Bringing his own dose of magic to the field of Law

Tomas McCabe is a recent prize-winner in the inaugural British Inter University Commercial Awareness Competition 2020. BIUCAC was established to provide opportunities for non-Russell Group students to develop commercial awareness and to highlight the talent at respective law schools. Contestants receive support with enhancing their CVs and win one of twelve prizes at top City law firms. Tomas won the prize offered by Simmons & Simmons and in this blog, he shares his path to success, a smart mix of the conventional with the unconventional, including a 10-year career as a magician.

This is a photo of Law student Tomas McCabe

Tell us about your course, what you’re studying and how you came to study at Birkbeck?
I am in my second year of the LLB course. My job for a long time has been as a magician, however I decided last summer (2019) that I would love to study a law degree around that work. I’ve always been interested in law and have considered studying it for a long time, and when I finally decided to go for it, Birkbeck’s evening structure allowed me to study it conveniently as well as giving me a University of London degree.

What’s your view on the opportunities available to Law students once they graduate?
I have researched a lot about the opportunities for law students after they graduate. While there are some fantastic opportunities, it is a very competitive industry and a majority of students will never get the chance to work as a barrister or solicitor simply because everyone wants to. However, with a good degree behind you and a lot of extra volunteer work, competitions and experience on your CV, it seems you stand a better chance. Thankfully, as I learnt in BIUCAC, the city law firms traditional tendency to hire from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities is being steadily improved to give more students a chance at obtaining the top positions.

What are your career plans following your course?
I have been awarded work experience at two law firms- Simmons & Simmons and CANDEY. Following my placements there, I will have a much better idea where exactly I would like to take my law career. Currently, I am simply trying to take advantage of every opportunity and keep doors open.

How has Birkbeck supported you with those plans?
Birkbeck has supported me in numerous ways. As I mentioned, I much prefer the evening scheduled work as it frees up my day to do my own combination of studying, legal research and other work to support life in London. I have jumped at opportunities presented to students, including this one (BIUCAC), representing Birkbeck at the Landmark Property Moot Competition and applying for some volunteer work. I think students themselves, however, need to do a bit more research into what needs to be done early on in order to build experience and stand out at the time when you are applying for jobs.

Tell us how you came to hear of the competition and how you went about applying?
I heard of the competition through an email sent to students. Initially I wasn’t sure about taking part as I hadn’t really thought about commercial awareness or why I might need it. As it was multiple choice, I decided to give the first few rounds a go. By the time I got to the interviews and presentations stages, I was sucked in and loved it.

How do you see competitions like this helping students, especially non-Russell Group students?
The most obvious answer here is that anything that can make your CV stand out, against the hundreds applying for the same job as you, is important. After all, most – if not all – will have a law degree. That aside, this competition has built my commercial awareness a lot and from doing my research I now realise how important this is. Also, the opportunity to network with graduate recruiters, trainees and more senior lawyers from the top firms in London – magic circle included – was brilliant. Finalists also got a Just Eat voucher!

What were your thoughts on winning 3rd place- an incredible achievement?
To say I was shocked would be an understatement. However, as the competition moved through the rounds and I became more invested in it, I decided soon enough that if I was going to do it, I should do it right. I put in the time and effort for the finals and was really pleased with my achievement. However, the whole way through I was aware of the standard of the other students and didn’t believe I could place third from over 4100 entrants. I’m really happy with myself for doing so though.

Any final takeaways from the competition?
My main takeaways from the competition are: degree class is becoming more important to the top firms than the university you study at, so never think you can’t compete with the best. And also, take every opportunity you can. At worst it’ll cost you a few hours, at best it could get you your dream job.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
More about Birkbeck’s School of Law

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Is the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence turning into the Ministry of Justice’s own Windrush scandal?

Professor Mike Hough, Emeritus Professor and Founder of Birkbeck’s Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) explains how thousands of prisoners are still facing injustice, ten years after IPPs’ failings were first exposed, and endorses latest demands for action.

Ministry of Justice, Westminster

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) is to be congratulated on their excellent – but profoundly depressing – report No Freedom, No Life, No Future, which charts how large numbers of prisoners sentenced to the indeterminate sentence Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) are still stranded in prison many years after they were sentenced. As the report vividly demonstrates, part of the cause of this is the irrational and grossly unfair way in which the recall system is operating, following prisoners’ breach of their licence after release.

In 2010 Professor Jessica Jacobson and I worked on an ICPR/PRT collaboration which resulted in the report on the IPP sentence, Unjust Deserts. We showed how prisoners were required to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they were no longer a danger to the public, mainly by participating in courses to reduce the risks they posed. However, prisoners were denied means to demonstrate that they no longer posed a high risk to the public. Often courses were simply unavailable. In some cases, prisoners were told that they presented too low a risk for the course on offer, or that their levels of literacy were too low for the course in question. More broadly, the effectiveness of courses as a means of reducing dangerousness was questionable; while, at the same time, there were no obvious alternative ways in which individuals, in a prison setting, could prove the negative proposition that they no longer posed a risk to the public.  Matters were made worse by the originally mandatory nature of the sentence, meaning that many more IPP sentences were passed than originally expected, and many of these were for relatively minor offences. The Parole Board was overwhelmed by cases and delays grew. The net result was that many IPP prisoners were serving much longer sentences than expected – sentences that were, by any yardstick, grossly disproportionate.

Our report was well-received, and the then Justice Secretary, (now Lord) Kenneth Clarke, asked to see a pre-publication draft. We took some satisfaction in the announcement made shortly afterwards that the sentence would be abolished, qualified only by the fact that there were no plans to deal retroactively with those still serving IPPs, for example by converting all IPPs into determinate sentences. However, we thought that it would not take long for solutions to be found to release those prisoners in a fair and sensible way, whether through legislative or executive action.

How wrong we were! I was astonished to learn from PRT’s new report that by mid 2020 almost 2,000 IPP prisoners have never been released, and almost 1,400 have been released but are now back in prison, facing exactly the same intractable problems of proving their reduced risk as we found ten years ago.  The ongoing treatment of IPP prisoners is scandalous, and the scandal is, for the Ministry of Justice, taking on qualities that parallel the Windrush scandal that the Home Office is failing to deal with. The obvious unfairnesses and inhumanity which IPP prisoners face demand rapid attention.  We strongly endorse PRT’s call for action.

Further Information

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“Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student”

The Compass Project has been successfully supporting students from forced migrant backgrounds into higher education since 2016; read what two Compass scholars have to say about the impact it has had on their lives.

Hana* joined Birkbeck in 2020 to start an LLB Law degree:
“My passion for human rights and immigration law has grown and I know I want to be a human rights lawyer in the future. For me, the Compass Project hasn’t just been an opportunity to study, it’s been an opportunity to change my life.

People coming from forced migrant backgrounds know what it means to have nothing and know how challenging life can get. Now we have the opportunity to work hard and achieve our potential. I don’t have all the words to say thank you. My advice for future Compass students is to make sure you are clear about your passions and what you want to achieve. Find the courage within yourself as you will only have regrets if you don’t. It doesn’t matter about where you come from, just about where you go. I am now at Birkbeck, studying a great course and meeting amazing people.”

Two people reading a book together to represent Compass students

Grace* joined Birkbeck in 2018 and recently completed a CertHE in Psychodynamic Counselling and Skills in a Psychosocial Framework:

“Psychodynamic Counselling was of particular interest to me because I have always wanted to help others and the theory and practical skills I gained in class also helped me with my own personal trauma. I am glad that I have now been able to turn the helping aspect of my personality into a qualification. Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student. Even with everything I have been through, one of the biggest barriers I faced prior to studying was my own self-doubt. However, the support I received from those on the Compass Project team and other Birkbeck staff took that self-doubt away.”

* Names have been changed

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Golden Dawn: Greece’s neo Nazi leaders jailed

In response to the guilty verdict in the Greek Golden Dawn Nazi trial in Athens, Greece, Dr Maria Tzanakopoulou from the School of Law charts the history of the group, the anti-fascist movement in the country and the people’s reaction to the historic verdict. 

A huge crowd gathered outside of the Court of Appeal in Athens

A huge crowd gathered outside the Court of Appeal to hear the verdict.

The world salutes yesterday’s historic verdict in the Greek Golden Dawn Nazi trial before the Athens Court of Appeal, Criminal Division. Five and a half years after the commencement of proceedings, the Nazis were jailed. The most momentous trial for an entire generation of Greeks, and possibly the biggest post-Nuremberg Nazi trial in global history, yesterday’s verdict came to the relief, emotional outburst and thrill of thousands of citizens gathered outside the Court of Appeal in Athens. The Nazis were jailed!

From a fringe fascist group in the mid-1980s, Golden Dawn developed into a decisive political force, securing 21 seats in the 2012 general election to the astonishment of Greek democratic people. Yet the development was not without prior notice. The ascension of Golden Dawn to a dominant political and ideological force was the offspring of years of far-right radicalisation, pauperisation, austerity and debasement of the lives of citizens. With the exception of the Left, mainstream political forces did very little, if anything, to put a stop to extreme far-right, nationalist and anti-immigrant voices. The words used by mainstream politicians in their references to Golden Dawn following their 2012 election are hair-raising: ‘an authentic political movement’; ‘activists’; ‘polite’; ‘earnest’ are a few among them.  As such, the Nazis did not solely make it to Parliament; they were normalised by the system, becoming an almost conventional interlocutor in everyday public political discourse. They exerted decisive influence, developed into a better-organised criminal organisation with military hierarchy and, covered with parliamentary immunity, began to spread hatred and violence through society in ways far more effective and extensive than before. The Nazis attacked, and often murdered, whatever and whoever they could not comprehend – from the immigrant worker to the dignified anti-fascist to the fighting trade unionist.

Magda Fyssa, mother of Pavlos Fyass the moment the verdict was announced

Magda Fyssa, mother of antifacist rapper Pavlos Fyass (who was assasinated in 2013), the moment the verdict was announced.

Antifascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas’ murder in 2013 was a milestone in the turn of events that led to the Nazis’ conviction. Pavlos’ assassination was preceded by the murder of 27 year old Pakistani Shehzad Luqman, the attack against Communist trade unionists by organised assault battalions, and the violent attack against four Egyptian fishermen. The above events occurred between 2012 and 2013 and were just a few among many brutal assaults by the Nazis. Yesterday’s trial was about the individual crimes, which had been by and large confessed, but above all it was about the recognition of the Nazis as a criminal organisation.

The historic announcement of the conviction of the entire Nazi group for leadership and/or participation in a criminal organisation was followed by an ecstatic outburst of applause and tears by the crowds. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of the Greek anti-fascist movement, the demand for jailing the Nazis became hegemonic in society, assimilated into the mainstream, and relieved the people of at least some of the bitter fascist hatred that was spreading through. Over the past few days, the slogans ‘Jail the Nazis’ and ‘I won’t be scared’ were projected on central city landmarks of Athens and Thessaloniki. Convicts of the country’s largest prison raised a banner demanding that Nazis be jailed. Millions of citizens made small gatherings raising similar banners and posting them on social media. From Greek cities to Italy and France and from London and Liverpool to Dachau Concentration Camp, Europe cried out: ‘Jail the Nazis.’ Yesterday’s gathering was joined by schools, by grandparents with their grandchildren, by working people and their trade unions, by political organisations and anti-fascist groups, by mothers with their babies and citizens on wheelchairs. Pavlos’ mother, Magda, whose tenacious struggle against the Nazis made her the unwitting symbol of the antifascist movement, was deified by the crowds on her way out of the Court: ‘You made it, son! You did!’, she screamed.

The pain is soothed but our minds are not put at rest. Whatever gave birth to this is still alive. The trial was not the beginning and it is not the end of the struggle against fascism. It is a stage, albeit momentous, in the continuous war against fascism, xenophobia and hatred for the Other. It is one stage in the continuous effort to rebuild our communities on the basis of solidarity, respect and dignity. As these lines were written, just after the verdict announcement, police forces, though unprovoked, started teargassing the crowds. But yesterday, the people were no longer scared. Yesterday they paused and took in a great victory. In the name of Pavlos, of Shehzad and of a deeply wounded society, yesterday the people defeated the Nazis. Yesterday, society was no longer scared!

 

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“Birkbeck equipped me with knowledge that has helped me continue making a difference in my community.”

Esther Joyce Ariokot, from Uganda, graduated with an LLM in International Economic Law, Justice and Development. The intensive programme involves two blocks of intensive face-to-face teaching in London, with preliminary materials and readings developed especially and sent to students in January.

Esther Ariokot

Esther Ariokot

Can you tell us about your background?

Before joining Birkbeck I had completed a Bachelor of Laws from Uganda Christian University after which I pursued the Bar Course to enable me to practice Law in Uganda.

I chose Birkbeck’s intensive LLM International Economic Law programme because it fitted within the work I was doing at the time. I was working as a Court Mediator which involved helping people settle disputes without going through the whole process of litigation. I was helping the vulnerable attain justice.

The programme includes two blocks of intensive face to face teaching. Can you tell us about your time in London and on campus?

I enjoyed studying with my classmates because we were from a range of professions, from lawyers to bankers to actresses. They brought a rich contribution to the lectures and discussions we often had. The different professions brought a different angle to the human rights course unit we were studying. I have kept in touch with four of my classmates.

I particularly enjoyed the Human Rights class and the Risks and Response class. I received additional support from the Library Team. They made using the Library easy along with the online Library. I also received a Tutorial on how to write a dissertation.

Unfortunately, I did not join any social clubs or societies as I was studying an intensive course so had little free time on my hands. But I had a great time looking around London.

What did you enjoy the most about living in London?

London has so many tourist attractions that I enjoyed going to when I got some free time. I also enjoyed the diverse range of cuisines available; I was able to eat food from my country during my stay.

I had never lived overseas before coming to UK. I was living in Harpenden and because of the efficient transport system I had no trouble coming into London for study and research.

Furthermore, I was fortunate that a British family took me in and looked after me for my whole stay. I did not have challenges living in London because I was well taken care of by the Vickers Family – I am forever grateful for their generosity.  The weather was not a problem as I was in London during spring and summer.

How has your time at Birkbeck influenced your life and career since then?

Birkbeck helped me to become a critical thinker, a skill that was key to me getting my research job. I was appointed as a lecturer to the School of Law of Nkumba University because I had an LLM and I was also given a Research Job by Judiciary because of the skills I had attained from Birkbeck.

I work under a Justice of the High Court in the Commercial Division of the High Court.  I have also started a Legal Aid Project that is helping the needy and vulnerable people where I live in Entebbe attain legal services at no cost.

What are your top tips for aspiring students?

The Legal profession requires Commitment and hard work, after attaining your law degree aim to make a difference in the community around you. I thank Birkbeck for equipping me with the knowledge that has helped me continue making a difference in my community. I am currently applying for a Law PhD at Birkbeck.

Birkbeck will make your study easy and enjoyable. It has a diverse culture, you cannot fail to fit in. The members of staff are professional and make understanding the concepts easy. Apply for a course now, don’t hesitate!

Further information:

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“Studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!”

Zambia-born Kasoka Kasoka, who describes himself as a very proud ‘Birkbeckian’ alma mater, reflects on his time working on a PhD in Law at Birkbeck and his achievements since graduating in 2018.

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Tell us about your education before Birkbeck

I am from Lusaka and Zambian. In 2007 I moved to the UK where I enrolled to study for a Bachelor`s degree through the University of London International Programmes. I obtained a Bachelor`s degree in Law in 2011. Upon the completion of my degree I was admitted to study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I studied for a Masters degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. I obtained my Master`s degree in 2013.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

Firstly, I decided to enrol here because of Birkbeck`s massive ranking as one of the best research universities in the World. And yes, it is! Secondly, I applied to study here because I was attracted to the College`s interdisciplinary research study approach. As a result, my research as a doctoral student cut across; law, human rights, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, bioethics, and public health. Engaging in an interdisciplinary research project afforded me a rare opportunity to become an interdisciplinary thinker, be open-minded, and embrace new ideas.

Thirdly, true to its name as a research-intensive university, Birkbeck comprises of academics and researchers who are renowned experts in their fields. Thus, my great former PhD supervisors, Professor Matthew Weait and Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, are very respected researchers and authorities in their various fields. They are exceedingly knowledgeable and  down to earth. And finally, but not exhaustively, I decided to study here due to the supportive student and staff community at Birkbeck. I indeed received a lot of support during my study from fellow PhD students, academic and research staff, and administrative staff members.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I loved the critical approach to study and work culture at Birkbeck. I found my fellow PhD students to be really smart, friendly and supportive – this was endearing. As if this was not enough,  both academic and non-academic staff were very approachable, attentive and supportive. I had a lot of academic staff who were not my PhD supervisors avail me with research insights and suggested various research material to read – as a goodwill gesture. This was priceless in my doctoral study journey!

Inevitably, I was sad to leave Birkbeck when my studies came to a conclusion,  to leave behind such a great community. Nonetheless, I am still happy that I have stayed in touch and maintained the various friendships and networks I had the privilege of forming while studying at Birkbeck. Indeed, “once a Birkbeckian forever a Birkbeckian”!

It was a great honour to forge  invaluable friendships and networks with students and staff members from diverse backgrounds. I consider Birkbeck to be one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Did you use any of Birkbeck’s additional support and activities?

I had the opportunity to intuitively avail myself to various societies and student clubs at the University, including various PhD students` social groups. Birkbeck has a lot of societies and social groups with various activities.  So, I was always happy to retire from my studies to unpack my mind by joining fellow students for some good fun. I especially enjoyed playing football! As they say “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”!

Can you tell us more about your research project?

The purpose of my research was to investigate and analyse the appropriateness of individual autonomy in the context of informed consent HIV testing requirements in Zambia, and sub-Saharan African countries by extension.

Tell us about your experience of living in the UK.

I really loved living in London. London is no doubt one of the greatest cities to live in. What I liked most about the city is the diversity of its population. Thus, I was privileged to meet many people from every part of the world who brought with them various rich cultures, including great cuisines! With such a profoundly rich experience I agreed with Robert Endleman (1963) who observed that human beings in terms of cultures “are vastly various and yet laughably alike”! I also loved English pub food! And the museums, wow! – museums were often my favourite place of respite whenever I needed to briefly divorce myself from the usual business of life and time-machine myself into the past to admire and converse with ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Africans, Americans, Europeans and Indians who had no internet! And behold, the British Museum is only about three minutes-walk from Birkbeck! London is also pregnant with breath-taking gothic cathedrals and other non-church buildings.

(I need to mention that there are much more things for one to see and enjoy in London than what I can enumerate – there is almost everything for everyone to see, smell, taste, hear, touch and enjoy. That`s the magic of London!)

However, living in London comes with its own downsides: especially the high costs of accommodation and transport. Food is surprisingly affordable!

Life after Birkbeck

Kasoka Kasoka at a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Session

It was sad saying goodbye to my community of friends and networks when my studies concluded. After completing my studies at Birkbeck, I was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland to study on an intensive postgraduate international human rights course at the Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University. Upon the completion of the course in Finland, I was an Intern at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Later I worked as a Legal Intern at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. The experiences and illuminations I gained from these intergovernmental organisations are invaluable! I am a strong believer, follower and advocate that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Currently, I am writing a research paper for journal publication, as I keenly continue to follow my career goals, and seek to contribute, no matter how tiny, to improving the wellbeing of our common humanity, without prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, as it has been said before as human beings, we are all as weak as the weakest link (other human being whose rights are not respected, protected and promoted) living among us in our society. My study at Birkbeck (through its critical review approach) and experience at the United Nations has made me see this reality clearer than never before.

What advice would you give other people thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I highly recommend Birkbeck, University of London! You will study at a university that is known for research excellence with renowned academics; you will study in a supportive environment, with quality teaching; at the end of your studies you will graduate with a prestigious University of London qualification, and not forgetting you will become a Birbeckian; and at the end of your studies you will not look at the world the same way!

As for me, studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, and I am a very proud Birbeckian alma mater.

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Wesley’s journey on the Freshfields Law Scholarship

Birkbeck Law student Wesley Manta has recently been awarded a prestigious Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, marking the second time that a Birkbeck student has been chosen for the mentoring and scholarship programme. In this blog, Wesley discusses his journey so far on the scheme.

I was recently awarded the Freshfields’ Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, along with 13 others across the country. The scholarship seeks to address the disproportionate under-representation of black and black-mixed race men from less privileged backgrounds in large commercial law firms, and more recently in other City careers. The scholarship award is a mixture of mentoring and interning opportunities with law firms and other commercial City firms. The scholarship programme lasts for 15 months and is aimed at complementing our busy university schedules. Though we have just begun the programme, it is clear that the programme will provide a lot of value to our professional growth.

My journey started with the insight meeting. The insight meeting was an opportunity for potential candidates to understand more about the scholarship, what Freshfields were looking for in their scholars and what the scholarship programme would entail. It was a great day, with guests from Freshfields, Bank of England and AON. Though this meeting was not compulsory, it is definitely recommended, especially as we had the opportunity to speak to former and current scholars about helpful tips for the application form.

The next step of the journey was to submit a formal application. Part of the application included producing a video with the theme “My Story”. I was grateful enough to have some friends who had some video-editing skills to help with my video. Birkbeck helped fill out the application, including giving a recommendation. The support I received from Birkbeck was exemplary throughout this process.

The final stage was attending the two-day assessment centre. The assessment centre was an exhausting array of challenging exercises, created to test several aspects of the candidates. There was a theme throughout the assessment centre which really added to idea of the exercises being tasks that clients may ask us to do in a professional setting. The exercises were hard to complete but getting to meet and network with dozens of black men in the same position as I was a wonderful part of the two days.

My cohort, the 2019 scholars, have already begin meeting and learning. In our first group meeting, meetings that are scheduled to take place roughly once a month, we were treated to several lectures by senior people from Freshfields and some of their clients. We learnt the basics of maintaining a professional looking LinkedIn page, how to protect our reputation and some tips and tricks for landing a great first impression.

I am eternally grateful to Baroness Lawrence and Freshfields for providing me with this opportunity. Breaking into the commercial world is not easy, as there are so many rules and ways of working which we are never taught in university. Through this scholarship, I hope to be able to gain the practical knowledge required to succeed in the City.

Further information:

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Why I chose to study Law with a Foundation year

Rebecca Wills, an aspiring barrister, decided to study Law at Birkbeck with a foundation year to get the best possible preparation for the LLB. Having her lectures and seminars in the evening has meant she’s been able to get a head start on her career by volunteering at a magistrates’ court during the day.

The law is the foundation in everything that we do and it is immersed into many disciplines. This is what attracted me to study law.Also, as an aspiring barrister, I want to make a difference inside and outside the courtroom.

I believe if I didn’t study law, I would remain ignorant to a lot of issues that are going on in the world when it comes to human rights abuses, alongside the historical significance behind the creation of the law itself and other moral issues. Once you know and understand the law it can protect and provide you with many advantages. When I graduate, I hope to have a successful career in law as a barrister or solicitor’s advocate.

“Studying in the evening suits my independent learning style.”

I was inspired to study at Birkbeck after my telephone interview with Professor Bill Bowring. I decided to enrol because it is a university based on critical theory and analysis, which I believe I excel in. Because lectures and seminars take place in the evening, I am able to volunteer at a magistrate’s court during the daytime. I also find evening study suits my independent learning style. I love to study during the daytime and feel I am more productive when it comes to self-learning during these hours. I read once that the human brain can absorb most information during the first three hours after waking up and the last three hours before we go to our bed which fits in with how I study and learn.

I wanted to ensure that studying and taking on a career in law was the right decision for me.  After having a conversation with my sixth form head of year, the foundation year option seemed like the best course of action to take to ensure I obtained the right skills and best preparation for the LLB. I knew that studying law required a lot of reading; however I didn’t know much else about it. I thought taking the foundation year would best equip and prepare me for advancing onto the LLB.

Prior to embarking on the foundation year course, I prepared myself by attending Birkbeck workshops on note-taking, critical thinking, critical writing, critical reading, critical listening etc.

The School of Law, Birkbeck

 “The foundation year was challenging, but it made me more open minded in the way that I evaluate situations. It provided a useful transition between A-level and degree-level study.”

The foundation year was challenging and required a lot of hard work. Nonetheless, it was useful and insightful. The literature was not always easy to read, particularly when reading lengthy cases with complex vocabulary. Of course, in order to understand all the readings, it was essential to define all terms and read actively and critically. As a result, time-management became a really important skill that I honed in on.

The year provided a useful transition between A levels and degree-level study, because the course itself moulded and enabled me to adapt to different teaching styles. The course challenged my moral compass on multiple issues when it came to life and death situations, where the defendant was seen to be in the wrong. It made me more open minded in the way that I evaluate situations.  It prepared me for the workload that I would undertake for the first year of the LLB as I gained insight into the level of work required at university level. It increased my awareness of the importance of independent study.

To other students thinking about taking the law foundation year, I would say:

  • Utilise this time as practice for the LLB.
  • Take the course seriously – don’t underestimate it as being easy because it’s a foundation course.
  • Make use of the feedback given from lecturers after doing assessments.
  • Always ensure that you email the lecturers and keep in communication with them.
  • Take action after reading the feedback.
  • Never be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something or you want to confirm your Answer to a question is correct or accurate – no question is stupid.

“You need to proactively engage with the law, by going beyond the reading list.”

Do not rely on the lectures too much, you must become an independent learner and get used to the idea of trying to become the teacher of the subject yourself. The lecturers provide students with an outline during lectures and guidance on how to navigate legal resources and materials. However, they are not there to do your work for you. It is vital that you immerse yourself within the subject. This means attending every lecture and seminar even if you think it’s of no significance to you. This also involves proactively engaging with the law, by going beyond the reading list and further reading list, as well as answering all homework and seminar questions in detail.

Try to find your own way of working. Time-manage yourself, and work hard at being the best version of yourself as everyone learns at a different pace. You must believe that you can do it, and you must always aim for the highest possible grade.

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The importance of attending Law firm Open Days

Oliver Chinyere, LLM Qualifying Law student, gives an insight into the Open Days on offer at Law firms for students considering legal careers. 

For those interested in entering the legal profession as solicitors after studying at Birkbeck, an Open Day gives law students an opportunity to peek inside what their future may hold. Open Days offer exceptional advantages by giving students an intimate look at the firm’s office, employees and culture. In November, I was fortunate enough to attend Accept, Clifford Chance’s LGBT-focused Open Day.

For any student seeking a training contract, it’s important that you attend an Open Day at whatever firm you’re interested in to meet and hear directly from existing employees. Although I wasn’t able to stay for the full slate of programming, I found the event incredibly beneficial for several reasons. Not only was I able to meet and network directly with people from a similar background to myself but was able to secure tips which will prove handy during the application process should I choose to proceed. Clifford Chance’s recruitment team actually ran a session full of helpful tips on how to make your application stand out.

For anyone embarking on a new career and entering a new workplace, understanding the office culture is critical to determining whether or not you see a space for yourself there. In addition to hearing from existing employees who convey what led them to the firm, we heard from alumni who had moved on from the firm to other roles. A good indication of any potential place of employment is the number of former employees who still speak highly of their experience and how it influenced the next steps in their career!

Another benefit is the ability to poke and prod and really dig beneath the surface. At Accept, we were able to hear directly from Regional Managing Partner, Michael Bates and ask him questions. In fact, I would argue that one of the chief benefits of attending Open Days is your ability to be candid, ask questions and gather the information you need to make your decision! Becoming a lawyer is all about elucidating the facts so it’s excellent practice.

In summary, attending Open Days are a great way to see what your future job and company may entail. It’s an opportunity every Birkbeck law student interested in pursuing a career as a solicitor should aim to embark on, especially if you plan on applying for a training contract. If you’re looking for more resources, LawCareers.net provides a helpful timeline of events tailored to ‘non-law’ students (or those looking for a career change). They also provide a helpful list of training contract deadlines.

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From asylum seeker to student: how the Compass Project changed my life

An asylum seeker from Sri Lanka, who successfully applied to the Compass Project, tells of how he became a student at Birkbeck and his ambitions to help future asylum seekers have their voices heard.

My name is SJ. I belong to an oppressed ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, the Tamils. Due to my ethnicity and my political views, I was abducted and tortured. Therefore, I was unable to pursue higher education. I had basic school education in Sri Lanka and fled to the United Kingdom in 2010 when I was 17-years-old.

While my asylum case was under processing, I was unable to keep up with life as it took different stages every day. There was no one to help me find things or to advise me. At first, I did not even know how to use a microwave oven and ended up eating the food ice cold. I was left to sleep in a parking garage at a house. I struggled and felt strange. It was a haunting experience for me. There was nobody to hear what I had to say. Instead, they heard only what they wanted to hear. Those days were filled with solitude and emptiness. With whom should I share? How much should I share? Is it okay to share? Such questions crowded my mind. And they kept me drowned in thoughts and fear all the time.

Years passed. So much has happened between the years 2010 and 2014. I was homeless for a while and slept on the street while having chicken pox. The house owner did not let me stay in their garage as his wife was pregnant at that time. It was a fair concern and who am I for them to take extra care? By 2012, I was living with a friend in Doncaster. I was desperate to talk to someone and I was lucky to meet someone who had gone through what I had gone through in Sri Lanka.

In 2014, I gave up on myself and handed myself over at a police station as a failed asylum seeker. I was being a burden to my friend and I could not cope up with my life. I was detained in an immigration detention centre for about five months. I was able to witness the dark side of the UK while I was there. It was horrendous in many ways, from the food given to the detainees to how they are being treated.

The detention centre atmosphere forced me to relive my dark days in Sri Lanka. I was not aware of the pains and feelings that were hidden inside me until I was locked away. I used to isolate myself in a room for years. But living behind the big gates and razor wires made me feel so scared and unsecured. I met people of many kinds there. They belonged to different ethnicities and culture. They spoke various languages. There were few Sri Lankans as well. I faced various situations there, such as many violent incidents, suicide attempts, deaths, riots, and riot police invasions. I was so broken at that time and lost all hope. So, I went on a hunger strike to kill myself. I thought that life was not worth living.

One day the doctor at the detention centre examined me and told me that they must move me to a different detention centre, which has an inpatient bed, as my kidneys started to malfunction. I had weekly reviews and one of the detention supervisors told me that I could be the next one to die in detention if I was not given medical treatment. It frightened me. Those words echoed what I heard back in Sri Lanka.

From 2010, I took up learning English as a challenge. I have used resources such as YouTube, Google, newspapers, reading English books with the help of an English-to-Tamil dictionary and listening to conversations and observing the method of communication in the community. I could not possibly be able to explain the hard work I put in to learn English here. While I was in detention, I had some help from a charity. I explained to them the situation through the English I had learned by myself.

Once I could speak English, I was asked to translate for Tamil people as an emergency translator in the detention centre. I was still in an unstable situation. However, I helped the people in need. By doing this, I was able to identify and relate my situations to that of many other detainees. I understood that it was not happening to me only, but to many others in a systemic way as well. Many of us in destitute situations did not get any proper legal advice. It was the experience of a lifetime and it was what motivated me to fight for a good cause.

I tried to apply for local colleges and institutions once I got out of the detention centre. I did not have many friends in the community to get information about institutions outside Doncaster. All my applications were turned down by the colleges. I was told that I do not have the right to study. They said that if I got a letter from the Home Office saying I can study, they would let me study. When I requested the said letter from the Home Office, they refused to give me one and asked me to get the letter from the court, as my case was still pending at the court. When I approached the court, I was questioned by my solicitor about how I was going to pay the fee if they allow me to study. So, I gave up the dream to study.

Knowing that all these detainees are suffering inside the detention centre, I could not just sit. I was unable to let them suffer on their own. I wrote to many MPs about the bad treatment of asylum seekers and the prevailing conditions inside the detention centres. Due to this, I was contacted by someone who runs a counseling service for Tamil asylum seekers. I was fortunate enough to be identified as someone who needed the help as well. She invited me to attend counseling sessions. The days flew by, filled with nightmares and panic attacks. But this time I had someone to share my sorrows and thoughts with.

In 2017, she shared with me a link to a university project for asylum seekers called the Compass Project. I was not so sure about what to do. I attended the workshop for the project. It was the first time I ever stepped inside university premises. I was very nervous and was hardly controlling my anxiety. I entered the room allocated for the workshop. The project manager greeted me with a smile on her face and my nervousness faded away a little. However, I did not know what to expect or to ask. So, I kept quiet. I was given a friendly introduction to the project and guidance on how to apply. Finally, we were given a university tour.

With enormous support from the project manager and people at the counseling programme, I applied to the Compass Project Fund. I was so worried about not having any qualifications. It had been almost eight years since I was in the school. My personal statement explained my circumstances, my aspiration to study law, my experiences at the detention centre, poor handling of the asylum cases and a detainee’s dream to be a qualified immigration lawyer.

After a few weeks, I received an email saying that I was awarded the Compass Project Fund. I could not express how happy and accomplished I felt. I was finally given an opportunity to study. I was asked by the university to do an examination as well an interview to see if I am fit to study law as I did not have any prior academic qualifications. I was able to pass the exam and the interview with some great support. Getting the Compass Project Fund and a place at the university were the biggest things that ever happened to me. This was the first step in reaching my goal.

Meanwhile, my asylum case was still pending. The Home Office accepted that I was tortured in Sri Lanka and the case proceeded to the court for the hearing. Just a week before my first day at the university, I had to attend the court for my hearing. I was worried, but I was also hopeful for a change. I attended university without any decision from the court. Initially, it was so strange to me. For the first time in many years, I was sitting in a classroom with a pen and an exercise book before me.

It was very hard for me to understand the lectures at first as English is not my native language. I had to read the text at least four times to understand. But I did not give up. I continued to put in all my energy and worked hard at home and at the university. For my first essay, I received 68 marks. I was in joy since this was my first ever academic essay. By correcting the mistakes in my first essay, I was able to score 70 marks for my second essay. My hard work started to pay off.  Now, I started to communicate with my fellow students in a better way.

Then I was granted refugee status by the court. It was life-changing and finally, my life got a little steady. However, I still must wage war with my unstable mind. University education is the ideal tool for me to break my solitude. It gave me hope and tools to learn from. I believe that by obtaining the necessary qualification, I will be able to get my voice heard.

The Compass Project Fund is a life-changing opportunity for me and many others. Being an asylum seeker in an unfamiliar place with restricted access and limited knowledge about the system limits many people from gaining access to further education.

I am looking forward to taking the available opportunities to desperate asylum seekers and to continue my work in the human rights field, to advocate for the betterment of all the asylum seekers and refugees.

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