Chancery Lane’s SMA project aims to inspire people from underprivileged backgrounds to embark upon a legal career.
They are there to inspire and they are inspirational. Koser Shaheen left school at 11 to look after siblings. She is now a corporate lawyer at City firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.
There is Keith Etherington who, after the death of his mother, left school at 15 so he could work to support himself and his brother. He is now a district judge.
There is also Adele Edwin-Lamerton, whose A-level studies were hampered by juggling the needs of her mentally ill mother with a part-time job in a supermarket. She made the grade, she says, by being ‘stubborn’ and is now an employment lawyer at national firm Pattinson & Brewer.
And then there is Mishcon de Reya’s Claudine Adeyemi, who found herself sharing a hostel with drug addicts while studying for A-levels. Now two-years qualified, she has set up a not-for-profit company to help disadvantaged people begin a career in the professions.
These are just four of 20 remarkable individuals who, having succeeded against the odds, comprise the Law Society’s Social Mobility Ambassadors (SMA). There are no former public schoolboys or Oxbridge graduates among them. Indeed, they are the antithesis of the stereotypical fat-cat lawyer. None is a member of an elitist rugby or golf club. Their old school ties are just that – obsolete items of clothing.
So what do the SMAs do? Their mission is to tell people from similarly underprivileged backgrounds that, through hard work and determination, stubbornness even, you can make the grade. Or if you prefer: If I can do it, so can you.
Law Society president Robert Bourns is a passionate supporter of the SMA project, which is now in its second year and recruiting for its third. He tells the Gazette: ‘The Law Society and our ambassadors want to give people the confidence to follow an untypical route into law. We don’t want them to feel locked into a postcode where there’s no hope of going forward. We want to open their eyes and ignite their ambition.’
He stresses that the SMAs’ message is more than simply urging people to do better for the sake of it. ‘The SMAs embody the notion that, irrespective of background and socio-economic disadvantages, you can achieve miracles through sheer hard work and determination,’ Bourns says.
Mental health solicitor Georga Godwin, a consultant at virtual firm Scott Moncrieff & Associates, is one such ambassador. She refuses to ‘sugar coat’ the challenges that working-class girls will face when attempting to enter the profession. ‘The careers officer said girls like me from comprehensive schools don’t become lawyers,’ Godwin says. ‘She suggested I do typing and that maybe if I worked really hard I could become a legal secretary.’
She paid no heed to that, but it was an uphill struggle and she was 40 when she finally became a solicitor. What does she tell aspiring practitioners? ‘The biggest hurdle,’ Godwin says, ‘is persuading them that solicitors are not intimidating. We are not all posh and unapproachable. I also tell them that the SMA project is amazing. We are now even pushing against the glass ceiling towards judicial appointments. Look at the ambassadors. Two of us are judges.
‘But above all, I warn them that they must be willing to work hard. I used to travel three hours each way from Oxford to London when studying. That’s gruelling and takes a toll on you and your family.’
Rachel Broughton, the daughter of a South Yorkshire coal miner, qualified 20 years ago and is now a director of Coventry firm Averta Employment Lawyers. ‘Impostor syndrome dogged me for years,’ she confesses. ‘I was terrified someone would find me out and tell the world I had no right to be a solicitor. I still felt like the awkward, unsophisticated schoolgirl with a northern accent from a pit village and couldn’t shake off the feeling of being an interloper.
‘I used to watch Crown Court [a TV series produced by Granada Television which ran from 1972 to 1984] with my mum. It was my only experience of the legal profession and seemed like a completely different world from my close-knit mining community.
‘Nonetheless, aged 11 I used to take the bus to Rotherham and borrow law books from the public library. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and my teachers agreed, but I had no contacts within the profession and didn’t know how to take my ambition forward.’
Matters were not improved when Broughton received advice, which ‘diminished and embarrassed’ her, from a university representative at a careers fair. She recalls: ‘He said that a career in law is really for Cambridge or Oxford types. He didn’t offer any further advice and seemed utterly uninterested in the children at my state school. It was clear he saw only a shy, awkward kid from a working-class community. I’ve never forgotten this. But I knew I had the potential to achieve. I just didn’t have the confidence to say it out loud.’
So how did she win through? ‘I had to knock on doors – which was difficult – but by persisting I eventually got work experience in local high street practices.’ And what tips does she share with aspiring lawyers? ‘Work hard, of course, and don’t give up,’ she replies. ‘But I also tell them that I wish someone had told me that the only ceiling we cannot break is the one we create for ourselves.’
Mehran Behvandi left Iran in 1986 to escape the turmoil after the 1979 revolution and the slaughter of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. He had two children and a wife to support. The future looked uncertain, not least because he had no income and no funds to see him through his law studies. ‘The only choice was to do a University of London external law degree, which meant you essentially self-studied,’ he says. ‘I managed to complete my degree in just three years, which was a major achievement, particularly as I was sometimes holding down three part-time jobs to pay for everything.’
But his problems, he recalls, were just beginning. ‘I applied for 160 positions to secure a training contract, from which I had three interview offers. One firm, [City firm] Reed Smith, took me on. It was the biggest break of my career. Without Reed Smith sponsoring my LPC, I wouldn’t have been able to qualify and be the lawyer I am today.’
Today, 23 years after qualifying, he is head of regulation and financial crime at Royal Bank of Scotland Legal. How does his experience apply to the SMA project? ‘I like to feel that I may have inspired someone to persevere by showing them that the law is within their reach,’ he says. ‘But I feel I could do more. I would like us to be set concrete goals, such as attending a certain number of seminars to address various audiences. I’m also keen to talk to an Iranian partner of a City firm. We could jointly organise something targeting the Iranian community.’
SMA Shama Gupta’s progress towards becoming a lawyer was slowed by her cultural background. ‘In the Indian community where I grew up, I was expected to be a secretary, marry early and focus on being a mother and housewife,’ she explains. ‘I was convinced I could achieve more and was desperate to prove it, but a daughter striking out on her own and forging a professional career was inconceivable in my parents’ world.
‘And then came the turning point of my life. It was the day I conformed to expectations and enrolled on a secretarial course – and burst into tears. The admissions tutor looked at my father and said: “You really shouldn’t be making her do this, you know.” My father took pity on me and allowed me to do A-levels.’
Gupta was still not out of the woods. Her father initially refused her permission even to apply to university, but relented and allowed her to study at the local university – living away from home was out of the question. She secured a training contract, worked for a number of firms, including international firm Herbert Smith (now Herbert Smith Freehills) and – 28 years after qualifying – is now a support lawyer at the Nottingham office of national firm Freeths.
What is her contribution to the SMA project? ‘I put myself out there,’ Gupta replies. ‘I’ve spoken to A-level students, given practical help with CVs and application letters, and visited Nottingham Law School, where at least two dozen undergraduates asked for advice.’ Any tips? ‘You only have one life and you can have a fulfilling career if you really want one. You need to understand your needs and set your goals high, not low. And don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek guidance.’
At magic circle firm Linklaters, corporate lawyer Amanda Sanchez-Barry is the daughter of first-generation Filipino immigrants and the first person in her immediate family to go to university. She says that she found it difficult ‘juggling’ her academic studies, holding down two jobs and raising a son (born when she was 19) as a single mother. These were not her only challenges: ‘There was nothing like the SMA when I was setting out to enter the profession,’ she says. ‘There was nobody to advise on training contracts, networking or gaining work experience.’
Salvation for Sanchez-Barry came in the form of a scholarship from the Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme (DAS), which funded her part-time LPC. She then secured a one-year paralegal contract at Linklaters, which she was able to translate into a training contract, and is still there seven years after qualification.
Asked about her involvement with the SMA project, she says: ‘I’m often emailed by the Law Society asking me to speak at events. I was invited to the Excellence Awards, where I was able to network with aspiring lawyers. I’m also regularly asked by students how to find work experience placements and worthwhile pro bono projects.’ Are the SMAs achieving their aims? ‘Yes, and we shouldn’t stop doing what we are doing. I hope the Law Society expands the scheme and begins recruiting more than just 10 new ambassadors a year.’
Reference to the DAS, which funded Sanchez-Barry’s LPC, brings us to Keith Etherington, a district judge, ambassador and long-term Law Society Council member. He says: ‘Judging applicants for DAS scholarships is the best work I’ve done in Chancery Lane. The applicants are inspiring and humbling in equal measure. It beggars belief that some of them were ever able to graduate. And we now have DAS-plus, which provides funding not only for the LPC, but also for a successful applicant’s training contract.’
The SMA project is a labour of love, then? ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I’m always happy to be involved in events, although as a judge I’m increasingly busy during the daytime. I’m also happy to help facilitate mentoring placements.’ Etherington adds: ‘People from underprivileged backgrounds have always found it difficult to access the profession. I believe we ambassadors can ease their progress.’
London and New York firm Mishcon de Reya associate Claudine Adeyemi is an ambassador who, like Etherington, takes a passionate interest in a related, but separate, initiative. In January 2014, she founded the not-for-profit Student Development Company (SDC), which helps underprivileged people find their way into the professions.
Adeyemi’s path to the law had an unpropitious start. Having fallen out with her father after her mother’s death, she found herself studying for her A-levels in a hostel peopled by drug addicts. All-night parties left her sleepless and, to cap it all, she was rushed off to hospital after picking up an infection from her ‘dirty and grotty’ accommodation. Against the odds, she achieved outstandingly good A-level results and went on to gain an upper-second in law from University College London and a distinction in the LPC. A training contract with Mishcon de Reya followed and she qualified in September 2014 – eight months after founding the SDC.
What does she advise aspiring lawyers? ‘Spend lots of time on each application rather than sending out the same letter to every firm on your list,’ Adeyemi replies. ‘I took weeks preparing my application for Mishcon de Reya and the effort paid off. Also, aim high, achieve higher. Don’t be discouraged from pursuing your dream just because particular groups are under-represented – otherwise nothing will change and the profession will remain the preserve of the privileged.’
- Applications for next year’s Social Mobility Ambassadors open on 15 March. For more information about the SMA project, see www.lawsociety.org.uk.