Suzie (right) at the Skadden Women Attorneys Network Breakfast September 2021

Suzie, our Trainee Solicitor at GMIAU, has been reflecting on her first year working with us. She’s been at GMIAU since January 2021, supported by global law firm Skadden through the Justice First Skadden Trainee (JUST) Programme, which is administered by The Legal Education Foundation Justice First Fellowship scheme. We caught up with Suzie, GMIAU Chief Executive Denise McDowell and Skadden’s Senior Pro Bono Coordinator/Attorney, Olivia Bushell.

Suzie’s route to becoming a qualified solicitor at GMIAU involves several different qualifications. “My route has been full of exams!” In 2021, she studied for and took five exams: OISC Level 1 and Level 3 Exams;  IAAS/Law Society Casework Assistant and Senior Caseworker Exams; and an SRA Financial and Business Exam. For a legal aid provider like GMIAU to have the resources to train new lawyers, Denise explained, “the fact that The Legal Education Foundation and big firms like Skadden are sponsoring trainee solicitors means that, between us, we have made a commitment to invest in the people, the skills, the time, and the resources to make sure that people who have got little or no money have still got access to immigration advice.” Suzie is the fourth Justice First Fellow to train at GMIAU. “This is such a positive injection of resources. These are new lawyers who would not have been with us otherwise.”

Suzie has already taken responsibility for some immigration applications. She has completed applications for the EU Settlement Scheme for children in the care of Greater Manchester local authorities – children who otherwise would have lost their status in the UK at the June 2021 deadline. “That was great,” Suzie said, “because I came in at a time when the deadline was approaching and I could help with those cases.” She has also taken on applications for children in care to acquire British citizenship. This work fits well with the subject Suzie has chosen for her individual Justice First Fellowship project: protecting the futures of children in care and care leavers with insecure immigration status.

Suzie is Skadden’s first JUST Programme trainee. Suzie told us: “It’s definitely meant that I have more contacts and different skills. I can reach out and get support from more areas. I’ve been able to do some courses to help my work, and I’ve had some really useful advice towards my activism work.” (If her exams and casework weren’t enough, Suzie has been campaigning with the Greater Manchester Patients Not Passports coalition). “Obviously this year has been harder because of lockdown, but Skadden has still been able to make me feel a part of the network and connected me well with people.”

From Skadden’s perspective, Olivia told us, “we are so delighted to have Suzie join our global fellowship network”. In September 2021, Suzie travelled down to London to join the Skadden Women Attorneys Network breakfast social event, giving her the opportunity to meet with the women attorneys in the Skadden London office, talk about her work at GMIAU, and learn more about the pro bono immigration work the Skadden London office is involved with. Olivia noted, “I received such great feedback from people who met Suzie at the event, saying how inspired they were by her work, and in awe of how Suzie is balancing studying with her practical training contract. I felt really proud that Skadden can be part of Suzie’s journey as a young advocate for social justice.

The Legal Education Foundation Justice First Fellowship was formed in 2014 to ensure that everyone has access to justice. Denise said: “If you look at all the data about what’s happened to legal aid, what you see is a whole sector that’s on the brink of not existing, because there’s been so much pressure. There’s such little incentive to come into this area of work and so much competition to go into things like corporate law. Organisations like GMIAU rely on a new generation of social welfare lawyers coming along – we wouldn’t have a future if that wasn’t possible.”

Skadden’s London office set up the JUST Programme in 2020. Olivia noted that “our JUST Programme was inspired by our US Skadden Fellowship Program, which provides two year fellowships to talented lawyers to pursue the practice of social welfare and poverty law on a full-time basis. We have over 800 former US Skadden Fellows, 90% of whom remain in public service, with almost all of them continuing to work on the same social issues they addressed during their Skadden Fellowship.” More information about Skadden’s JUST Programme is available here.

Olivia talked about Skadden’s wider commitment to closing gaps in access to legal representation through its pro bono work, noting that many of their pro bono projects focused on helping destitute individuals living locally in Tower Hamlets, given its close proximity to Skadden’s Canary Wharf based office. “Pro bono at Skadden is focused on filling the gaps, it’s people who don’t fall within the legal aid bracket and can’t afford to pay for legal representation. The areas we’re really seeing the demand for free legal help right now is immigration, domestic violence, family law, and welfare benefits.” Olivia highlighted that “this strong pro bono culture has been part of the firm’s DNA from the beginning – giving back to the community and pro bono service were really important to Skadden’s founders, and our attorneys and professional staff truly believe that it is their professional and personal responsibility and they want to make a difference.” Like Suzie, their lawyers handle immigration work for destitute individuals on a pro bono basis. Skadden lawyers are currently working on EU Settlement Scheme  applications for Zambrano carers, and assisting undocumented children to exercise their right to British citizenship. “It’s really aligned with GMIAU’s work. Typically, more than 30% of our pro bono work is focused on immigration matters. Taking up the opportunity to partner up with GMIAU, where immigration is their specialty, just made so much sense for us.” You can read more about Skadden’s pro bono work here.

We asked what Suzie is most proud of in her first year at GMIAU. “The EU Settlement Scheme applications. I did six complex ones – situations where the children had been abandoned and had no documents at all. When I got a positive decision that felt amazing, to know that I’ve helped a little girl secure her status for the future, who’s in the care system, who’s not got that much support elsewhere. At least that’s one route that’s made easier for her for the future.

Also, the British nationality applications. I’ve completed and submitted one of those. This girl really should be entitled to British citizenship – she’s lived here all her life. But we didn’t have all the evidence she needed, so it was a complex application. She was about to turn 18 and after that the same routes to citizenship wouldn’t be available to her. It would mean she would face the hostile environment. Her rights and opportunities – to work, to go to university, all those things – would be very limited once she hit that brick wall. Up until now, she’s been failed by the system because she’s been in care since the age of 13 and nothing had been done until she was nearly 18. So I feel really proud that I got that done.

Suzie will qualify as a solicitor in January 2023. She already has her own caseload at GMIAU, including asylum cases, and she recently won her first appeal – a Refugee Family Reunion case. She said “I’m thrilled to win my first appeal, reuniting a family. They’ve been separated for years now, so knowing they’ll be together again is a relief.”  Skadden is now sponsoring its second JUST Programme trainee, who commenced their training contract at JustRight Scotland in January 2022.

For more updates on our work please follow us on Twitter.