Denisa Gannon is the first Roma person to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. In an exclusive interview with First 100 Years, she describes why she studied law and how she’s got to where she is today, as well as her advice to aspiring lawyers.
Denisa grew up in the Czech Republic, but decided to move to the UK in search of a better life for her and her son after experiencing high levels of discrimination. The move was a relief; “I’m pleased that my son has access to education and he’s not going to be treated as a secondary citizen.”
However, as a single parent with little English, Denisa’s job prospects were poor, and she was left vulnerable to exploitation. At one point, she was evicted from her property and her deposit wasn’t returned. “It made me realise I needed to know my rights”, she recalls. As Denisa’s English improved, she started to help others in her community. “People were approaching me and asking for help… and I realised there were lots of people like me, who needed the same help as I did.” Denisa realised that by studying law she could understand her rights and help other people in vulnerable positions, as well as improve her employability.
She enrolled at De Montfort University, working as a teaching assistant alongside her studies and parental duties, a punishing schedule which required “a timetable for every minute”. Denisa also found time to volunteer for Street Law, a scheme where law students provide presentations to educate groups about their legal rights and responsibilities. Managing her time was “very hard” she says, “obviously the law degree is very demanding… but I was also working, and doing voluntary work, because you can’t go into law without experience.”
At university, Denisa had learn how to navigate the English education system, and write her first assignments in English. “My first exam in my first year I failed, because I had no idea what was required in an exam” she explained, “I had to completely change my way of learning.” However, she managed to turn her grades around, graduating with a 2:1 in 2012, and describes her law degree as a very positive experience.
After graduating, Denisa completed her two-year training contract at the Coventry Law Centre
as part of the Justice First Fellowship
scheme, funded by the Legal Education Foundation and Allen & Overy. Now a qualified solicitor, she works full time at the Coventry Law Centre having completed her training contract and fellowship in January 2018.
She is currently working on a project, in partnership with Foleshill Women’s Training and the UK Women’s Budget Group, to improve the financial security of women in Coventry by strengthening women’s access to skills training, confidence building, and legal advice. Coventry Law Centre will help women in the project in relation to problems with welfare benefits, debt, housing, immigration, employment rights and domestic violence, which all present barriers to financial security. She says she finds this work very rewarding, because “you can see the impact on somebody’s life when you help them, for example, avoid eviction, or solve their immigration issue… and the service mover can just move on with their lives.”
Does she have any advice for young people who want to study law? “Law is very competitive, so think twice. If you really want to do the law then you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to do everything you can to get experience, especially if you are from a background where you have nobody who can help you.” But if you stick to your dreams and remain proactive, it’s possible to succeed. Denisa believes the key to being a successful lawyer is “having a non-judgemental approach….to help your clients and act in their best interests, you can’t judge them.”
In the future, Denisa would like to see legal aid become more accessible “to ensure access to justice”, as well as an improvement in the gender pay gap. She has a few goals for herself too. She wants to continue to help vulnerable people in her community by expanding access to free legal advice. She also aspires to be a judge one day. “I have no idea how I’m going to manage all my goals, but it is a journey. It is a new challenge. And I’m quite looking forward to it.”
Interviewed by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years