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Success with good Grace

BECAUSE SHE’S WORTH IT: Grace Ononiwu

A DEFINING moment in Grace Ononiwu’s life came when she returned home, aged 16, braced to tell her strict Nigerian parents that she had failed every single one of her O-level exams.

“The memory is still very clear,” says Ononiwu quietly. “My mother came out of the kitchen and asked what my results were. I told her I’d failed. ‘Every one of them?’ she said. I said yes and she replied: ‘you mean you didn’t even get one?’ And I said no. At that point I thought she was going to really lose her temper, but what she said next never left me. ‘Well, ok, Grace, I guess that’s what you’re worth’. I realised that while I enjoyed knocking about with my friends I hated failure more than I liked that. That was the change.”

Today, Ononiwu is the chief crown prosecutor for the West Midlands, and has been honoured by the Queen with an OBE.

She was last year named one of the country’s most powerful black Britons. In 2005, when she was appointed chief prosecutor for Northamptonshire, she was the first African Caribbean person to be appointed to that senior position in the history of the CPS.

SUCCESS

That face-burning day at the family home in east London is a far cry from the success she has achieved since, but was the first challenge she had to graciously rise above.

The failure itself was an act of rebellion of sorts. As a young girl, Ononiwu used to watch the television show Crown Court. “I was enamoured with the wigs and the gowns and I thought, ‘wow – I’d love to do that one day’,” she recalls. But when she shared her ambition to become a lawyer on careers day, she was scoffed at by a teacher who told to consider becoming a legal secretary.

Ononiwu, the middle child of five siblings, explains: “That would’ve been fine if that’s what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t. I really felt that if they said I couldn’t do it – and my parents always told me to listen to the teacher – that meant I couldn’t, so I rebelled in my own way by not applying myself.

“I had to get over the fact that I failed my O-levels the first time around. It was my fault. I didn’t study and I didn’t study because I thought there was no point. When I did retake them, the focus wasn’t so much to be a lawyer, it was about getting the right number of O-levels and A-levels and then starting that journey.”

Ononiwu secured a place at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire, to study law before going on to the College of Law in Guildford which she described as “the first taste of what the future might look like in terms of the cadre of people that I was likely to be working with”.

CONNECTIONS

She continues: “I was in an environment that was completely alien to me…I was amongst people who had connections, their fathers owned firms, and I didn’t have that. There was a great deal of adjustment that needed to happen.”

Ononiwu is happy to admit that she was overwhelmed and at times felt insecure as anyone might in her shoes.

But it is her humble background and an ability to relate to people that she believes make her good at her job.

She explains: “I’m an ordinary person…I think certainly with the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) that is something for the public to understand. There are real people here, with real concerns for them, the public, and really striving to do the best thing, the right thing.”

Just starting her career required huge personal determination. Ononiwu sent 70 applications to law firms in the hope one would take her on as part of required hands-on training, referred to as ‘articles’.

She received only one reply.

“You see my name, you know who I am,” said Ononiwu, with a knowing smile. “But instead of worrying about the 69 I didn’t hear from, I thought I’ll take that one chance.”

COMMITMENT

The firm that had shown an interest was in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and required Ononiwu to commute two-and-half hours each way for more than two years, but it was a commitment she was prepared to make.

In 1991, she was encouraged by her mentors to spend some time at the CPS and learn how to prosecute cases and not just defend clients. She thought she’d be back in a few years, but never returned after falling in love with the job.

Explaining her choice, she says: “I believe very firmly in justice and upholding the rule of law. Every person has a right to a defence and my colleagues in criminal defence do a valuable job but I think from my perspective it’s about keeping victims safe, keeping the public safe. Each job is valuable in its own way, but we have a much greater platform to do more good for more people.”

Among law circles, criminal law is often one of the lowest paid areas of the industry and sometimes one of the most thankless, but Ononiwu said she simply followed her passion.

She adds: “In life, everyone makes a choice and one of the things that helped me and kept me grounded in what I do is that I have a passion for it.

“So for some, it might be about the money. For some, it might be the gratification of helping someone. The decisions we make on a day-to-day basis impact on a person’s liberty, safety, their reputation. These are things that are absolutely crucial and they matter. I’m sure if you speak to many of my colleagues, they will say just knowing that you got justice for a victim, or kept a child safe, or just knowing that confidence in what we do has increased, matters.”

Ononiwu recognises that her position makes her a role model, but says there was no grand plan or road map when she started her first steps into a career in law.

OPPORTUNITY

She explains: “When I started my articles, I never thought I’d get to the end of it and qualify because it had taken me 70 applications to get that one opportunity. When I became a prosecutor that was a great accomplishment because there weren’t many BAME (black and ethnic minority) lawyers in the service at the time.

“Then I thought it would be good to one day run my own team, and if I could have retired having done that, I’d be delighted. But fairly soon I was running my own team and I had years before retirement, so I started to look for my next goal.

“Sometimes we make these things more complicated than they need to be. I’m a mother now to a 15-year-old girl and I try not to pressure her while guiding and nurturing her so she can find her own way and set realistic goals, not setting yourself up to fail.”

Ononiwu is relieved to report that she has certainly proven her worth not only to herself, but to her very proud mother, who always asks: ‘what’s next?’”

Offering some words of encouragement to any young person whose desire might be to follow in her footsteps, she adds: “I spent many years telling myself I couldn’t do things. I wasted my time. Because I could do them, and so can they.”

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