By David F. Roberts
‘Where you begin in life does not determine where you end up…I would not advise any bright young lawyer to enter the Criminal Bar in this country as in many cases you could find yourself paying for the experience…The superb quality of life you could enjoy in Africa as a barrister you could never enjoy in Britain…Do not limit your horizons to the United Kingdom, think outside of the box for opportunities, look to Africa and the Caribbean…There is very much still a ‘Glass Ceiling’ in the UK legal profession’.
Such were some of the many inspiring quotes left by International Criminal law specialist, Courtenay Griffiths QC for the ethnically mixed group of law students and enthusiasts at the Inner Temple Hall (Treasurer’s Building) last Saturday July 9th.
The legal profession has long been regarded as one of the better vocations for career stability and prestige, alongside medicine. However, in post BREXIT Britain there is much uncertainty about the opportunities available to young law graduates, more particularly graduates of an ethnic minority background.
Given the already difficult circumstances ethnic minorities face in terms of accessing Oxbridge universities in the United Kingdom such as alleged discrimination causing many students of African heritage to change their birth names to anglophone names; and following graduation the near impossibility of acquiring pupilage and training contracts; it is widely felt among the leadership of the British Foundation for the West Indies (BFUWI) that ethnic minority students need ‘a leg up’ to compete with their more privileged counterparts.
Courtenay Griffiths QC made the several remarks above while being interviewed by University of the West Indies trained Master Desiree Artesi, Bencher of Inner Temple at the‘Careers in Law: challenges for tomorrow’s lawyers’ event organised once again by BFUWI in collaboration with the The Inner Temple. Mr Griffiths was the final speaker among many distinguished and experienced legal practitioners passionate about changing the fate on young Black lawyers in Britain.
The other participating experts were; Colin Bobb-Semple – former Senior Lecturer at Inns of Court School of Law; Terry Brathwaite – Senior Lecturer, Coventry University; Professor Gus John, associate professor and honorary fellow at the UCL Institute of Education, director of Gus John Consultancy Limited and director/co-founder of All Africa Advisors Ltd; Ian Rajaratnam – paralegal Leigh Day; Dawn Brathwaite – Partner Mills and Reeves; Penny Carballo-Smith – Director Future Think; HH Judge Barbara Mensah, Luton Crown Court; Bianca Stewart, Associate Covingtons; Richard Wilson Q.C. Joint Head of Chambers, 36 Bedford Row; Rosemarie Cadogan – Commonwealth Secretariat – legal division; Paul McFarlane – Partner, Weightmans; Razia Karim – Office of the Financial Ombudsman; David Stephenson, Barrister 1 Mitre Court practices principally in the fields of equality and discrimination law, public law and human rights; Leslie Thomas Q.C Garden Court.
The day’s proceedings began with an illuminating introduction and welcome to The Inner Temple by Mr Patrick Maddams, Sub Treasurer, Inner Temple who was duly introduced by BFUWI trustee and barrister 7 Bedford Row Chambers, Ms Susan Belgrave. Mr Maddams spoke with enormous pride about the traditions and accomplishments of The Inner Temple including the fact that the institute has been responsible for the training of lawyers for circa 500 years including the training of the preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India, Mahatma Gandhi who studied at The Inner Temple in 1888.
He revealed that the teaching of law in university in the UK began only 130 years ago. Quite interestingly, Mr Patrick Maddams brought to the attention of the gathering the names of a few living alumni from the institution whom have distinguished themselves such as Prime Minister of The Bahamas, The Rt Hon. Perry Christie, P.C., M.P; The Governor General of Barbados Sir Elliott Belgrave; and Chief Justice of Guyana Yonette Cummings-Edwards. He outlined the specialism of the institution, Court Advocacy which is an essential component in criminal trials where a jury rather than a judge relies heavily on the quality of the argument to make a considered determination.
Setting the tone for the day’s presentations was chair of the first panel and associate professor and honorary fellow at the UCL Institute of Education, director of Gus John Consultancy Limited and director/co-founder of All Africa Advisors Ltd. professor Augustine (Gus) John. While making the point about the importance of legal education and training for suitable youngsters being paramount in addressing inequality and injustice in Britain, professor John shared how he discovered a disaffected young man in the 70’s while on a special assignment (action research project) sponsored by the Home Office that required him to examine youth policy and its application in 16 towns and cities across Britain. This young man was none other than Courtenay Griffiths QC.
The professor made mention of the notion of diversity having been embraced by The Inner Temple some 30 years ago, as alluded to by previous speaker Patrick Maddams.
He referenced the fact that in spite of attempts by The Inner Temple to level the playing field, the numbers of Black and ‘global majority people’ (ethnic minorities) are disappointingly low, with these groups clustered in jobs that are widely considered at the bottom end of the pile with single practitioners, small firms, and being conspicuously absent from big city or Magic Circle firms such as Allen & Overy/ Clifford Chance / Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer / Linklaters and Slaughter and May). Professor John suggested strongly to the participants that they must use their education and training in the law to challenge and if possible dismantle the apparatus that supports discrimination within the legal profession.
One significant contributor to the sessions was student mentor, 22 year old Ghanaian Priscilla Mensah who graduated from Girton College, Cambridge with a Double First in Politics, Psychology and Sociology in 2015 and is hoping to pursue a career in law.
She was the first Black person to be elected to the position of President of Cambridge University Students’ Union which was a full time position. In this capacity, she sat on a number of university committees representing the students and advised on financial, welfare and academic provision.
She has completed an internship at Linklaters as well as working in the office of Hackney MP, Diane Abbott and the office of the National Organisation of Women in Washington DC. She co-founded the BME Women’s Network at Cambridge University in 2012 and has served as women’s officer for her college and the university. Priscilla was in the Top Ten for the Rare Rising Star Award in 2015. She was the winner of Labour House of Lords ‘Young Women in Politics’ Essay Competition in 2012.
Priscilla an avid reader from a working class background in south London remembers loving to read The Economist newspaper while in 6th Form but couldn’t afford it on her meager £10.00 weekly allowance.
Her perseverance and deep interest to learn enabled her to devise a way to acquire The Economist on a weekly basis for FREE. An unexpected visit to Cambridge at age 16, sparked her interest to study there, a toss-up between Cambridge and three other top universities. She prides her audacious nature coupled with her unparalleled tenacity as her formulae for success. She is passionate about making a meaningful difference particularly by changing traditions in institutions steeped in colonialism or imperialism that effectively exclude the ethnic minority experience.
Presentations of an excellent standard were delivered by the many panelists mentioned above with an extraordinary amount of tips, advice, suggestions and signposting for the benefit of the eager and evidently knowledge hungry participants. Integral to the ethos of the event was examining the skills required by 21st century lawyers to perform satisfactorily and succeed in the profession in an increasingly competitive environment.
The Q & A session was vibrant with many questions being addressed seriatim by the esteemed panelists. Master Desiree Artesi, Bencher of Inner Temple in her closing remarks notified the gathering that the event was intended to provide them with the ‘Inside Track’, enabling them to avoid the pitfalls of the panelists and other legal practitioners who suffered discrimination and all manner of injustice, before them.
The BFUWI thanks the presenters and participants for their continued support and look forward to being of service once more in the not too distant future. Special thanks are also extended to the event sponsors The Inner Temple.