‘As far as I know... I am the only person of colour to qualify as a solicitor in Cork since I came here’

JENNIFER HORGAN talks to Cork-based Mariam Olusoji who is one of 300 people who have benefited from the Law Society’s Access Programme - which is celebrating its 20th anniversary
‘As far as I know... I am the only person of colour to qualify as a solicitor in Cork since I came here’

Mariam Olusoji who took part in the Law Society's Access Programme.

DIVERSITY and inclusion are hard-won in any profession. There are very real reasons why certain professionals look, act, and speak a certain way. Invariably, something must happen to change that, to push against the tide of circumstance and tradition.

This year, the Law Society of Ireland marks 20 years of its Access Programme, which has provided financial and practical support to more than 300 aspiring solicitors to date, assisting students from certain socio-economically backgrounds to enter professional legal education, offering financial support right through to qualification.

Chairperson of the Law Society’s Education Committee, Richard Hammond, S.C., says: “The programme helps promote greater diversity within the solicitors’ profession, and this is vital to help build a legal profession that reflects the diversity of the society it serves.”

Mariam Olusoji from Nigeria is living in Cork since 2003.
Mariam Olusoji from Nigeria is living in Cork since 2003.

Recipient Mariam Olusoji

Ms Olusoji, who moved to Cork with her family from Nigeria in 2003, applied for the programme and was granted funding; she credits this as a key factor in her qualifying as a solicitor in Ireland in 2020.

She’s fully aware the diversity fight has not yet been won.

“As far as I know, from what I’ve seen myself, I’m the only person of colour to qualify as a solicitor in Cork since I came here.”

At the same time, she couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the support she has received from the Law Society and she’s certainly keen to spread the word.

“The programme considers your individual circumstances and provides you with appropriate financial support. They offer maintenance and organise accommodation if needed, but they also support you emotionally. I went through a lot to get where I am, but they were there for me 100%. They gave me a sense of belonging. Whenever I called, they were there for me, telling me to relax, telling me everything would be alright”.

Not insignificantly, Olusoji arrived in Ireland with over five years of experience in Nigerian law, where the profession is combined – so she’d worked as both a barrister and a solicitor. She also boasted a Bachelor and Master’s degree in law, and the latter qualification afforded her access to a Masters in law at UCC.

Mariam Olusoji said the Access programme made her feel fully supporter.
Mariam Olusoji said the Access programme made her feel fully supporter.

She was pregnant with her fourth child at the time and determined to continue her career.

“I even did a diploma in Legal Secretary training. It was when I was doing that course that I decided I was pursuing my legal career no matter what.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until 2017, after Ms Olusoji had already passed her FE-1 exams, the first stage of the process, that she first heard of the Access Scholarship Programme.

The programme and its benefits and Olusoji’s legal background were a huge asset, but her journey to becoming a qualified solicitor in Ireland was anything but straightforward; the Law Society helped straighten the road considerably.

“I knew the road to qualifying as a solicitor was difficult, but the Law Society made it so much more manageable. I had to stay in Dublin for six months during my Professional Practice Course (PPC 1). I would come home at the weekend. I would cook, box, and freeze food for my family, go to church, and then take my bag and travel back to Dublin for the week.

“But they took the worry out of it. I did not need to get anxious about things like where to stay. The Law Society made it all feel possible. “

Both Nigeria and Ireland are under Common Law, which helped the earnest candidate, but other challenges presented themselves.

“Life was a lot harder before I got help; trying to organise staying with friends, getting to where I needed to be. Like the vast majority of PPC Access trainees, I had a SUSI grant, but that doesn’t cover everything. The Law Society really made the difference. “

It is certainly an impressive programme on paper. Students are assisted throughout all stages of their professional legal education. Funding is available for expenses directly related to taking FE-1 entrance exams to study to become a solicitor. This includes overnight accommodation during the week of exams, contributions towards additional childcare costs, support with loss of income while taking exams, and travel expenses to and from the exam venue. Access FE-1 candidates are entitled to use the Law Society of Ireland library when preparing for exams. Students living outside of Dublin may have books posted to them.

But it’s the softer side that Ms Olusoji regularly comes back to.

“It’s like when you get customer service that tells you some information. And then you get customer service that makes you feel emotionally supported. “

This is a fundamental part of the programme. The Law Society assists Access students with best-practice tips on how to secure a traineeship. Law Society staff and experienced practising lawyers work with students to provide vital information on what works best in terms of CVs, cover letters and approaches to interviews.

Mentoring appointments are also available at all stages of the programme to help build confidence and communication skills.

Determined Ms Olusoji also credits her husband for his support, describing him as her “backbone,” but it’s clear that nothing was getting in the way of her and her beloved profession.

“I am passionate about the law. Do you know that way, when you love something so much, you never get tired of it? I just love my work.”

She takes pride in her work also.

“Ireland is now a diverse country, comprising different ethnicities. People from these diverse ethnicities feel comfortable talking to me; they feel more relaxed. I think they feel I understand them better. The Law Society recognises that, and they provide an avenue for people like me to get to where they should be. It’s really very good.”

Mariam Olusoji qualified as a solicitor with the Law Society in December 2020. She now works remotely for Robinson Solicitors, Dublin 7. She works across various fields, a little bit of everything, just as she likes it.

She is a former President of Nigerian Community Cork, Ireland and former Chairperson of Nasc, the Migrant & Refugee Rights Centre. She qualified to act as a solicitor in England and Wales in 2021.

Mariam is a perfect spokesperson for what sounds like a remarkable programme. So who can apply?

Richard Hammond S.C. announces: “The programme is open to everyone and there’s no age restriction on applicants. Though a common trait amongst applicants is that, but for the assistance of the Access Programme, those individuals feel that they would not be in a position to train as a solicitor. This feeling can be due to a lack of financial resources among other reasons,” added Mr Hammond.

“Each year, the Law Society receives approximately 85 applications to join the Access Programme, about 80% of which are successful. No candidate meeting the assessment criteria has ever been refused funding,” he said.

To apply for the programme, the next deadline is Wednesday, June 1, 2022. See www.lawsociety.ie/Public/Become-a-Solicitor/fe1-funding

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