce female barristers to both the instructing solicitors at the firm but also to the lawyers at Barclays – I felt it was a really interesting initiative.” More recently Al-Rikabi attended a similar event at Freshfields, which was set up like “speed networking event where male and female solicitors from the firm mingled and chatted with female barristers across different areas of practice and years of call.”

“We want to get the message out there that actually the commercial Bar is a place where women are thriving and managing to balance family and work life really well.”

“It’s all really useful,” concludes Al-Rikabi, “and there are different advantages to each approach” used to improve diversity and inclusion in the industry. At the simplest level, however, there is a very powerful tool in any diverse lawyer’s kit: the very fact that they are here and thriving, which Al-Rikabi underscores: “I’m not saying that there aren’t structural barriers or structural things that need to be looked at, but at the same time I have my own positive story to share, which says, ‘Well look, I’m here, so there’s no need to rule yourself out!’”