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Mentoring charity forges links with UEL at law careers event

UEL students hear from charity founder who is 'giving back' after becoming a partner in a London law firm

A partner at a large London law firm has revealed how memories of growing up on a north London council estate spurred her to “give back” by founding a charity dedicated to mentoring and guiding disadvantaged young people. 

Denise Stephenson (pictured above), founder and director of Reach out 2 Kids (ROK) and a partner at Sharpe Pritchard, was speaking to University of East London (UEL) students at a special law careers evening at UEL’s Legal Advice Centre on March 1. 

Denise said, “It was Christmas 2010, and I had recently received a promotion to become a partner, and I felt that now I needed to give back, but it wasn’t really clear what”. 

“I grew up on an estate in north London, and my brother and I were the first generation from my family to go to university. There was a lot of black-on-black crime that really got to me.”

“I believe in God and I was praying at Christmas time 2010, and He put in my mind the image of a black barrister, Peter Herbert, who was the chair of the Society of Black Lawyers.

“He spoke at my school and it changed my life. He helped me see it was possible to be a lawyer. It’s want I wanted to do. It was that moment that guided me to found ROK.” 

Denise founded ROK in February 2011. Since then, it has grown into a fully-fledged charity with a board of trustees made up of black professionals from a range of professions. They also have a team of speakers, who provide schools and colleges with inspirational talks, advice on career planning and a mentoring scheme. 

“I want to give these kids what I didn’t get growing up – capable, dedicated, reliable people who can help,” she said. “Our team is as committed to ROK as they are to their day jobs, giving lots of time and effort. These kids deserve it.”

Denise was one of six ROK representatives who spoke at the UEL careers event. It was the first time ROK has visited a university and marks the start of a closer relationship between the two. 

Denise said, “Our board of trustees is drawn from a wide range of expertise but we are lacking that vital educational insight. From an earlier meeting with senior staff at UEL, we decided to invite Marcia Wilson, associate Dean at UEL’s School of Health, Sport and Bioscience, to a board meeting. 

“We’re now looking to see how we can develop this relationship with UEL and Marcia is really interested in developing mentoring here at UEL.”

Edward Flood, a ROK trustee and family law barrister, shared his own story of growing up in St Lucia, attending schools in Peckham and west London and then reading law at St Anne’s College, Oxford. 

“I got involved five years ago, through a mutual friend Denise and I have,” he said. “I’ve done mentoring, and there is nothing like seeing the progress a young person can make in the course of 18 months, going from not being very interested, to being really engaged and having a plan of where they want to go in life, and not feeling that they are limited because of their circumstances. You can’t buy that.”

Rukhsana, an international student from Bangladesh who volunteers at UEL’s Legal Advice Centre, was among the students attended who attended the ROK event. 

“I was already a lawyer in my country and came to England with the plan of becoming a barrister,” she said. “I’ve completed my undergraduate degree in law at UEL and I’m doing my master’s here now in law and human rights. 

“Thankfully, I’ve been offered at place a BPP University to do the Bar Professional Training Course later this year, so things are going to plan. But I wanted to come to learn more about the profession I’ve chosen to pursue and get to hear the insights of more experienced solicitors and barristers. It has been good.”

So what are Denise’s top tips for would-be solicitors and barristers at UEL? 

“Be tenacious as law is very, very competitive. A lot of people fall by the wayside as you face a lot of rejection trying to get work experience and training contracts.

“Second, do your research and get in early. Use your time at uni to do lots of things and get experience so that a potential employer will see your CV and what you’ve achieved. 

“Communication skills, the ability to process and understand complex information quickly, and people skills to manage client expectations are all vital skills future solicitors at UEL will need.” 

Edward added, “For would-be barristers, confidence is key, even if you don’t feel confident on the inside. You’ll be in front of judges with your clients, so need to be confident, think quickly on your feet and, of course, be good at public speaking. I was quiet shy as a student, but these skills can be learnt.”