Claudia Estephane

Claudia joined our housing team as a Justice First Fellow in 2019. Here she tells her story of how she has overcome personal tragedy and hardship to help those facing homelessness themselves.

I was a teenage mum with my first daughter being born when I was 19. I felt I had become a statistic – a young Black girl with a baby in her teens. Everyone said I should just go on benefits, but I knew that was not who I wanted to be.

My journey had been a struggle and my mum died the year before my daughter was born so completing my education was not easy. I was determined to finish my course at college and in 2003 I passed my A Levels and went on to begin an apprenticeship in accountancy.

I’d assumed my career would continue in accountancy, but in 2009 I was helping a friend with the form for his employment tribunal and the caseworker commented that he thought a solicitor had written it. Around this time I was turned down for a place with PWC, although they’d previously told me it was almost guaranteed. These two things made me question whether accountancy was the right career for me. I requested to change course; it was agreed and in 2012 and I graduated with a 2:1 in Law. A week later I gave birth to my third child.

I went on to do the LPC, but in 2013 my fourth child (another daughter) died at just nine days old. I knew I had to carry on with the course because I needed legal knowledge for my own situation. I completed it in 2015, and the same year I gave birth to a son.

I was homeless five times during this time and used South West London Law Centres and the pro bono clinics for advice and support. When I was learning about the different areas of law, I knew I didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer – it’s not who I am. I wanted to be able to help people like me. My experience had given me a passion for housing and for helping people understand their rights, especially when – like I was – they’re pushed into the private rental sector with rogue landlords.  

Although I’d made this decision, I soon found out there is no path for legal aid training – it feels like you’re stabbing around in the dark. You have to make your own path in terms of placements, subject options etc. I volunteered at Southwark Law Centre and did some pro bono work as I wanted to build up my experience and show I had the skills to be a legal aid lawyer. However, I was still battling my own housing issues and I was finding things difficult after everything that had happened.

I struggled to get a training contract and by this point my father got really ill with dementia. Shortly before he died I applied for the Justice First Fellowship, saying that this would be my last attempt at pursuing a career in Law. I was accepted and started a training contract specialising in special education needs and disability discrimination.

During this time I was diagnosed with a serious medical condition which I now manage but at the time I had to take four months off as I found the side effects from the medication and the commute to be too much for me.

I eventually went back part time, still determined to do something I was passionate about but it became clear that it had to include housing as well continuing to develop my experience in education. At a Justice Fellows First meeting a friend suggested looking into transferring my training contact. I  got in touch with SWLLC and I joined the housing team in September 2019. It felt like it was meant to be – I felt I fitted in and had huge support from the other members of the team. I finally qualified as a solicitor in June 2020.

I am now a housing solicitor and my current caseload is focussing on homelessness. I have recently had several cases involving domestic violence all of which have led to positive outcomes for my clients. Homelessness tugs at my heart strings because I’ve been through it myself. I support my clients to get to safety and to keep walking to get through their situation to the other side.

I so appreciate where I am. It has been a huge journey getting here, and my heart goes out to our clients. When people come to us struggling with issues that affect the stability of their housing, I understand some of the things they’re facing because I’ve been there myself. I have been privileged to have got myself out of it and so I want to use my experience to help others.

As well as a housing solicitor, Claudia is also a junior rep for the Law Centres Network (LCN) and a member of the Law Centre’s Diversity and Inclusion Group.