'They wouldn't believe I had a degree'

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WHEN Juliana Bardouille told the careers officer at her inner London comprehensive that she wanted to become a lawyer, the reaction was one of incredulity. What was a black girl from a working-class family in Brent doing with such extravagant ambitions? Why did she not lower her expectations to something more realistic, like nursing?

For a time she took the advice and eschewed further education. But a chance meeting with a friend who was already practising as a solicitor convinced Ms Bardouille that she should return to her original idea.

She took up a place at the Polytechnic of East London and completed her law degree with good grades, a prestigious prize and the confidence that an offer of sponsorship for her one-year Law Society finals course and ultimately a post as a trainee solicitor would drop into her lap.

It didn't. Dozens of applications did not even bring an interview; meanwhile, white counterparts with worse qualifications were snapped up by the best firms. She decided to go on and take the Law Society finals anyway, but was faced with the problem of how to pay for it. As she had already been rejected by law firms, this avenue was closed to her. Like most local authorities, Brent had long since stopped giving grants, and she could not expect her parents to fund her.

As a last resort, she approached her bank for a loan, but was turned down. 'When I said I wanted a loan to become a lawyer, the reaction was total disbelief. One bank clerk asked me if I was sure that I had a law degree.'

She approached three other banks, with the same result. Just weeks before her course was due to start she appealed again to her own bank, this time to a black student officer. The money was immediately made available.

She passed her finals with honours and again sent off dozens of applications seeking work as a trainee solicitor. After writing more than 200 letters, she was given an interview, but it was hardly marked by success. She was asked, for instance, why she went to the local comprehensive. Two other interviews also concentrated on her background - what, for instance, did her parents do? And her nine brothers and sisters? But her fourth interview, with the large London firm Lewis Silkin brought a different approach.

'They were the first firm that said, 'Why do you want to be a solicitor?' I had practised and practised for that question, but it had never been asked before,' Ms Bardouille said.

She is due to start with the firm in the autumn. Colleagues say Ms Bardouille eventually succeeded because of her academic qualities, her determination and encouragement from friends. For many other people the hurdles are too high.

Ms Bardouille has joined the African Caribbean and Asian Lawyers' Group, a moderate organisation that is establishing a network of contacts to ease its members' paths into the profession. The association believes that this in turn will encourage other black people to become lawyers.

As David Edwards, a director of the group and a solicitor at the firm Richards Butler, says, 'Racism exists. The question is what strategy you are going to use to break that down. The big stick doesn't work, but hopefully co-operation does.'

(Photograph omitted)