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Tarisai May Chidawanyika: Diversity in Law and Campaigning for Change

By: Gemma McLoughlin Burke

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Tarisai May Chidawanyika is a newly qualified solicitor and the founder of “Diversity in Law”, an organisation which seeks to promote diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. She is also the first Zimbabwean to be registered as a solicitor in Ireland. In this piece, Tarisai talks me through her journey into the legal profession, how she came to found Diversity in Law (“DIL”) and the steps she has taken towards improving diversity in her early years of practice.

Tarisai is a newly qualified solicitor currently working in a top tier law firm, qualifying in December 2020. Coming from an immigrant background and having no connections in law, Tarisai has spent many of her early years trying to highlight the difficulties faced by those like her who want to pursue a career in law but often don’t know where to start.

Tarisai studied her law degree in UCD, working part-time on campus to help pay her way through college. During her degree, Tarisai did a year abroad in the Netherlands as part of the Erasmus programme. The experience was one which really shaped her career progression. “I had never really travelled and the experience gave me an opportunity to see a bit of the world and to have a bit of independence.” Unusually, Tarisai spent the three months before Erasmus working in Disneyland! “I wanted to save for Erasmus, my mother had already sacrificed so much to help me pay for the year abroad but I still needed my own money for living expenses and that kind of thing. Funny enough, I spent ages looking for a job in Ireland but I couldn’t find anything so I ended up getting a job in Disneyland in France! It was the first time I had lived away from home and the work was really difficult. It was the most difficult job I have ever had! So many people quit but I had to persevere because I knew I needed to save for Erasmus. In the end I learned a lot about endurance!”

After graduating in 2016, Tarisai went to work in one of the top law firms. Not coming from a legal background,. Tarisai didn’t have any idea of the process required to become a solicitor. “I didn’t know anything about the FE-1s, I didn’t realise how expensive the exams were, there was so much I just didn’t know.” Regardless, she graduated and sat her FE-1s two weeks later. She got a training contract in the firm and she started as a pre-trainee in the Litigation Department. Tarisai officially qualified as a solicitor in December 2020.

So, how did the whole Diversity in Law initiative come about? “After I finished my FE-1s, I decided to take some time out to go travelling to South East Asia. I was there for three months and I know it sounds cliché but it really gave me a chance to discover myself and a bit of the world and to think about my interests and passions. It was during this time that I started to think about my path to law and the people I had come across along the way who had similar experiences to me.” Tarisai also thought about the huge drop-off in numbers between black students who graduated from law in college and those who actually went on to practice as solicitors. Tarisai decided that she would do something to tackle this disparity and share some of the knowledge she had acquired. “I came back from Asia in August 2018 and I decided to approach the Law Society and talk to them about diversity.”

Tarisai has nothing but positive things to say about the Law Society, “I told them I was thinking of starting a kind of diversity initiative and they encouraged me to go for it.” The Law Society have facilitated events held by DIL and have often given her a platform to reach out to others. Tarisai also inspired the Law Society to set up an internal diversity committee of their own.

So what kind of assistance does DIL offer? “Oh a whole host of things. People reach out for career advice or for help with CVs or trainee applications. I help when I can but I often find I don’t have all of the answers!” Tarisai has reached out to various firms to assist with these queries and has been pleasantly surprised as how much support she has received. Firms such as Matheson, McCann Fitzgerald, William Fry and A&L Goodbody have all hosted events and presentations aimed at informing and supporting those coming to the law from slightly less privileged backgrounds, talking students through the application process and what to expect from a career in law.

Aside from the work with DIL, Tarisai has also tried to tackle inclusion when it arises in her own interactions. For example, Tarisai contacted the Law Society and asked them to consider the addition of a phonetic pronunciation for student names on the roll call for graduation. A year later, the Law Society had implemented this change. These changes seem small but undoubtedly make students feel more included and at ease on such an important day in their lives.

Although still in its early stages, DIL has already had great growth. Another colleague, Sylvia Julius, became involved in DIL in 2019 after seeing an article published about Tarisai. Sylvia has been an immense help but Tarisai emphasises the need for more people to get on board to expand their reach. She also mentions the difficulty with trying to balance DIL on the side while working full-time. “It’s almost been like setting up a business! I’m proud to see it gaining momentum but it is tricky to work out a good balance and find the time to do everything.”

Tarisai recognises that great work has been done, not just by the Law Society, but by many firms across the country to increase diversity, but she also says that there needs to be more focus on inclusion. “Bringing people in is the first step, but organisations need to focus on what they are doing to support people after they have been brought in. I think inclusion is really the biggest issue facing minorities in the legal profession.” In her view, there is no easy way to “fix” inclusion but a great place to start is to chat with those most affected. “Open dialogue with your minority employees is the first step, the more you try to understand, the more you can shape people’s experiences and make them feel more included”.

Tarisai spends a lot of time trying to help and advise others. I ask her what advice she would give her 18 year old self is she could go back in time. “I think the main thing is don’t compare yourself to others, this is where self-doubt comes from. Comparisons can eat you up. Instead focus on what you are doing and what is working for you. Everyone’s journey is going to be different.”

Despite the challenges she has had to overcome, Tarisai would encourage others to come into the legal profession. And for those just starting their journey, she encourages them to surround themselves with positive relationships. “One of the most important things for me was to make real and genuine friends. They will get you through University, they will be friends for life. Personally, I would have struggled so much without them. Good friends work together and lift each other up; don’t discount the importance of finding people to bring out the best in you.”

So what are Tarisai’s plans for the future? “Right now I’m just taking one thing at a time and trying not to put too much pressure on myself to be ‘the black female lawyer’. I used to put so much pressure on myself because I am the first Zimbabwean lawyer to qualify in Ireland and I felt like a representative of others but I never really wanted to be that voice. I just want to do my best, hopefully have a successful career and do what I can to help others along the way. It’s hard to find the balance between trying to help others without becoming some kind of role model but I hope to just keep doing what I’m doing and try to strike that balance over time.”

 

For any readers who would like to get involved with the “Diversity in Law” team, or to offer any support or advice, please feel free to get in contact with Tarisai at network@diversityinlaw.info .

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