As she begins to think about the future, Britain’s first black, blind woman lawyer says her achievement “hasn’t quite sunk in yet”.
After five years at university, Jessikah Inabah, 24, qualified earlier in 2022 and will now be seeking pupillage – in which newly graduated lawyers get their first practice placement – at the applications open in January 2023.
“It’s not quite understood yet,” she told Sky News. “Once I am actively in my pupillage phase, I hope that will be the case.”
Originally from Lewisham, south London, Ms Inabah is known to friends and family as Jess. She says she hopes to break down barriers.
“I’m sure when people imagine lawyers, a young black woman with a white cane isn’t what their first picture would be, but I hope I can change that kind of imagery.”
Some of the UK’s biggest legal organizations – including the four Inns of Court, the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board – could not find another example of a blind, black lawyer.
Jess’ battle to change those perceptions began when she was little. After periods of wanting to be a singer, historian and author, in her words, she came full circle, deciding to study law at the age of 18.
While a student in London, she faced a number of challenges, including a lack of study materials in Braille – the tactile system she uses to read. This meant that she had to rely on the help of her friends, guardians and also her family, including her younger brother, who was nine years old at the time.
“It was difficult for him, but as he read, I put in Braille,” she recalls. “I would give him the page references, and he would find them after 100 years.
“When he finally arrived, I would tell him to read some of the titles, and we would find the specific title I was looking for.
“It was the only way I was able to pass my baccalaureate, so I had no social life.”
During Jess’s studies, this support from her family was invaluable as she repeatedly came close to breaking point due to the stress of her course.
For her, graduating was a way of “saying thank you” to her parents for raising her the same as her siblings, despite never having had a meaningful interaction with a blind person before. His birth.
In the time she spent working with clients as part of her studies, she felt that being blind helped her build a stronger relationship with some, especially those from minorities.
She said: “When they see me and I introduce myself, I explain the assistive technology I have with me and how it works. And how I’m going to take their notes. Suddenly they’re able to s open up to me and tell me how they feel or what they need me to do.”
The idea that representation matters is a sentiment shared by Sam Mercer, Head of Equality and Diversity at the Bar Council.
She told Sky News: ‘It’s hugely important that lawyers reflect the diversity of our own society because I think it means people have a lot more faith in the justice system, in access to justice.
Last year, the Bar Council completed a landmark report on inequality and offered a series of recommendations for action, finding that people from ethnic minorities who aspire to become lawyers have a harder time obtaining a pupillage.
Figures also showed that a black woman who is a publicly funded junior criminal barrister with the same level of experience as her white counterpart would charge an average of £18,700 a year less.
At the time of the report, in England and Wales there were only five black British or black female King’s Counsel (KC), a highly prestigious legal position, while just 1% of judges were black. This year, however, a Bar Council follow-up report found that nine out of 10 chambers had adopted one or more of the recommendations of the bar race. These include mentoring and work experience programs.
A number of chambers have also worked with an organization called Bridging the Bar, which identified students from diverse backgrounds and gave them lawyer mentors.
Ms Mercer believes people like Jess provide important points of reference for people from minority backgrounds. “I think you really have to remember how important Jess and others are as role models,” she said. “Because I think if people see someone who has overcome disadvantage becoming a professional lawyer, it makes a difference.”
After clearing the hurdle of law school, Jess is excited about the future. His goals include eventually becoming a judge and also teaching law.
His advice to people who want to follow in his footsteps and break down barriers is simple: “If you want to be a lawyer or you want to be something else, but you feel like society is saying that your disability, or your race, or your gender means you can’t achieve what you want to achieve, prove them wrong.
“Show them you can do it and you know they can’t dictate your life or dictate your future.”