How I Made It - being forced out of her country made Jay Bhayani become a lawyer

Lawyer Jay Bhayani who has recently moved into premises at the Sheffield Business Centre, the former airport
Lawyer Jay Bhayani who has recently moved into premises at the Sheffield Business Centre, the former airport
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Jay Bhayani was just three when she first discovered how badly racism can scar a person’s life.

She can barely remember the day her entire family were forced to walk out of the beautiful home and genteel lifestyle her father had worked his way out of the flour mills to provide.

Or the long plane journey to an impoverished existence in a cramped, rented house in Leicester where she shared a bedroom with her two brothers and her parents.

But she remembers why. Her family’s ‘crime’? They were of Indian descent. And they lived in Uganda.

Despotic President Idi Amin launched an ethnic cleansing policy in August 1972, ordering the expulsion of his country’s Asian minority within 90 days.

“We arrived with nothing more than money and clothes. Everything else had to be left behind. All the things my father had worked for. Without an education he managed to become an accountant and provide us with a big house in the city with maids to look after it. We all got to go to school.

“In Britain, we had to start all over again. Dad managed to get accountancy work with the other Ugandan Asians in our community. His office was our living room.”

Worse was to come, though. Three years later, her father died of a sudden heart attack, aged 46. Jay’s elder sister turned her back on her dream of becoming a doctor and got a job to support her two brothers and sister. Their mum - who had arrived in Uganda from a remote Indian village at 16 for her arranged marriage - spoke only Gujarati. She had to do everything else.

They had fled Uganda, but in Leicester they were unwelcome just because of their heritage all over again. It felt like every Asian was viewed with cynicism and prejudice by those who felt their home town was being invaded, Jay recalls.

The discrimination and disruption could have turned her into either a timid soul or an angry one.

Instead, it turned Jay into a lawyer.

“You want to be on the side of right when you see a lot of wrong,” she says.

She began by standing up to the schoolkids who scoffed that she was a Paki, politely told the gossiping women on the bus that they’d got it wrong about Asians taking over their town, and waded in to fight the battles of other kids who were getting bullied.

“You have to challenge people’s ignorance,” she says. “I have never been able to let things go unchallenged. And I found I was a natural advocate. Because I had good verbal skills I could diffuse situations, or turn the tables on the bullies.”

Crown Court, the TV serves she would race home to watch in her school lunch breaks, honed her ambition to become a lawyer.

It was to be no easy task, though. There was no family money or name to open doors to posh universities and starchy law practices.

She paid her way through her degree at Hull University by jobs in factories and shops, got a graduate training contract at Oxley and Coward in Rotherham and on qualifying landed a job with Watson Esam in Paradise Square.

“They were a brilliant, forward-thinking company; there were very few female Asian lawyers, and even in the mid Nineties there were even fewer firms willing to take them on,” says Jay. “When a potential client told me he would not work with a Paki, the firm backed me to the hilt. And when confronted, that client backed down, I won his case and he realised how wrong he had been.”

She decided to specialise in employment law after defending an Asian factory worker in a shocking case of racial discrimination. When she got him a settlement, the joy of the man who had been belittled and racially abused by co-workers at finally emerging the victor made her want to fight for the underdogs, as she and her family had once been.

Jay believes empathy for her clients is vital and that what happened to her in her early years enables her to understand how it feels to have life suddenly thrown off kilter, or to be discriminated against.

“A person’s job is so important to them. It’s their identity and their security. When it’s threatened or taken from them it is a massive blow to self-confidence,” she says. Clients have often broken down in front of me.”

She stayed with Watson Esam for 18 years, rising to head the firm’s employment department and later assisting with its merger with Graysons as small practices felt the financial sting of the ending of legal aid. She then moved to Taylor Bracewell as a partner, setting up their niche HR and employment division Bhayani Bracewell in Doncaster and Sheffield.

Recognised as one of the leading employment law specialists in Yorkshire and named in the Legal 500 as such, along the way she has garnered the title Employment Lawyer of The Year in the 2005 Yorkshire Lawyers Awards and professional of the year in the 2013 ABDN awards, the region’s first ethnic minority business awards.

She has strived to inspire Asian schoolchildren - girls in particular - to aim high and break into professions they believe are closed to them. she realises she is incredibly lucky to be a role model.

This month, she set up solo at Sheffield Business Park (formerly Sheffield Airport), launching what is only a handful of specialist HR and employment practices in the country.

Ironically though, it has not been an easy transition to self-employment. Says Jay, with employment lawyer hat firmly on: “My hope was to amicably agree an exit with my employers, but the split has been acrimonious.”

She refuses to be drawn on the subject other than to add: “My advice to my business clients is always strive for amicable resolution. Acrimony is to the detriment of any business.”