Book review: Defying Expectations: The Extraordinary Journey of a Black Woman Lawyer

By Gifty Edila 

Plan B: how a black woman became one of the most sought after legal brains in England and Wales after facing rejection at the Bar in 1979 - book review by Desiree Artesi

‘You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last.’ These words from the song by Jimmy Cliff sums up Dr Edila’s journey in the legal profession.

Gifty, as Dr Edila is fondly known, writes movingly and with a level of honesty and openness rarely found amongst those in this conservative profession, who are not generally keen on baring their souls. The reader follows Gifty’s journey from being laughed at by her housemistress at a careers meeting for aspiring to be a barrister, to being positively head hunted for the top job at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Gifty was born in the then Gold Coast (Ghana), and came to the United Kingdom aged 11 where she attended Hampstead School until the age of 15. The daughter of a World War II veteran and a social worker, she embarked on a path of academic excellence and self-determination which saw her obtain a law degree from the University of London, and a Master of Laws Degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Amidst all of these achievements is a thread that runs throughout Gifty’s life – of seizing opportunities as they come along, and learning from each opportunity so that it somehow catapults her to next big stage in the play of her life.

'Her journey is peppered with examples where, time and again, she is underestimated because of her gender and race'

Gifty is successful at obtaining pupillage at the then 4 Brick Court Chambers (now Coram Chambers), Barbara Calvert QC’s set. But although encouraged to look for a tenancy, this was not easily achievable because she was a woman and black. In her own words, she ‘began to feel [the Bar] wasn’t a place [she] wished to stay in.’

Her journey is peppered with examples where, time and again, she is underestimated because of her gender and race. But when given the opportunity, Gifty shows how she left doubters dumbfounded and in some cases apologetic.

Her advice and anecdotes are candid and hands on, for example how she overcame the challenges of juggling motherhood, a career and a family. She recounts joining her husband, a mechanical engineer, when he was posted to Nigeria on a government job and gave birth to her first son whilst studying for the Nigerian Bar examinations.

The book follows Gifty’s career and also her challenges, from local government at the highest levels, to retirement when she takes on non-executive roles and charitable work.

The concluding chapters are packed with tips such as ‘dream big and don’t put a ceiling on your ambition’, ‘get yourself a mentor it helps’, and guidance on preparing for and enjoying retirement (including getting into that healthy lifestyle zone!).

Gifty’s experience is written in positive language and provides a road map for any lawyer aspiring to high office in government. It is a must-read for students, pupils and established practitioners alike. (And the large typeface is a joy to read.)

One of the most enduring lessons I’ve learned from reading this book is this: when something goes wrong, simply say, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve learnt from this mistake and will do better next time.’ 

www.lulu.com/spotlight/giftyedila ISBN: 9780244220846

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Desiree Artesi

Desiree is a member of Thomas More Chambers and a Bencher of Inner Temple. Called to the Bar in St Lucia in 2004, she has been a member of the BSB Conduct Committee and the Bar Council’s Professional Practice Committee. She is now a member of Counsel’s Editorial Board.