Yasmin N'Jai, Alumna, LLB Hons
“With a law degree, there are so many ways to make a difference to people’s lives”
Yasmin N’Jai (LLB Hons, 2002) is Head of Criminal Records Policy at the Ministry of Justice. She explains why making a difference matters to her, and tells us how a law degree can open up a whole world of opportunities.
LSBU was actually my second experience of university. I’d started a course at Middlesex, but had to leave for personal reasons. I always wanted to go back and finish what I’d started, though. I had a friend who’d studied at South Bank and they’d found it a really supportive, nurturing environment. As a mature student, that was exactly what I was looking for.
I realised pretty early on that a conventional career in the law wasn’t for me. My father’s side of the family is from west Africa and back then as far as they were concerned there were pretty much two options: doctor or lawyer. Law always appealed – all those programmes like LA Law and Ally McBeal were a huge influence on me! – and I kind of assumed I’d be a solicitor or a barrister. But around my second year, I started to realise that work/life balance really mattered to me. I wanted a fulfilling, demanding job – but I didn’t want to be working so late I had to sleep in the office. I also knew I wanted to be there for the people that needed me. I’d seen how important that was when I was caring for my mum who was diagnosed with cancer while I was at LSBU.
Someone from the Civil Service came in to LSBU to speak to us, and something just clicked for me. There were just so many opportunities for people with a law degree, and so many ways you could make a positive difference to people’s lives.
I started out as an asylum case worker. You’re really seeing the law in action, and how things like the UN Convention on Human Rights impact on people’s lives. I learned about different countries and cultures, and about the way that people around the world are still being persecuted simply for who they are. It definitely opened my eyes and made me more empathetic.
Working in policy, you’re not just using the law, you’re actually drafting it. My area is criminal records, looking at how we can reform the law around the disclosure of criminal convictions to give people who have previously offended the best possible chance to rebuild their lives, at the same time as managing risk and keeping society safe. I work with colleagues who’re supporting families, dealing with prison education, looking at how we deal with substance abuse – all the myriad factors that can make the difference between leading a life of crime and making a positive contribution to society.
If I hadn’t been a lawyer, I would have been a journalist or a teacher. After my law degree, I did a masters in journalism– tuition fees weren’t so high then! – and studied for a PGCE. I had the opportunity to take a career break shortly after I’d had my second child. We went travelling together and I set up my own charity, the Yakar Hope Foundation, to help give children in The Gambia a better chance to get an education. When we came back to the UK I worked in primary schools in Barnet and Tottenham. I loved the teaching, but the workload was too much. I was working ridiculous hours and my own children were suffering. It was a real reminder of how important it is to me to have that balance in my life.
There’s a perception that you have to be a certain type of person to be a civil servant and it’s just not true. I was raised as a Catholic – my mum is from Grenada – but I always knew I was a Muslim. It wasn’t until I went to The Gambia myself that that part of my life came into focus. About two years after I left South Bank, I started to become more observant and wearing the hijab. Here, I feel I can bring all the different parts of me to work – my religion, my ethnicity – and feel like I am being heard, and championed. Of course there’s still a long way to go – many of the senior positions are still occupied by older white men. But things are definitely changing.
Giving back to LSBU has been on my mind for a while. I kept thinking about it, then thinking – I haven’t achieved enough, I haven’t got enough to say. But speaking to a member of the LSBU alumni team made me realise that I did have something valuable to share, both in terms of the way my career has developed and how I’ve used my degree, and my personal journey. I can stand up and say to students, I know from experience that whatever your background or beliefs, or the challenges you’re facing, the university will give you the support you need to go out and make your mark, and shine.