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Black History Month Time Capsule 5 – I. Stephanie Boyce: Believe in yourself, push against adversity, and actively work for a more diverse and inclusive legal profession

Date posted: 1 November 2021

To mark Black History Month some of our lawyers have written letters to future lawyers spotlighting the work of one of their inspirations from the black legal or activist community. The letters will be put into a Time Capsule and buried in our garden for future generations of Wilson’s lawyers to dig up and read one day

Here is the fifth one from our Katy Robinson, a partner in our Public Law and Civil Liberties team.

Dear lawyer of the future

As I write this, I. Stephanie Boyce has very recently been inaugurated President of the Law Society of England and Wales. As you’ll know, she is the society’s first Black office holder, its first Black president and first president of colour, and its sixth female president. In her own words:

I am living testament to the growing social opportunity in the legal profession but I also recognise that more needs to be done to ensure that talented individuals can progress in the practice of law, stay in the law and thrive in the law regardless of their background. I’ve always wanted to break down barriers, and in becoming the first person of colour to be president of the Law Society, I did just that.

Born in Aylesbury to parents from St Vincent and Barbados, Stephanie moved to the US as a teenager. Aged 19 and with no other lawyers in the family, she returned to the UK immediately on graduating from high school to pursue her dream of qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales. She was admitted as a solicitor in 2002. Alongside her presidency, she is trustee of LawWorks, and Chair of the Independent Education Appeal Panel at Buckinghamshire County Council.

Stephanie clearly has many, many nuggets of wisdom for both aspiring and experienced lawyers, so my strong advice would simply be to listen carefully to them!

In this recording she talks specifically about the power of using personal experiences – in her case witnessing injustice and inequality in her hometown of Aylesbury as a child, and later in the US – to fuel her motivation to become a lawyer in order to make a difference to those around her.

Stephanie is clearly a strong believer in the power of positive thinking and the importance of self-belief and persistence in the face of adversity. She talks candidly in an interview for the First 100 Years Project about setbacks in her own studies and career: not passing the exam for selective secondary school; being held back a year in her US education because she was assumed to have a speech impediment on account of her accent; her US qualifications then not being recognized for university entry on her return to the UK; beginning her law degree on a part time basis and working for the Post Office and for British Rail alongside it; applying many times for training contracts; being made redundant. More recently, she applied no fewer than four times for the position of Deputy Vice-President of the Law Society, viewing all three initial rejections as opportunities to refine her approach for next time, rather than as failures, and reapplying even when discouraged from doing so. In her own words:

For me it’s difficult to talk about obstacles as a woman without talking about obstacles as a Black woman. Looking back now, I think that is absolutely what drove me because the more the doors shut, the more people who told me because of my socio-economical background, and because I hadn’t gone to the right university the first time around, I didn’t come from a privileged background, I hadn’t qualified in a magic circle firm, I even had people tell me that I didn’t look like a solicitor, didn’t sound like a solicitor. And the more people told me I couldn’t, the more I was determined I could.

Stephanie’s advice for aspiring lawyers also teaches us that life is a constant lesson and that we should strive to be constantly learning and evolving, and that if we stand still, that is when we have lost our passion. She’s a strong believer in the role of solicitors as a force for change, and in the power of doing what feels right for you in your career, and in not losing your joy along the way. Other wisdom for aspiring lawyers includes: doing your research, being clear about what area of law is right for you, the importance of networking, not being afraid to ask for help, and being confident in your own abilities and choices.

In her inauguration speech, Stephanie reiterated her commitment to leaving the legal profession more diverse and inclusive than the one she entered. While recognizing that some progress has been made, she stressed that there is much more to be done, noting the obstacles which continue to be faced by Black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers – as well as by lawyers with disabilities, women, and LGBTQ+ lawyers – particularly in retention, pay, promotion and career progression. Although we know that things will not change overnight and that meaningful change requires a sustained collective effort from us all, it is very much my hope that – thanks in part to Stephanie’s leadership – this more diverse and inclusive profession will be the one you enter in the future.

With warmest wishes for your future

Katy