University: De Montfort University
Relationships between the owners and occupiers of residential properties can be fraught with problems. There’s a raft of UK legislation governing the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants, which supplements the contractual relationships between them. The terms of short-term tenancies typically cover parties’ obligations, such as who’s responsible for repairs to a property; how it may be used; and how and when rent will increase. Despite this, disputes arise regularly. Lawyers encounter all kinds of problems from tenants who build up rent arrears to tenants, members of their household or visitors engaging in low level or serious antisocial behaviour and also deciding what should happen to a property when a tenant passes away.
The phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see” rings true for many aspiring lawyers vying to enter the legal profession and it’s because of this that Yetunde Dania, partner and head of Trowers & Hamlins’ Birmingham office, has made it part of her role to be as visible as she can to inspire the next generation of Black female lawyers. “I appreciate that there aren’t many Black women who are equity partners at international law firms and also who get the privilege of heading up an office. In my lifetime, I want to see people who look like me do more than I’ve done,” she says.
Yetunde’s route into the legal profession began as a law student at De Montfort University (previously known as Leicester Polytechnic). Following her undergraduate degree, she completed a master’s at the University of Leicester in human rights and civil liberties before doing the Legal Practice Course. Like many success stories, Yetunde had her setbacks: “It took me some time to get a training contract, so I ended up as a paralegal at a legal aid firm, which really fed my passion.” It was around two years later that she was offered a training contract before qualifying as a solicitor in 1996.
“My work is purely for large and small housing associations, and private landlords. It relates to the tenant and landlord relationship, whether that’s bringing possession proceedings because someone’s breached their terms and conditions of tenancy, or applying for an injunction because of antisocial behaviour”
‘Cuckooing’, injunctions and reform for renters
As her time at the legal aid firm came to an end due to a split in the business’ partnership, Yetunde made the decision to move into private practice and represent landlords, which is what she’s remained doing ever since.
“My work is purely for large and small housing associations, and private landlords. It relates to the tenant and landlord relationship, whether that’s bringing possession proceedings because someone’s breached their terms and conditions of tenancy, or applying for an injunction because of antisocial behaviour.” Yetunde finds the work incredibly interesting and wide ranging, and often appears in different courts, including the county court and magistrates’ court, due to the nature of her practice, which sometimes involves, “believe it or not”, criminal work. For example, “a tenant can bring a private prosecution against their landlord if their property is considered to be what’s known as a ‘statutory nuisance’”.
Looking more closely at this antisocial behaviour work around guns, drugs and knives that Yetunde gets involved in demonstrates just how important this area of the law really is. In one particular case, her novel legal solution had a real impact on the lives of people living in difficult circumstances.
“I was approached by a client who had a small block of flats and some really unsavoury people had started targeting the occupants,” she explains. “There’s something known as ‘cuckooing’, which is where a perpetrator takes over the home of somebody else who hasn’t got the confidence or strength to stand up for themselves. In the locality, somebody had been fatally stabbed and some knives associated with a particular gang had been found in the bushes by this block.”
Acting in what she describes as an “unusual way at the time”, Yetunde managed to secure an injunction against persons unknown – the terms of which meant that “only the named tenants that lived in those properties, members of their household, emergency services and postal delivery could enter the block of flats. Anybody else had to contact the landlord”. Looking back on this case and her work with pride, Yetunde says, “I felt I was doing something to protect vulnerable people who couldn’t stand up to those unpleasant individuals”.
Yetunde also highlights the increase in matters arising as a result of “damp and mould”. She references the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak who died in 2020 “because of the damp and mould conditions in his property” and explains how this case threw the housing sector into the limelight. “We’re still feeling the effects of that. There’s legislation being passed to make sure the possibility of it happening again in the future is greatly reduced.”
There’s also the Renters (Reform) Bill currently making its way through parliament, which will be another “massive shake-up” for the housing sector. With the end of assured shorthold tenancies on the horizon, Yetunde predicts that the next few years of work could be incredibly busy. “At the moment, a landlord can serve somebody two months’ notice and get rid of them; they don’t need to have a reason to do that. This has caused a lot of hardship for people, so the law is changing. There’s a real feeling that the scales of justice are tipping in favour of the tenant.”
Diversity brings richness
Aside from the casework outlined above, Yetunde must also balance her role as partner and head of the firm’s Birmingham office. “As you progress, you get to experience and develop other skills around management. Having the opportunity to engage with others and learn how to bring out the best in people is quite exciting,” she explains.
“The legal profession is here to serve everybody, no matter what they look like, and therefore the legal services need to be delivered by people who represent everyone in society”
Yetunde recognises that everyone has something to offer in the law. “Diversity brings richness in people and richness in the advice we give,” she says. However, in the early days of her career and before realising that her superpower is her “difference”, Yetunde says that she, like so many other Black women, ‘code switched’ between her personal and working life. “It’s really tiring trying to be someone you’re not. Therefore, what I’ve loved above getting into management is developing that style where I now feel comfortable to bring my whole self to work.”
She adds: “This means I can be the very best lawyer because I’m not worried about hiding parts of myself or pretending to be someone I’m not. I love the profession now more than when I entered it and think the reason for that is that we’re now embracing diversity and inclusion – it’s a real thing, everybody is alert and alive to it, and having that opportunity to look back on my career, see where it was, where it is now and the potential for the future is really exciting.”
In fact, looking more closely at the work Trowers & Hamlins is doing to improve diversity and inclusion, Yetunde highlights the firm’s ongoing safe space discussions, which involve talking about microaggressions, as well as educating and understanding one another. Yetunde also praises the work of the senior leadership team at the firm for “taking ownership and responsibility” and “looking at ways we can make our partnership more diverse, as well as attract and retain more diverse talent”. As Yetunde summarises, “the legal profession is here to serve everybody, no matter what they look like, and therefore legal services need to be delivered by people who represent everyone in society”.
Long-term mentorship is key
As the profession continues to make strides forward, Yetunde outlines the key strengths required to be a successful solicitor, including attention to detail, excellent time management and resilience. She’s also keen to push the importance of mentorship. “I always say to look at the person who’s where you want to be. So, if you’re a student, try to connect with a trainee or newly qualified (NQ) solicitor. Find out as much as you can about their journey, what they did, how they did it and what worked.”
While it can be tempting to try and connect with partners at the top of the profession, she encourages aspiring solicitors to “talk to trainees or NQ solicitors because their experiences will be more aligned with what you’re likely to experience”. Plus, pursuing mentorship at each stage of your career journey is incredibly useful and “can help you see things from a different perspective”, particularly when a case is starting to take its toll or you’re not sure what your next steps are in terms of progression.
“Sometimes we can get entrenched in our own doubts, and if we’re from a family where no one has gone through this process before, they may be unable to provide the support you’re looking for,” she says. In fact, Yetunde is proof that long-term mentorship and maintaining a support network throughout your career pays off. She opens up about her own experience as a mentee and explains that even now, as partner at an international law firm, she continues to approach people when she’s in a tricky situation – so developing your own trusted support network is key. As Yetunde shows, the growth doesn’t stop once you reach partner.