“I went to university with the reading age of a 10-year-old”

Gary Steel became a solicitor after his training was funded by our Diversity Access Scheme (DAS) in 2016. He describes how he left school at age 14 with no qualifications and eventually became a social welfare lawyer, never taking no for an answer.
Gary is a white man, he's wearing glasses, a navy blue jacket, green shirt and blue stripy tie. He is standing and smiling in a stone building, with a window behind him.
Photograph: Gary Steel

I left school at 14. My mum was unwell and I was bullied, so one day I walked out of school and never went back. I grew up in Skegness and, because of the education system at the time, I fell through the gaps. I ended up working in a chip shop.

My family dynamic was quite difficult. My dad was an ex-miner and had traditional values, so my mum did most of the parenting. I had a lot of freedom, which made me more independent. I left home at 17 and view my childhood as quite separate from my life now.

I discovered law by sneaking into my partner’s law lecture. I remember thinking: “If those students can do it, then so can I.” I was a little bit arrogant looking back, but I was just thinking: “I have a voice, a brain and the ability to learn, so why not?”

I studied law at the Open University (OU) for six years, while living at home. I had the reading age of a 10-year-old and writing age of about 13. I don’t have GCSEs or A-levels and, luckily, the OU didn’t have entry requirements. I graduated with a high 2:2, and I’m really proud of it.

From a young age, I knew nothing would be handed to me on a plate. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. When a job advert required a 2:1, I would apply anyway. It’s because I’m not going to be constrained: I’m going to push through.

I’m an accidental lawyer, I think. During work experience in private practice, a partner told me to give up because I was at the OU. The Diversity Access Scheme (DAS) was my last-ditch attempt. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to progress. I was a mature student, had to pay rent and needed to get on with my life.

My advice for applying for DAS is to be brutally honest. I detailed the debt I was in and that I was on benefits. In my essay, I wrote about the ineffectiveness of blind recruitment and was challenged in my interview. I said a Magic Circle firm used blind recruitment as a PR stunt because it already gets the best candidates. I didn’t know it, but someone on the panel was a partner there. But I didn’t back down; we had a bit of a debate.

Ask yourself, are you going to get to 40 and regret not doing it? I would have. I couldn’t believe it when I was successful – things like that didn’t happen to people like me. Getting DAS was a massive confidence boost. But because of who I am and where I come from, I felt pressure to not let people down.

I hated the Legal Practice Course (LPC). I was a lot older than the other students and there was a perception that degrees from the OU aren’t as good. Some people felt they were entitled to a training contract because of the university they went to and the grade they got.

In the middle of my LPC, I nearly gave up law. I briefly worked as a paralegal in private practice. It was a toxic environment, where I was subjected to homophobic comments from my supervisor. I ended up thinking law wasn’t for me.

If it wasn’t for the law centre, I wouldn’t be a solicitor. I applied for one training contract at the Derbyshire law centre and got it. It made me a firm believer in great things come to those who stop trying to force things that aren’t meant for you.

As a social welfare lawyer, my job is to stand in front of the little person and make sure they get justice. We’re at the coalface of society. Every day, I see people at crisis point. If a day goes by where a client isn’t threatening suicide, that’s a good day. I feel like I’m doing my best work now, ensuring access to justice in difficult circumstances. Housing is the worst, with the cost-of-living crisis increasing evictions, rent increases and mortgage repossessions.

Change is coming because of the new generation. You can get what you want: just don’t take no for an answer, or allow someone else to dictate where you want to go. Work as hard as you can, make contacts and be broad-minded.

Find out more

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