From as early as six years old, Cecile Black knew she wanted to become a lawyer.
“I was inspired by the judge on the television show, Matlock, but my mom told me that I would have to become a lawyer before becoming a judge,” she said.
“That is where I made up my mind to practice law, and I have never swayed from that desire. My eyes have always been on the prize despite setbacks.”
Black had her first ‘case’ in primary school, where she helped to settle an incident involving stolen money.
“An indigent student was wrongly accused of stealing another student’s lunch money. I advocated and asked the relevant questions to the point where the actual perpetrator confessed,” she recalled.
Over the years, Black worked diligently in school in pursuit of her dream, attending Titchfield High School and graduating in 2006.
She later enrolled at Brown’s Town Community College in St. Ann where she completed her Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE) in 2008.
She later applied and was accepted to study law at the University of the West Indies (UWI). But she could not take up the offer at the time, because her parents had dedicated all their finances to rebuilding the family home that was destroyed by fire in 2005.
Without the funds to study law, Black pursued a Bachelor’s degree in History from 2008 to 2011. Subsequent to that, she entered the Faculty of Law and completed the Bachelor of Laws degree in 2014.
“Shortly after, I began my journey at the Norman Manley Law School and stayed for two years where I eventually passed the Bar to become an attorney-at-law,” Black said.
She added: “The journey into the real world of practicing law and being an adult outside of school was a rude awakening for me. I expected to be gainfully employed shortly after being called to the Bar, but my story was destined to be riddled with some amount of trials.”
Black struggled to find a job, and was without an income for more than a year.
However, she used the period as an opportunity to sit in some court sessions and learn by observing.
She eventually crossed paths with attorney-at-law Jacqueline Asher, who took her on as an unpaid intern.
Their working relationship blossomed and Black sat as second chair on criminal cases and also handled legal-aid matters that came to Asher’s firm.
While she was gaining real-world law experience, Black was still without a salary.
“It got to the point where I had no food in my cupboard, and walked to and from work. There was a time period in which I had to choose which utilities to keep afloat and which to cut off,” she further commented.
Before long, Black had her first paying client – a case that was transferred to Asher’s firm from another company.
The young lawyer managed to settle the matter within a week. The client was so pleased that he hired her on retainer.
“That was the moment my life and career took a turn for the better. I was able to pay my bills, stock my cupboards and be comfortable again. I even began to invest in stocks and sought life insurance,” Black commented.
She also never forgot her pledge to help the poor, providing legal-aid services to those who cannot afford to pay regular fees for a lawyer.
Black’s idea took flight when she worked on cases coming out of the Kingston Legal Aid Clinic at a time when she could not find employment as a practicing lawyer.
She eventually formulated a plan to establish her own company – the Northeastern Legal Aid Society (NELAS) – in her native Portland.
“I wrote out the entire structure of my office, the services to be offered, the decor, and where it would be located,” Black explained.
“I had the plan in my head and I put it all on paper. With no clue how to properly finance it, I went ahead and took steps to formalize my idea. Before I knew it, NELAS was formed.”
Black’s entity, established in 2020, offers subsidized legal services for criminal cases, contracts, and family court matters – especially those related to children and custody issues.
“Our clients are assigned through the Kingston Legal Aid Clinic or directly through our office where we conduct a means and needs assessment to determine the fees to be paid,” Black said.
Her vision for NELAS, where she is Chief Executive Officer and Founder, is to open an office in all north-eastern parishes of Jamaica.
For now, Black is the only lawyer at the company, but she has a strong support staff.
She, in the meantime, urged more lawyers to take legal-aid cases.
“Consider it as giving back to your community and the nation at large,” Black said, adding that innocent persons can end up in jail without proper legal representation.
Editorial Note: The information used to produce this story was provided by the Jamaica Information Service.
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