Over one hurdle in the race to the Bar

David Lammy believes the way to handle racism is through tenacity and persuasion. Sharon Wallach reports

"I am a barrister who happens to be black, in the same way the Lord Chancellor happens to be Scottish," says David Lammy, who was called to the Bar last week. He is in pupillage at Serjeants' Inn, chambers in London's Fleet Street.

Mr Lammy's views on discrimination and being black at the Bar could be seen as unfashionable. He does not deny that racism exists ("there are a lot of isms at the Bar") but is no militant and believes in tackling problems from the inside.

"You have first to understand the system before you can competently take issue with it," he says. "Otherwise, you challenge the wrong things for the wrong reasons and succeed only in cementing what already exists."

Now 22, Mr Lammy comes from one of London's most run-down areas, Tottenham, where his family still lives.

A strongly Christian upbringing led to the choir in his local church and then to a scholarship as a chorister at Peterborough Cathedral and then as a board-er at the King's School in Cambridgeshire, where life was "a little difficult at first".

"I was the first black chorister," he says. "But I was just myself and got on with it. I really enjoyed singing and I enjoyed school." Then came reading for an LLB at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he graduated with an upper second, and another scholarship, for the Bar vocational course.

He describes the path to the Bar as a race with hurdles. One hurdle is discrimination.

"You've just got to get on with it, using tenacity and persuasion," he says. "It is not always appropriate to get angry. We know what overt racism is, we can legislate against it, the Bar has codes against it, there is a lot of discussion and angst. I believe the way to deal with it is to come to terms with the institution you want to be involved in. To change it you've got to understand why it exists. That means signing up for all the pomp and mystique."

The point of the Bar is that it aims to be a meritocracy, in which individuals are, and want to be, judged on their records, he believes. "It is like fitting into a new family. But it is a two-way equation. I know my worth, and want others to be receptive to that." His approach may have been shaped by a multicultural home life, but it also has a foot in realism. At a time when the Bar is under threat from competition, he says, it needs to take on people offering all manner of skills and experience.

He has a 12-month pupillage in his chambers, a civil set, whose members he describes as "friendly and incredibly bright". His work will be in professional negligence, construction law, but mainly in medical negligence, a growing area of practice, which he describes as the humane end of law. It is concerned with people, he says, but also offers intellectual satisfaction in tackling ethical issues.

Civil practice has fewer black practitioners than criminal work, and he says: "I am delighted that I haven't found myself pushed into the areas of law traditionally associated with ethnic minorities; family, crime and immigration. I have found a civil practice that gives me the ability to expand outside what to some extent has been an established box. It's important to me that I am not `ghettoised'."

This is not to deny his roots. "When I wanted to become a barrister at the age of 15 or 16 I was aware of those who made it before me. If you saw a black face in a legal journal you were influenced by what they had to say."

He admits to having been "damned fortunate. I know what prejudice is, I know what poverty is - not in my own family but I can't go back to Tottenham without seeing it all around. It is not my place to tell others to deal with racism with tenacity and persuasion. I'm talking about the Bar, which is made up of educated people who will go on to process the force for change in this country."

It is hard to imagine David Lammy not doing well in his career, but he says it is too difficult to talk about future ambitions at this stage.

"I'm just hungry to learn, and to become a very good barrister, and to be judged on that. Where that leads, I don't know, I am after all still only 22.

"I am learning more this year than I ever have. I'm happy to be here and I work within that. It's not to do with being black, it's to do with loving the law."Much of his free time is taken up with work for the Free Representation Unit, and he also uses travel to "live law". On a trip to Jamaica he worked at the Council of Human Rights, dealing with death row prisoners, and he also undertook a placement programme in New York.

Suggested Topics
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

ICT Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a qualified ...

DT Design and Technology Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are urgently for ...

Maths Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienc...

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on