Interview: MP David Lammy's trailblazing education in law

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The Independent Online

When we at Diversity In Law were looking for the ideal person to talk to about ethnic minority students in the profession, we realised we'd be hard pushed to find someone better qualified than David Lammy. He's currently the MP for Tottenham and Minister for Skills, and a look back at his education and experiences shows that this is a man who knows what he's on about. So, we took the only sensible course of action, and picked his brains.

Starting off at King's School in Peterborough, Lammy then got a place studying law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and it is there that he got his grounding in the diversity of the law sector. "It was a fascinating course, because there is a determination at SOAS to look at law from the perspective of other parts of the world such as Africa and Asia," he says. "I was doing that in 1990, and I think now we can see from our vantage point how extraordinarily beneficial it is to have that global perspective on what is an international subject."

This awareness of global issues wasn't just restricted to Lammy's academic studies. From the age of 18 he was involved with the Free Representation Unit (FRU), working in his holidays to represent people who came up before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. He also did placements, working in Jamaica on death row privy council cases and with Prisoners Abroad in Thailand, who deal with British and European travellers who have been arrested, usually on drug-trafficking charges.

Lammy believes placements of this kind - though not necessarily in such far-flung places as the Caribbean or Southeast Asia - are vitally important. "Work experience is key, and you've got to be prepared to work for free. Think about the law firms that you can go and spend time with for one day a week. It helps build your CV in a competitive business.

"I sent out 250 applications, and I'd sit at the phone and ring people all the time. You've got to demonstrate the ingenuity and the tenacity that are the key elements to being a good lawyer."

Following a 2.1 at SOAS, Lammy went on to do a Bar course at the Inns of Court School of Law, before becoming the first black Briton to study at Harvard Law School - quite an achievement, but one he plays down. "I had always found myself looking to America and being interested in what was happening there. A lot has been said over the years about the fact that I was the first black Briton to go [to Harvard], but I think it was just because nobody else had applied!

"I learnt a tremendous amount at Harvard and it serves me well to this day - the ability to pick up the phone to Barack Obama [candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 Presidential elections] because we both went to that law school, for example."

On his return to the UK, Lammy was soon in the same game as his American friend: politics. What prompted the change of career path? "I'd always been the kind of lawyer that was attracted back to policy. If you're in the business of law you're in the business of representation and precedent. There are a group of us, practioners, who find themselves going back to the question of how to change policy for good - not liking the way the world is and wanting to change things. So, there are some lawyers who just find themselves wanting to become Members of Parliament."

He became an elected Member of Parliament for Tottenham in 2000, sooner than he expected due to his predecessor, Bernie Grant, dying suddenly. It was in his role as Minister for Constitutional Affairs that he first tackled the issue of diversity in the legal profession in the public arena. "I was the first minister to broach this subject in a big, big way. I feel very strongly that City law firms, particularly, have to do more to bring on ethnic minority talent that's born and raised in this country.

"It's not about a lack of these people - there are well over a thousand ethnic minority children getting straight A grades in their A-levels every year and many of them going into law. There's talent in Tottenham, in Brixton, in Peckham, in Hackney, in Tower Hamlets, in Bradford and in Birmingham, and we've got to bring it on."

The need for City law firms to be accountable is an overriding theme with Lammy, and one that he feels very passionate about.

"We've seen the medical profession get slightly better at this than City law firms. The top 100 law firms were challenged to publish data on their ethnic minority make-up and their ethnic minority practices. I congratulate those that have responded, but it's poor that less than half of them have stepped up to that challenge. I think it's through transparency - and students understanding how seriously our law firms are taking this issue - that we are going to get some progress."

Why, then, have some City law firms not come forward with the data they have been asked for? "I think because their figures are poor and they're embarrassed to put them up. But their figures won't get better unless they do put them up and concentrate their minds."

Finally, speaking as a man who has been there and very much done that, Lammy has some additional advice for all would-be lawyers, solicitors and barristers out there.

"Don't be put off by the statistics because things are getting better in the legal profession. Most importantly, for both black and white students - just keep ploughing away. Personally, as a prominent ethnic minority in the country, this is not a subject I want to leave alone."

For more information about David Lammy's work, visit his homepage at www.davidlammy.co.uk

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