October is the time where people and organisations across the UK mark Black History Month (BHM). The celebration was originally founded to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to this country over many generations. Now, BHM has expanded to include the history of all black people.
While we're committed to promoting black history, people and culture all year round, we’re use this celebration to come together and share positive stories, say thanks and reflect on what history has taught us.
We spoke to Nicola Handley, a leading litigator in our Asbestos Related Disease team about what BHM means to her, how she’s been supporting clients during lockdown and why her focus is on protecting what matters most.
Hi Nicola - it’s lovely to catch up with you virtually. Firstly, what made you want to pursue a career in law?
I decided that I would be a solicitor from around the age of 11 – I was very adamant from a young age that I wanted to help people. My uncle had his own law firm in Jamaica, and following a visit to his home I decided that it was the profession for me. I enjoyed talking a lot and standing up for people’s rights. I joined Irwin Mitchell in 2005 as a secretary – I immediately felt the firm was really inclusive and was prepared to support me in my career, despite being told from a young age that my heritage would be a barrier.
Rather than go down the traditional route of studying law at university, learning part time whilst working suited me a lot better. I was lucky to receive sponsorship to do this and progressed through the firm to litigation assistant, legal executive and then eventually qualifying as a solicitor in 2015 - it was a very proud moment! I’m very ambitious, so was thrilled once again to be promoted to associate solicitor in January 2020 - 15 years after joining the firm.
It must have been nice to celebrate some good news before COVID-19 arrived and changed 2020 forever. How have you been helping your clients during the pandemic?
A big part of my role is not only providing legal advice, but also day-to-day advice, signposting and support for clients coping with a terminal diagnosis. Prior to lockdown, assessing their needs and providing support was much easier when we could meet face-to-face. Learning to adapt quickly to a virtual world ensures that my clients, many of whom are isolating and vulnerable due to their disease, still receive the same level of support. I've therefore been ensuring that the people I support and their families can remain in contact with me, by whatever methods they prefer, whether that's video call, telephone or post.
I’m also on hand to help with other issues that may arise, which can range from support from our client liaison managers following a bereavement, to seeking advice from support groups such as
Sheffield and Rotherham Asbestos Group (SARAG) and Mesothelioma Support Yorkshire (MESSY). This support can relate to treatment, but can also provide simple advice and reassurance about expressing how they feel and sharing other people's stories of positivity where appropriate.
You and your team are passionate about the work you do to support charities – can you tell us a bit about this?
Following a diagnosis of cancer, you'll inevitably receive support from a charity at some point through your journey, but it can take time for people to find the support that is right for them and their families. It may be getting the answer to a question via a helpful website, assistance with benefits advice or emotional and psychological support to help you cope with the diagnosis. As a team, we recognise the vital role that charities such as Maggie's, Mesothelioma UK, Macmillan, Age UK, local hospices and many other organisations provide to our clients, communities and colleagues. It's therefore really important to ensure that these charities have the necessary funds, particularly in the current crisis, to provide the care, information and support that people require.
It's been a great achievement for our team in Leeds to recover
over £500,000 for hospices in our region. We also regularly participate in fundraising events such as the Dragon Boat Race in Bradford, which raises funds for The June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund and MESSY, and work closely with charities in our region such as Maggie's Yorkshire, our Leeds office charity of the year.
You're sharing your story for BHM – after the #BlackLivesMatter movement, why does this month matter so much and what are you doing to help people learn from (yours and others) history and understand why there should be no place for racism or discrimination?
Personally, I feel that BHM is an important time for everyone, no matter what their race is. It’s a time to reflect on the past and what we've achieved when it comes to overcoming racial discrimination, but also a time to look forward and acknowledge what we still need to do to make a lasting difference for future generations. As a child and young adult, black history and racial discrimination was rarely discussed at school or at work - it was really only something that was discussed in detail at home.
The increased awareness about BHM now provides an opportunity for me to be proud of my heritage and to share black history with friends, family and colleagues to provide them with the knowledge and information that they need to become allies. I hope that by doing this, it will help to ensure racism and discrimination will one day be something that we reflect upon as being part of our past.
What are you most looking forward to when all the current restrictions are lifted?
My sister was due to get married in June 2020 and big family gatherings are something that I've always enjoyed and looked forward to. All of my close relatives live in different counties and countries, so occasions such as weddings always provide a great opportunity to catch up and spend time together. My sister's special day has now been rescheduled for March 2021, and we all have our fingers crossed that we'll be able to spend some much needed quality time together.
Nicola, thank you for the support and reassurance you’re providing to clients and an insight into what BHM means to you. If you’d like to find out more about the work Nicola does, we spoke to three of her contacts who are supporting people living with cancer during COVID-19.
Find out more here.
If you or someone you love needs support following a diagnosis of an asbestos related disease, the following charities and support groups are here to help:
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