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Cordella Bart Stewart talks about inspiration

by Cordella Bart Stewart
19 April 2016

Cordella Bart Stewart is an immigration and family law specialist who has championed equality and human rights issues for over 25 years. She is a part time judge, founding member of the Black Solicitors Network (BSN) and currently their chief executive officer.  

What inspired you to become a lawyer?  

My young life was unusual. I came to the UK from rural Jamaica aged four to join my parents, and was soon the only black child in a Hebrew school. It was a good experience but socially challenging for a young child. On Sundays I went to a Pentecostal church. I saw that the education that I was getting was better than my peers, and no-one in my world had been to university, and early on had an idea of justice though I may not have called it that at the time. At the same time, away from school, I saw open and hostile racism in the UK, the civil rights movement in the USA and independence struggles in Africa. I was also an avid reader. We did not have books at home but every Friday afternoon when school closed early for the Sabbath, my mother took me and my younger brother to the public library. There wasn’t much I could relate to but I knew from a young age that I wanted a profession whereby I had control and could work for myself. Arts were my strongest subjects. Law and lawyers featured a lot in my reading. I would hear my parents speak respectfully about their solicitor, Mr Pugh. I still remember being interviewed by him when I was about 12 years old after I was in a road accident. I always wanted that interface with clients and I think that I very much saw myself behind a desk trying to solve problems, so the solicitor’s branch was the profession I always wanted to do. I was around 17 years old when I finally decided I wanted to be a solicitor. It was never the Bar.

You qualified as a solicitor in 1987 when the percentage of Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) lawyers was approximately one per cent. Fast forward 29 years to 2016 and BAME lawyers make up nearly 14 per cent of the profession, which is above the BAME national average. Does the 13 per cent increase represent real progress and is this evidence that the profession is diverse and inclusive?

Undoubtedly it is progress, not just in numbers but in the range of work and experience. When I embarked on the academic stage I had never heard of let alone met a black lawyer. Many had come from Commonwealth countries to study at the Bar but most returned home when they finished their studies. It is easy to focus on the negative but in the 80’s the numbers were so small that most black lawyers knew each other well, whether at the Bar or as solicitors. Meetings of the Society of Black Lawyers were held in someone’s front room. Nearly all worked in crime and if there were solicitors working in the City, I did not know of any. Now BME lawyers are found in all areas of practice even if the numbers are small. When I see the Law Society reading room and council chamber full of BME lawyers during black history month it gives me enormous pleasure. The judiciary lags way behind with painfully slow progress but we do have judges, albeit not at the higher levels. It was many years of agitating before the professional bodies accepted that race was an issue. The fact that there is now a Minority Lawyers Division is tremendous progress. The profession is diverse but there is a long way to go before it can be described as inclusive. Nevertheless I am heartened by what has taken place so far and the good work being done by many in the industry to improve matters.

The civil rights movement helped break down barriers for black people in the US. What lessons can we learn and is the UK BAME lawyer challenge similar to his/her US counterpart?

I don’t make comparisons with the US as I do not think it helpful as we are not comparing like with like. The extreme reaction we are witnessing to the end of Barack Obama’s presidential terms which were conducted with dignity makes me even less willing to take lessons from across the pond. Black people in the US had to fight against laws that treated black people as chattels and denied them an education. What we see now does not inspire confidence that things have really moved on. By 1965 the UK already had a Race Relations Act and there has been steady progress on equality and opportunity since. The pace is slow and sometimes feels like it is going backwards but we have protected characteristics. Our public bodies are not allowed to discriminate. That is not the case in the US, We need to develop policies that suit our history and environment. We have to look at positive action. I do not mean affirmative action in the way it is popularly (mis)understood but if the playing field is not level we have to find ways to level it. So I also think that targets and quotas should be part of the conversation. We can improve on the statutory framework we have developed but we also have to police and enforce it. I also think that people, especially the millennials, need to be more politically engaged. The changes in this country came through political engagement, challenge and protest.

The legal profession has made some positive steps in attracting more diverse candidates at entry level, but at senior levels, BAME partners are few and far between. To address this some would argue revolution and not evolution is required. Do you agree?

Well I don’t think we need to be taking to the streets. It is true that access has improved. In part the improvement might be because of positive steps to attract more diverse candidates but it might also be in part due to the high numbers of BME law students and LPC graduates. But often they do not even reach the stage where they can be considered for senior appointments as for BME lawyers there is a steep drop off at two-four years post qualification experience (PQE). No one seems to know why, although there are lots of anecdotal reasons, or where they go. Particularly now that the cost of pursuing the academic stage is around £50,000 and firms have invested time and money into their training it is tragic and needs serious study. BSN is now focused on looking into retention and progression and will be carrying out work on this in the coming months. But it would be wrong to assume that the City is the ambition of every BME candidate, it certainly wasn’t for me, or that everyone wants to be a partner. But it is not just the City. There are few BME lawyers in e.g. Government Legal Services let alone at senior level. So there is still work to be done at entry level but we also need to investigate why the opportunities for those who do want to progress are not there, what is preventing progression and how these barriers can be removed or overcome.

You set up Stewart & Co in 1990. As a small practitioner, the legal landscape has changed dramatically over the years. Legal aid cuts are set to have a devastating impact on BAME practitioners and the communities they serve. What strategies should BAME small firms adopt to survive the challenges they face?

When I qualified, the city was a possibility that crossed my mind but in my heart I wanted my own firm on a high street accessible to people like my parents, their friends and children who never dreamed that a young black woman could be a solicitor and help them. Publicly funded work was inevitable and those people and their problems (and aspirations) have not gone away. Until 1990 Legal Aid pay rates increased annually so from the time I set up the practice I have had to deal with the challenges of being a small practice, part dependent on the assault on publicly funded work that started around that time. The reforms were aimed at reducing the number of small firms and BME solicitors are still disproportionately represented in such firms. I ensured that my firm was never solely dependent on legal aid and for many years the publicly funded practice was subsidised by privately funded work. That needs to still be the strategy. But the firm also has to be organised, efficient and have good systems. It is easier now but when I started IT was new and expensive. Nevertheless I had a Case Management System and computerised accounts. That is now standard but it needs to be used effectively. Small firms have to be alert to new or growing areas of practice and be prepared to diversify. As a small firm, resources are limited and there is tendency to focus so much on the casework that little time is spent on effective management and controlling costs. But if you have decided to set up a firm then you have to realise that you are running a business. Regular time needs to be set aside, daily if necessary depending on the size of the firm to look at the business side. 

Firms also need to market themselves using the many tools now available which again are not particularly costly. Solicitors also need to engage with the issues and support each other. There is often a bunker mentality. BSN was started by four sole practitioners because of the proposed reforms. There would not have been the pause in in imposing the criminal contracts if the profession had not taken a stand together.

Globalisation and emerging markets offer new opportunities to diverse lawyers from the Africa/India diaspora. What advice would you give to these lawyers to help them exploit these opportunities?

The markets are there and the opportunities but diverse lawyers cannot expect to sit back and expect the opportunities to come to them. They need to go out, including to the countries, and market themselves. But we shouldn’t go out with the attitude we know everything and can impose our will. You really have to work out what skills you have, what you have to offer and why they should use you. There has to be an understanding of the culture, economic environment, limitations and challenges. There are numerous networks, trade missions, conferences and other opportunities here and abroad to meet lawyers and officials in the home country. As a lawyer you have developed useful transferable as a lawyer and business person. There is a lot of opportunity out there but you need a plan and determination.

Lawyer, judge, community legal advisor, founder Black Solicitor Network, church warden, Honorary Doctorate Stafford University, do you have any other things you would like to achieve?

When I reflect I have had a remarkable life and feel blessed. I have lived through a time of enormous social change here and across the world and as my husband was for a long time a diplomat, been fortunate to travel widely, have some amazing memorable experiences and understand politics and how the world works at very high level. I am asked to speak often and each time I prepare something different flashes in my mind so possibly a book or I might see about earning that doctorate properly.

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