Urban lawyer, social ambassador

Haresh Sood talks to Tunde Okewale, barrister, campaigner and social entrepreneur about his holistic approach to criminal justice

Tunde Okewale MBE is one of the most interesting up-and-coming lawyers the Bar has had for some time. Founder of charity Urban Lawyers, criminal barrister at Doughty Street, and recently named in the 2017 Sunday Times Alternative Rich List, Okewale grew up on a council estate in Hackney. After leaving school he went on to read law at the University of East London, simultaneously working a number of part-time jobs to support the family (he is the eldest of four children). He obtained a 2:2. ‘Career advisers and numerous people in the profession told me that I would never be able to make it.’ In his own words he describes the journey to the Bar as ‘very difficult’. ‘It’s a competitive global market place, which places an emphasis on excellent academic achievement.’ Moreover: ‘It was evident to me from early on that my social and academic background was the polar opposite of the private school and Oxbridge educated tradition of the Bar.’

Yet his tenaciousness paid off. He threw himself into community work, through which he was invited to deliver a workshop for the Greater London Authority, and it was his performance on this project that led to a scholarship to attend Bar school. So began what is now an established practice in general and serious crime, as well as appellate work in the Court of Appeal and the Administrative Court, including his work on the high profile appeal for the murder conviction of Dwaine George. His flourishing practice was recognised by professional peers early in his career when named Young Barrister of the Year (The Lawyer Awards 2012) and a finalist for Young Legal Aid Barrister of the Year (Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards). All of his work ‘encompasses an element of human rights and commitment to issues of social justice and civil liberties’. He also works in sports law and is a Football Association registered lawyer. ‘As a child I had ambitions to be a professional athlete,’ he explains, and despite leaving this course, he emerged on-track with a strong network of sports contacts.

Named Diversity Champion at the UK Diversity Legal Awards 2014, his approach to the issue is a holistic one, looking at entry, retention and career progression. The focus needs to be on inclusion, he says: ‘Change will only come about when we change the way we think about and accommodate diversity and, hopefully, there will come a point that it will be so embedded that we won’t have to think about it all.’

‘The big question is: are we trying to assimilate people from diverse backgrounds into the established norms of the profession or are we trying to change the culture of profession?’

In this interview, though, we focus on his out-of-court outreach – his community work with disadvantaged young people, for which he was awarded an MBE in 2016. ‘It was an honour to be recognised for what I have been repeating to many of my mentees over the years: “Don’t let your circumstances define you”.’

Okewale’s desire to ‘inspire and educate those who, like me, did not have opportunities’ led him to set up as the ‘Urban Lawyer’ in 2007. In fact, much of his campaigning work concentrates on social mobility and opening access to the law, both as a profession and subject, and to all sectors of society, particularly young people. The one-man show was extended in 2010 to become the social justice charity Urban Lawyers, incorporating volunteer students and professionals. ‘In short, Urban Lawyers is an organisation that makes the law more accessible to marginalised groups in society,’ he explains. It provides ‘inspiration, education and networks’ for young people from non-traditional backgrounds who have or will come into contact with the law and/or legal profession, ‘increasing awareness about the criminal law and its implications on everyday life’.

A key focus is to provide youngsters with ‘confidence and a greater understanding’ about the legal system. ‘It facilitates the education of young people about their legal rights, the legal process and their civic responsibilities to their local communities and wider society.’ Urban Lawyers also educates youngsters to prevent inadvertent miscarriages of justice and has successfully engaged a number of young people disaffected by the justice system. By using social media and encouraging debates, ‘we seek to engage young people in discussions about their attitude towards the law, providing a better understanding of the underlying reasons why young people commit crime and the consequences of these crimes.’

Students are provided with support to make successful applications and become qualified solicitors and barristers: ‘We put a heavy focus on informal mentoring, and assist in awards and scholarships for students who demonstrate a commitment to social justice and/or who have insufficient funds to pursue a higher education legal course.’ Okewale also encourages law firms and chambers to run events, which educate potential participants about how to access the legal profession. ‘By partnering with legal employers, we assist them in their efforts to ensure that their recruitment processes are fair, transparent and inclusive.’

He believes strongly that children in school should not be given limiting or restricting aspirations and that examples of individuals who have achieved against the odds should be more prominent. I ask if this inspired his TedX Talk, entitled The soft bigotry of low expectations in our society. ‘Yes, this was motivated by my own experience of soft bigotry through the education system and in my social and professional environments.’

‘The first stage is awareness,’ Okewale asserts. ‘There must be an acceptance that this is happening, by everyone involved. Parents can help a lot by instilling a sense of confidence and self-worth in their children as this is something that starts in the home and continues throughout their educational and professional lives.’

His model of entrepreneurialism is focused on addressing social needs and problems in society, as opposed to solely being based on profit. Okewale explains the model thus: ‘Social entrepreneurialism is an ideology that should be incorporated into every business model as organisations benefit from a society that is cohesive and inclusive, with as few social maladies as possible.’

His advice for young people is to ‘network, immerse themselves in the culture and literature of the profession, obtain relevant transferrable work skills – ideally practical experience which can offset the disadvantageous grades.’ They should also pursue post-graduate qualifications to ‘nullify their previous academic results if they genuinely feel it will offset their previous low achievements’.

Okewale has been involved in community outreach projects too numerous to list fully here, but their central thrust is to ‘inspire younger generations and remind an older generation of the relationship between success and service’. One such project was Hush the Guns which focused on reducing crime in deprived communities in Jamaica through workshops focused on citizenship, legal education and entrepreneurialism. Another project, involving large numbers of ex-gang members, provided food for local restaurants and cement blocks for the redevelopment of their communities. His involvement here came as a result of his directorship of the charity From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation (FBMF), a service for boys excluded from school and aim to reintegrate them back into mainstream education.

Ongoing projects include advising ‘Police Now’, a Metropolitan Police leadership initiative aimed at attracting black graduates to the Met. ‘My support led to the project attracting 2,220 recruits in its first year. 1,248 applications – 49% of which were female, 16% BME and 45% of whom would not have considered applying to join the police [otherwise].’ He also provides legal training to Youth Offending Teams across the country, particularly those that deal with high-risk offenders. He sees his role in the criminal justice system as a holistic one: ‘Working directly with those that come into contact with it at every juncture enables me to transfer knowledge and insights.’

How he finds time for even more community outreach, such as stop-and-search workshops in difficult schools, is impressive. He has worked with SE1 United and Elevation Networks, the Royal Institute for Blind, Free the Child Foundation, and Body and Soul (enhancing the self-confidence of those affected by HIV/Aids), to name a handful. He supports grassroots organisations such as the campaign group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association). He has also advised the ‘The Citizen’s Inquiry into the Tottenham Riot’ in 2011 helping to produce and edit a report that considered the causes, effects and solutions in relation to the public disturbances.

Not one to shy away from the stage, his media presence is certainly growing. Okewale was invited to the Star Symposium in Stein am Rhein, a symposium for Leaders of the Next Generation, and selected as a UK ambassador to an international conference in China in 2009 on social entrepreneurship and community. He hosted the BBC (London) youth ‘London Speaks’ debate in the 1,000 days until the 2012 Olympic Games celebration, and has featured as an expert on the BBC Radio 1 Xtra broadcast Gangs On Film and in the London Live documentary Traptown. ‘The [Traptown] filmmaker was a young man that I had mentored while I was at FBMF. He wanted to document the lives of young men who had been involved in gangs and selling illegal drugs. He sought my involvement to share my experience as a lawyer dealing with such young men. He also wanted to gain an insight into why I chose a different path, considering I’d come from a similar background.’

Tunde has also featured in GQ magazine as one of the most influential people below 38.5 and is the most followed barrister on Instagram, with 9,179 followers at last count. I ask what these kind of accolades mean to him. ‘I was humbled to be mentioned in a magazine that I grew up reading’ and his Instagram status is ‘almost as good as featuring in Counsel’.

Our talk turns to future plans and his answer is surprisingly self-effacing: ‘To continue to improve myself and develop the work I’m already doing.’ It is too early to ask about legacy but in terms of his impact so far: ‘I’m not sure about what influence I have brought, but I believe I have positively contributed to the dialogue about the importance of social mobility and diversity – particularly in traditional occupations.’

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Haresh Sood

Haresh is a barrister at Derwent Chambers, Derby practising in employment, regulatory and civil law including quasi criminal. He is a member of the Counsel editorial board.