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‘You’re an idiot — no black person ever ran a chambers’

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By Catherine Baksi

The chief operating officer at Cloisters, not to mention West End actor and charity chief, tells Catherine Baksi how he defied a friend’s advice to run a renowned set in London.

Cherno Jagne planned to become a solicitor but turned down a training contract as exposure to practice at the Bar developed an ambition he was reluctant to admit —he enjoyed administration and wanted to run a chambers.

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Getting over his “weird embarrassment”, he told a friend, who replied: “You’re an idiot — no black person ever ran a chambers”.

But discipline, skill and work ethic have led Jagne to become one of the youngest people in the country — and the first black person — to run a set. A year ago Jagne, 37, took up the role as chief operating Cloisters, equivalent to a chief executive or director, at Cloisters, one of the most renowned chambers in London.

Jagne has combined that rise through the legal ranks with a part-time acting career, starring in the West End production of the critically acclaimed play, The Jungle, which portrayed the lives of characters living in the infamous refugee camp in Calais.

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Born in Gambia in 1985, his parents moved to London when he was three. The family lived in pregentrified Hackney, which then was one of the most deprived areas in the capital. His father died when he was young, leaving his mother to bring up Jagne and his older sister.

While he was good academically, Jagne was “stubborn” and his mother became concerned that in the rough local environment he would end up in the “wrong crowd”. She took her two teenage children for a “holiday” to Gambia with the plan, not disclosed to the children, to enrol them in school and come home alone — something Jagne says is common among African parents.

They went to Marina International High School, one of the best private schools in Gambia, attended by the children of diplomats and the wealthiest people in the country. Jagne and his sister lived on a compound where they were looked after by their grandparents and other relatives, while their mother was working in the UK at Burger King and the Post OIce to pay the school fees.

He pays tribute to his mother, saying: “It shows the superhero model of single parents who will do anything for their children”.

Moving from London to Gambia, where he did homework by candlelight when the electricity went off, was a “complete shock to the system” and the “most formative period of my life”, giving Jagne the work ethic and discipline he has now.

As a British citizen, he also felt fortunate, knowing that he would be able to return to the UK — which he did, moving to Birmingham for his A-levels.

Inspired to become a lawyer by injustices he saw in Gambia, Jagne studied law at Wolverhampton University before working for a year at Cineworld to fund a master’s degree in intellectual property law at Queen Mary, University of London.

Plans to live in London with an uncle went awry a week before the start of term. Undeterred, Jagne hatched a plan to commute from Birmingham three days a week on the £1 National Express “funfair” ticket. Leaving home at 4.30am and continuing his cinema job, he never missed a lecture or arrived late.

Completing his MA, Jange applied for a one-month internship at London’s Doughty Street Chambers, where managers were impressed by his commutes to university and gave him a job.

His lengthy commute increased to five days a week and his contract was extended. Still working at the cinema at weekends, the strain caused him to develop alopecia. He reduced his hours, moved to London, continued his cinema job and did research for barristers, working on cases involving the MPs’ expenses and phone-hacking scandals and Julian Assange.

After four years, he got a paralegal job at the law firm Irwin Mitchell and was later oaered a training contract by another firm, which he turned down to pursue his chambers management plan.

Two weeks later, Doughty Street contacted him. The set was restructuring and needed a “head of operations”. Recognising his problem-solving skills, they gave him the job.

During this time Jagne pursued his other passion, taking courses at the Identity School of Acting, a part-time drama school attended by John Boyega and Letitia Wright, and The Actors’ Temple.

In 2018 he was asked to play Tarek and understudy the two lead roles in the West End production of The Jungle, having unsuccessfully auditioned for the debut run at the Young Vic. Anxious about telling his boss, who was unaware of his double life, Jagne recalls: “I was shaking. I thought he’d fire me and hate me.”

Amazed at how Jagne had juggled acting with his job, his boss agreed to his plan to continue working at Doughty Street from 7am to 4pm, enabling him to do 160 shows with a month of unpaid leave to rehearse.

After the coronavirus pandemic, when Jagne managed the set’s operations remotely, he handed in his notice. He took a two-month sabbatical, which was the “best decision I’ve ever made”, giving him “clarity” and “time with my wife”.

To gain experience outside law, he got a job running the refugee charity, Choose Love, before getting his present position at Cloisters.

“Because I grew up in Gambia, it wasn’t bizarre to see a black person leading an organisation,” says Jagne, who did not see his working-class background as a hindrance to his career either. “I knew it would be a challenge, but I put stronger emphasis on my attributes, skill and what I could deliver in terms of service,” he says, expressing gratitude to those who “took a chance on me when they did”.

Jagne, who lives in London with his podiatrist wife, is a self-confessed workaholic who goes to the gym and runs every day. But his “perfect way to escape” is going to the cinema alone.

Source: The Times

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