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"Inspirational" lecturers led graduate Umar to leading role in mental health law


A Law alumnus has said the “inspiring” teaching he had at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) gave him the determination to win a leading role in mental health.


After graduating from DMU, Umar Kankiya spent four years trying to break into the legal profession, which historically, has a low Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation in the UK workforce.

But, inspired by his time at DMU, Umar’s persistence was eventually rewarded, when he was headhunted for his dream role, as Head of the Mental Health Department in a solicitors firm.

Umar chose to study Law at DMU. He said: “I was always passionate about representing and helping vulnerable people, it made a difference to someone’s life.”

When Umar stepped onto campus for a tour of the university in 2003 he said: “I talked to the lecturers, I felt the university was vibrant and I loved the Elfed Thomas Building. I was one of the first cohort of students to see the Students Union built.

“It was one of the best times of my life. I met fantastic people, whom I am still in touch with. I loved the diversity, it was home away from home. Lecturers such as Professor Ward and Dr Alwyn Jones brought law to life, they were so inspirational.”

While at DMU, he was a Trustee for the Youth Parliament and President of the Law Society from 2005-2006. He said: “My connection with the lecturers and students increased, I am proud of the legacy I left with the Law Society.”

A month before finishing the Law LLB (Hons) in 2006, Umar became the London Regional Co-ordinator for the UK Youth Parliament at the age of 22. He said: “I took on the role as the opportunity came up and I could also bring a youthful side to it.

“I worked there for three years applying for jobs, but nothing happened. I didn’t take the same route as other people did to secure a job and I faced a lot of challenges.

“In 2009 I contacted a family friend, the Director of Duncan Lewis Solicitors in London, who gave me work experience. Two months later I was offered a paralegal position in the Welfare Benefits Department.

“I took a pay cut but it was an opportunity to get into the firm. Ten months later I managed to secure a training contract. One of my seats which I did for nine months instead of six, was the chance to work in mental health and I loved it, helping vulnerable people. I had the legal, social and mental sides of the job.”

In 2014, Umar was headhunted by Cartwright King Solicitors where he worked until 2016. He was then headhunted again by Jefferies Solicitors where he worked for 16 months. He is now working at Sternberg Reed Solicitors who headhunted Umar in summer of 2017 and now is Head of the Mental Health Department managing a team of three.

He said: “I am passionate about mental health. People who are in hospitals have their liberty taken away from them. We can help them through a mental health tribunal. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction then when they come off being sectioned.”

Umar spoke at length about the lack of BAME people in the law profession, quoting in an article he wrote in the Law Society’s publication, Black History Month 2018: celebrating diversity in our profession: “As of 2017 the number of Black and Minority Ethnic solicitors is 19,674, 16.5 per cent of the profession who hold a practising certificate.”

He said: “It's particularly heartening to see the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) solicitors has continued to increase.”

He believes: “A lot of BAME are working in high street firms but they are not in the magic circle firms, a lot more needs to be done. Diversity and inclusion are buzz words. Firms are making more conscious efforts to look at this."

While at DMU, Umar said: “We didn’t have people from the BAME community come into talk about entry into the field. In East London, were Umar is originally from, he said it is predominantly white middle class, which puts you off, and I went through a lot of struggles.

“My mission is to give back and inspire. I came to DMU a couple of years ago and gave a talk to students about my journey and the scope to do more. I would like to come back and give more talks.

“I want to go into urban areas and inner city schools and give talks. Workplaces can increase diversity and hard to reach groups.

“It is our duty especially like me in higher positions of responsibility to go back into our local communities, tell them about our journey, the successes and failures. We need to take responsibility.”  

In the future Umar would like to see more BAME students in professional roles in particular positions of responsibility, in decision making roles and at top level management and at partnership level.

He said: “This starts at the judiciary. I would like to see the first BAME judge in the Supreme Court. That will then start to affect change in the profession.

“I have aspirations at Sternberg Reed Solicitors to be a Partner.”

Umar’s message to DMU students is: “People need to keep on the path they are on. There are going to be times when you ask yourself why am I doing this, why do I keep getting rejected. My answer is persevere. If I had given up I wouldn’t be where I am. Never did I think with a 2:2 would I be where I am. Be determined.”

Reflecting after 15 years, Umar spoke about DMU with pride, he said: “It is my alma mater.”

Posted on Friday 19th October 2018

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