At The Attic, we are always interested to talk to people doing interesting things in the legal industry, so we were delighted to have the chance to catch up with Gavin Sheridan, former investigative journalist, now CEO of Vizlegal. Having previously worked in a social media startups, he became interested in law and felt that there were opportunities to use technology to improve things for people working in the law. The result was Vizlegal, a legal search and tracking platform.
Can you tell us about your background and what brought you to legal tech?
I’m Gavin Sheridan, the co-founder and CEO of Vizlegal. My background is in investigative journalism – freedom of information (FOI) and open source intelligence, in particular. I previously worked as Director of Innovation at a social media startup called Storyful that specialised in open source investigations, and which was later acquired by News Corp.
I became interested in law via litigation involving my FOI and Aarhus requests for information to Irish public bodies. I felt that there were opportunities to improve the state of the art when it comes to legal information, litigation, and mobile accessibility and open data.
How would you define the scope of Vizlegal?
Our scope is global but we’ve started with Ireland, the EU and the UK. We think there’s an enormous amount of data out there to acquire and organise.
The intention of Vizlegal is to “empower lawyers by indexing and graphing the relationships of all the world’s legal information.”
So why do lawyers need Vizlegal? What benefit does that bring to a firm or the everyday working life of a lawyer?
Lawyers use us every day for various reasons – but mainly it boils down to two main things: searching for things, and keeping up to date with things.
This can include knowing
what stage your case is at,
when the other side has filed something, or
when a new judgment is issued that contains a certain phrase you are interested in.
For others, it’s being able to quickly look up a court rule or practice direction on your phone. And for others, it’s digging through tribunal or court decisions to find a key one.
What is it about the intersection between law and technology that is interesting to you?
I come from a technical background, so I tend to take an interest in the application of technology to any field. Law is interesting because it has been relatively unaffected thus far by digital transformation.
Do you think it helps to come from a non-legal background?
It certainly gives you a different perspective. As a non-practitioner, I tend to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes, which may give some advantage in identifying inefficient processes that could maybe be improved.
In every industry, including journalism, there are many things done because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, and law is no different. We think that there are many, many opportunities to make the lives of our customers (practitioners!), both less stressful and more productive.
Access to data is central to access to justice – does that resonate with you?
Yes it does. I’m an FOI advocate, litigator and trainer and have spent a decade in the access to information domain. I believe that without adequate access to legal data or information, access to justice is hindered for everyone.
How is Vizlegal changing the legal space in Ireland and legal outcomes?
We are less focused on legal outcomes than we are on improving the lives of our customers. If we can reduce anxiety, increase productivity, make peoples’ lives easier and happier, then we think that we are achieving our goals. We think that these things lead to second-order benefits in the system overall and that’s a good thing.
How will technology affect the legal landscape?
We are in an information-heavy industry and that information needs to be organised and structured. We think that technology will mean that more lawyers can do more things with less time and more productively. The machines can focus on the mundane tasks, while the humans apply their skills in the areas where human brains are best.
What key skills do you think lawyers need today (particularly in terms of tech)?
Understanding product development and customer empathy is an interesting area – it is a skill that many other industries are focussed on. Also, understanding that data is not scary and that spreadsheets are great! (Journalists are going through the same thing!)
What key skills, particularly tech, should tomorrow’s lawyers be developing?
Continued focus on customer happiness and success is important – and learning new ways to achieve the same goal, but better is also great. I think that the keyword is adaptable.
What’s next for Vizlegal?
We continue to add to our coverage and we continue to add tools to make the life of a practitioner easier: including better court date management, better alerts, better and faster ways to search and improvements in managing lots of these things on mobile devices.
Always the goal is: how can we reduce the number of steps, clicks or taps to achieve the job that is needed to be done by our customers. We will expand into the UK market this year and then, to the rest of the world.
Any last words to add?
We enjoy buying coffee for lawyers so we can listen to their problems – be it using court forms, rules, badly built government websites or anything else. Our door is always open.
That lawyers have an ongoing love affair with words, nobody can argue with that. A significant part of a lawyer’s career is spent writing text, structuring arguments, analysing documents and being a stickler for punctuation. What most people are unaware of, is that many lawyers have an intense creative life back at home. At Obelisk Support, our consultants are also vegan gurus, rugby coaches, interior designers, DJs or novelists. Every year for World Book Day, we feature lawyers who are authors on The Attic. In the past, we’ve interviewed a space lawyer turned science fiction author and a sole practitioner turned romance novelist. This year’s selection of female lawyers turned authors will make you rethink your idea of lawyers.
#1 Caro Fraser
A former commercial and maritime lawyer, Caro Fraser is known for unbeatable plotting and characterisation in her novels. Whether she writes about post-WW2 family picnics or the lives and loves of a group of London barristers, she has a knack for immersing her readers in a different world.
While her Caper Court series will appeal to lawyers who wish to read about other lawyers (barristers, really), armchair time-travellers will revel in her recent Summer House series featuring the 1930s English upper class in a country house. She wrote romance novels that she described as “romantic fiction for the thinking woman”, certainly another way to use legal brains for sheer entertainment value.
#2 Meg Gardiner
Celebrated crime writer Meg Gardiner read law at Stanford Law School and after graduation, practiced law in Los Angeles before returning to Santa Barbara where she taught writing and legal research at the University of California. Similar to John Grisham, Meg Gardiner writes legal thrillers that tend to be well received and go on to be bestsellers. She gives readers what they want, aka page-turning thrillers with serial killers as a bonus (inspired by real baddies, which adds to the thrills).
Did you know that she relocated to the United Kingdom with her family in the 1990s? It was during her free time in the UK that she wrote her first novel, completing a task that she had set for herself over 10 years earlier. Asked why she likes to write thrillers, her answer was: “Thrillers throw characters in the soup. They demand that characters dig deep and fight back – or die trying. I love writing stories in which people have to do that.”
#3 Marjorie M. Liu
Not all lawyer-authors write law-inspired books that take place in real life. Marjorie M. Liu is best known for writing comic books for Marvel, epic fantasies whose characters may live in a universe wracked by a race war and inhabited by violent witch-nuns, vicious deities, and innocent civilians. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill legal book.
Of course, her career could have panned out very differently. Liu read law at the University of Wisconsin where she received her J.D. and although she loved law school and her internship at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, she was working at a law firm when the sale of her first book convinced her to switch careers. Coming from an immigrant family, she was torn about walking away from the law into an uncertain writing career, but determined to make it. She is now a New York Times bestselling and award-winning writer best known for her fiction (paranormal romance and urban fantasy novels) and comic books. Teaching comic book writing at MIT, she redefines strong female characters in fantasy worlds. If you want to see her, you might get lucky at ComicCon events around the world.
#4 Theodora Goss
Harvard Law School alumna, Theodora Goss did not enjoy being a lawyer, revising corporate contracts until 2 a.m. while deeply in educational debt. Understandably, as soon as she paid back her law school loans, she turned her focus to one true love, literature. Now a creative writing teacher, she is best known for her short stories and poetry, as well as for her Gothic fiction novels.
In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a mashup based on of some of literature’s most famous horror and sci-fi classics, she writes about creating female monsters from a Victorian science fiction point of view. In Red as Blood and White as Stone, she writes a compelling, somewhat dark (but not too dark) fairy tale, interwoven with pre-, during-, and post-WW2 interludes. If you enjoy blending several different genre types, historical, fantasy and magical realism, you will definitely enjoy Goss’ books.
#5 Lisa Scottoline
A former corporate lawyer, Lisa Scottoline decided to change careers for family reasons. The birth of her daughter pushed her to give up her career in the law firm and become a full-time writer, a choice that shaped her life and opened new horizons. Now a New York Times bestselling author and Edgar award-winning author of 32 novels, she captivates readers with popular fiction whose characters are warm and down-to-earth.
Having sold over nine million copies in the United States, she is recognised internationally as her work has been published in 23 countries. Besides publishing like clockwork at the rate of a book per year, Scottoline is the president of the Mystery Writers of America and writes, together with her daughter Francesca Serritella (yes, the same one – and also a bestselling author), a weekly column on the Philadelphia Enquirer titled “Chick Wit”.
#6 Melinda Snodgrass
Trekkies would not be able to boldly go where no Spock or Scottie precursors have been before without Melinda Snodgrass. A celebrated science fiction writer, Snodgrass wrote several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation while serving as the series’ story editor during its second and third seasons. She also contributed scripts for the series Odyssey 5,The Outer Limits, SeaQuest DSV, and Reasonable Doubts; she was also a consulting producer on The Profiler.
Where does law fit in all this outer space lark? After studying opera at the Conservatory of Vienna in Austria, Snodgrass went on to read law at University of New Mexico School of Law. She practised law for three years, first at Sandia National Laboratories, then at a corporate law firm, but discovered that while she loved the law she wasn’t terribly fond of lawyers. So she began writing. In addition to her successful writing career, she is the executive producer on the upcoming Wild Cards shows being developed for Hulu, a series she started writing with George R. R. Martin in 1984.
Here at The Attic we are always interested to meet lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs and are delighted to have had to opportunity to talk to Sarah-Jane Butler, now CEO of Parental Choice. Having qualified at a Magic Circle law firm and worked for over 10 years in the City, she set up her own business in 2011 to help working parents achieve a better work – life balance whilst handling the challenges of juggling a career and childcare responsibilities.
Sarah-Jane, tell us a little about your background
I studied French and German at university and then converted to law, doing my training contract at a Magic Circle law firm. I qualified into capital markets and securitisation, and spent over 10 years in the UK and overseas before settling down and getting married in the UK. I was happily on the partnership track and loved the buzz of fast-moving city life. The work I did was intense but enjoyable, more or less. In 2011, I had my second child and at that point the work- life balance became very difficult and I took some time out to assess what I wanted as a mother and as a lawyer.
What does Parental Choice do and why did you set it up?
In 2011, I was reliably informed by a partner in the firm I was working for that if I was serious about my career and trying to combine that with children, I would need a day and night nanny, and perhaps a creche for my children at the weekends.
It was clear that the firm I was working for, whilst they were keen to have me back, were not set-up to offer any support or advice to enable me to do this and I was expected to manage by myself. The stress was hard to deal with. I realised at that point that parents needed to be supported, both mentally and practically, by their employers. To expect employees to be as productive as possible, whilst also managing a home life and the stresses that everyday life imposes without providing support was unrealistic. There is a reason why so many employees, women in particular, look for a new career direction after having children.
Parental Choice was born out of recognising this need. I wanted to help other working parents with the minefield of childcare options, and offer them ongoing support through wellbeing talks dedicated to parents and the issues they may face – child anxiety, preparing them for school, dealing with technology or sleep techniques.
The business started trading in 2011, at the same time as I retrained as an employment lawyer. On the one hand, I wanted to help parents find the care they needed for their children, whether that was a nursery, nanny, childminder or school, and if they employed a nanny make sure they had the payroll and legal support they needed to become an employer. On the other hand, I wanted to offer these services as a benefit to employees through their employers, thus showing that employers recognised the stress often caused by trying to find the right childcare to fit working hours.
What are the services now offered by Parental Choice?
Parental Choice has grown over the past nine years. It now provides practical support services for businesses and families in relation to sourcing both reliable childcare and elements of elder care. In addition, it offers employers with wellbeing programmes for its working parents and carers with access to experts experienced in a range of areas such as mental health, education and parenting. Its vision is to be an international trusted wellbeing provider making a difference to the lives of our clients’ employees and private clients. In fact, we also have an established EMEA practice offering help to families who are relocating within EMEA find childcare or education options.
Our key values are Care, Expertise, Empathy and Diligence so whether we are dealing with employers, big or small, or individual parents, we try our best to make sure they get the right information and support for them.
How do you feel your legal background has helped you in business?
Of course, my background as a city lawyer means I have a good understanding of business and am very commercially aware. More importantly, I feel that an appreciation of customer service has been instilled in me through my practice as a lawyer, which has led to me building my business with customers at the centre of what we do.
What advice would you offer to anybody thinking of setting up a business?
Be prepared to do everything! As a law firm fee earner, I had lots of people around to help. Now I have to wear a lot of hats, including IT support and HR, but I have also been known to vacuum, run a duster over my desk and do the photocopying. I would also recommend retraining and being relevant. I was a City lawyer, so when setting up Parental Choice, I recognised that offering legal advice to parents who are employing nannies would be beneficial. With this goal in mind, I retrained in employment law.
Find a niche, get relevant and stay relevant.
What about that work – life balance, have you achieved this?
In a manner of speaking, yes. I probably work as hard as I did before but this time it is on my terms. I work around my family rather than trying to fit them around my work.
I have a great management team, who are also all mothers, who recognise the importance of work – life balance for themselves and their teams as well. The company itself has won several awards for its flexible working strategy (for example: working hours are 9-3) and its focus on working parents, including being named in 2015 by Working Families as one of the top ten SMEs to work for. In 2019, I was named as one of “We Are The City’s Rising Star Champions” for making a difference to the workplace for female employees. These awards are important as it shows that Parental Choice practices what it preaches and benefits its own employees as it aims to help its clients help its employees.
One last word from you, Sarah-Jane
I really believe in work/life balance and achieving the best solution for you. I try and practice this within my business and encourage my team to be flexible and put their lives first. Childcare traditionally is inflexible so I would actively encourage employers to give consideration to flexible working requests and look at what else they can do to support their employees practically and emotionally; the fact that Obelisk Support exists and helps lawyers to work flexibly is such an amazing step forward.
Are you up to speed with the new routes into the legal profession? It used to be that apprenticeship opportunities were for college leavers and covered only paralegal roles, but things have changed. Increasing numbers of businesses across the UK have been launching apprenticeships, particularly since the government introduced a levy in 2017 for any employer in the UK with an annual pay bill in excess of £3 million that could only be spent on training apprentices.
What are legal apprenticeships?
In the legal sector, this has led to many law firms launching Law Society- and SRA-approved ‘trailblazer’ apprenticeship schemes. This means it is now possible to join a top law firm in a potential fee-earning role without having first gone to university. Effectively, legal apprenticeships provide opportunities to gain on-the-job experience whilst studying to qualify as a legal professional.
Law apprentices gain professional legal qualifications, which can be right up to solicitor level, alongside paid employment in a law firm. For qualification as a solicitor, this means learning alongside earning on the job for six years.
Legal apprenticeships – Kennedys case study
Apprentices typically spend one day a week studying and the remaining time working in much the same way as a paralegal or trainee would. “I spend my Mondays studying at BPP University and the remaining four days of the week working in the office. During the week, I attend training events and courses, but the majority of learning is done ‘on the job’ and as you progress through your role,” explains Caitlin, a Solicitor Apprentice in Kennedys’ Cambridge office.
Kennedys were one of the first law firms in the UK to offer a legal apprenticeship and are now in their seventh year with their legal apprenticeship programme moving from strength to strength. In 2019, Kennedys won Best Degree Apprenticeship at the 2019 School Leaver Awards, making it their third award in three years. With over 60 apprentices across their offices, Kennedys actively recruits from schools and colleges, welcoming people from the age of 18.
Hannah Worsfold, the HR Manager responsible for Trainees and Apprentices at Kennedys, was clear that whilst the firm does benefit from the apprentice levy, there is another real benefit to offering an alternative route to qualification via an apprenticeship. “It allows Kennedys to reach people from a much wider range of backgrounds who more accurately represent the diversity of our client base. Kennedys has a strong focus on legal innovation and welcome ideas from all levels of the firm and a more diverse workforce brings a variety of perspectives and ideas.
“We believe our apprentices are the talent pipeline for Kennedys and offering an alternative route to qualification provides an opportunity for young people to earn whilst they learn.
“I believe this is a driver for young people who do not wish to take the university route and incur student debt but would rather enter the workplace at the earliest opportunity. This is reflected in our application numbers, as we usually receive circa 600 applications across all of our offices”.
Ross Bell, a Senior Associate at Kennedys who is also an Apprentice Supervisor, was equally positive about the benefits of employing apprentices. “Apprentices are an important part of Kennedys’ future and they offer advantages over traditional recruitment of litigation assistants and lawyers.
“Apprentices – compared to either litigation assistants or trainee solicitors – usually have no legal or working background/are starting from scratch. They therefore require an intense level of training and supervision to ensure learning in a swift directed fashion but their progress can be remarkable and I have enjoyed working with apprentices who performed exceptionally in their roles having been provided with responsibility from day 1.”
Legal apprenticeship – Cartmell Shepherd case study
This is echoed by Holly Moxon, a solicitor apprentice halfway through her second year of the apprenticeship with Cumbrian firm Cartmell Shepherd. She notes, “the law is often different in practice and theory, so being able to learn both at the same time has been very beneficial.
“The skills and tips that you pick up in the office on a daily basis are incomparable to what you can learn reading from a textbook”.
In Cartmell Shepherd’s case, an apprentice was not something they had necessarily been seeking, with the proposal driven by then 20-year-old Moxon.
Moxon originally had a place at university to study law, but soon realised that the traditional university route was not for her. Still wishing to qualify as a lawyer, she began working at Cartmell Shepherd in an administrative role before making the apprenticeship proposal to her bosses.
Peter Stafford, managing partner at the UK 200 Group legal firm, said: “We were impressed by Holly’s initiative when she brought the proposal to us.
“Solicitor apprenticeships have until now mainly been provided by larger city firms, but we could see no reason why it shouldn’t be something we offered here at Cartmell Shepherd.
“Holly has been a great addition to our team and has worked hard to complete her first year of study.
“We’re passionate about investing in high-quality training and development for all of our staff, along with recruiting local people with talent and potential.
“The apprenticeship route serves both of those criteria very well, so this is certainly something we would consider again in the future.”
Adoption of legal apprenticeships by the legal industry
The legal industry still has a long way to go in terms of widening access to the profession. The number of firms and in-house legal teams offering apprenticeships is growing but there are notable absences in the top firms, and where apprenticeships are offered, the number of positions on offer is far fewer than trainee positions.
Apprenticeships are on offer in Magic Circle firms, but not to qualify as a solicitor, with Linklaters, Freshfields and Clifford Chance offering paralegal and legal project management options. Clifford Chance and Slaughter & May both expressed their decision to maintain solely training lawyers using the traditional training contract method when the option for solicitor apprentices was first introduced in 2016.
Solicitor apprenticeships are more widely on offer in the Silver Circle and other Legal200 and Legal500 firms. Firms such as Mishcon de Reya, CMS, Eversheds Sutherland, Dentons, Irwin Mitchell, Pinsent Masons, Withers and Addleshaw Goddard, to name but a few, all offer solicitor apprenticeships.
There is no central database of all apprenticeships but a few of the key firms are listed here. As with training contract applications, it is often a matter of searching individual firms in which you have an interest and determining what opportunities are on offer.
How will the introduction of the SQE change things?
The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in 2021 will also apply to apprentices, with the apprentice providers we spoke to not envisioning this will affect the numbers applying.
Interestingly, Carol Fish, Director at Cartmell Shepherd, observed that students qualifying by the more traditional route (university, law school and a training contract) “will not have the opportunity to have the in-depth experience on the job that an apprentice will have had.”
Given apprentices will have had six years client-facing experience by the time they sit SQE2, compared to a more traditional two, could solicitor apprentices be actually better placed to successfully pass the SQE? We will watch this space with interest.
At present legal apprenticeships are for those who want to qualify as solicitors, as well as non-qualified paralegals. The Bar Standards Board has been consulting on opening up new pathways to qualification outside sitting the bar vocational course, and in 2019 approved a new training regime for barristers opening up four routes to qualification, which includes an apprenticeship. These new pathways come into effect in September 2020.
So far as in-house apprentice positions, that is harder to gauge as there is no central database of companies and businesses offering legal apprenticeships, outside of the government’s list of places actively recruiting. We know that councils, including Bristol City Council, employ solicitor apprenticeships as well as the in-house legal teams of FTSE 100 companies such as ITV.
With university fees continuing to be high and job prospects for graduates becoming more competitive, it is expected that competition for apprenticeship places will increase. Once the current cohorts have successfully qualified as solicitors in 2024 and onwards, no doubt more firms will take up the mantle.
What do you think about legal apprenticeships? Does your firm offer them? Are you an apprentice yourself? Let us know your thoughts @ObeliskSupport.
On Monday 23rd December 2019, we celebrate the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which paved the way for women to become professionals in the UK. The First 100 Years project is the national campaign celebrating this centenary, focusing primarily on the progression of women in the legal profession since 1919. First 100 Years has been celebrating this centenary throughout this year in many ways, one of its latest being the newly released FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law, which is the first book of its kind telling the story of women in law throughout the last 100 years in an accessible and informative way.
About First 100 Years
Set up in 2015 by Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith, the First 100 Years project has been building an archive to tell the previously untold stories of the pioneering women who made history in the legal profession. From the first female solicitor, Madge Easton Anderson, in 1920, to Elizabeth Lane, who was the first woman appointed a County Court judge and then the first woman appointed to the High Court, right up to the present day with the first female President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, and future firsts, like future president of the Law Society I. Stephanie Boyce, who will become the first President from a BAME background in 2021.
First 100 Years is a multimedia project, telling the history of women in law in many ways to ensure as many people as possible can learn about the stories in a way that suits them; from the filmed biographical interviews, a podcast series, a unique music commission to an artwork commission for the Supreme Court, and now a book, there is something for everyone to learn about the inspiring female pioneers that shaped the profession today. The purpose of the project is not just to understand the history of women in law, but to use this to provide the context for promoting further gender equality in the profession, by assessing progress so far and how far we still have to go.
FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law seeks to capture the lives of female pioneers in law, past and present, to ensure we do not lose the stories of these incredible women. It does so following the format of the First 100 Years timeline, podcast series and exhibition, decade-by-decade, delving into the broader themes of each decade, including the wider historical context that impacted women’s place in the profession. It also goes further into the many stories of the individual women including biographical information and both archival and modern day pictures of the pioneers, making it a highly informative and entertaining read.
Lucinda Acland, a long-term volunteer on the project and the host of the First 100 Years Podcast series, and Katie Broomfield, an academic in the field and a champion of the project, have brought together archival material, material produced by the project through the video and podcast interviews and their own research to create this book. FIRST is the product of over five years’ worth of efforts in building the archive, which was not an easy task.
The project’s founder, Dana Denis-Smith, often refers to the fact that what she thought would be a history project, turned into an “archaeological dig” to unearth the stories because women’s achievements often go unacknowledged and their stories rarely told, so finding out many of the stories took a lot of work. The writing of the book itself, however, was done in a very short amount of time. It was originally not intended to be released until 2020 but due to an incredible amount of interest, the task was brought forward and the authors got it done in a matter of months in time for the centenary celebrations, and we are so pleased they did as it has been a huge success!
There was a hotly contested debate around the title, from the authors, publishers, editors, proof readers and the First 100 Years team. Being the first of its kind, it was important to ensure the title hit the correct tone. It had to transcend the purely feminist literature section of a library and be a credible history book in its own right, irrespective of the fact it featured women. In the end, it was actually The Attic editor Laure Latham who came up with the simple yet effective title: FIRST: 100 Years of Women in Law. It captured the essence of the project, with the name of the project in the title, but also the simple word “FIRST” alluded to the women featured as “firsts” in various ways, and is also signifying that there are many achievements for women in law to come – this is just the beginning.
Why is FIRST so important?
Ultimately, women need to understand their history to be able to place themselves within it. It has become apparent to the First 100 Years team over the past few years that, understandably, people could not accurately estimate how long women have been in the profession, or have known the many anecdotes that have since been shared, such as not being allowed to wear trousers in the courtroom, having no female lavatory facilities or women frequently being asked to make the tea in meetings. It is only by understanding the background can we both recognise how far we have come and make sure we fight to ensure history does not repeat itself. As Baroness Kennedy says in her testimonial of the book, “this is a vital and stunning piece of our history…the absence of women in the system of law was a gross impediment to justice” and we must ensure women’s place in the profession is cemented.
The Next 100 Years
As The Secret Barrister says in their testimonial of the book, “[FIRST] offers not only a unique celebration of the progress achieved by women in the law, but a vital reminder of how much work there still is to do”. Despite the progress of the last 100 years, there are still barriers to be broken and progress to be made, and there are plenty of plans in the works for The Next Hundred Years! You can get involved by following us on social media @First100Years and @Next100Years_, checking out all the many resources we have on our website www.first100years.org.uk and contacting us at [email protected].
To celebrate Black History Month, The Attic interviews Landé Belo, senior counsel and employment lawyer. In this profile, she discusses her professional legal career and how she became a theatre director to drive positive change in the arts community.
My career started firmly in employment law…
I am a City-trained employment lawyer, starting my career in 1997 and after seven years of private practice, went in-house — first with BP, then working with other global brands. In 2006, I set up one of the first virtual law practices; at the time, people were skeptical about the viability of such a model in the legal profession, but it did and today, there are various practices offering outsourced legal services. I subsequently joined an IT/IP practice in London, working remotely from France and from then on, became a consultant, also signing up with providers like Obelisk.
As a consultant, I supported various organisations on cross border projects, managed multi-disciplinary teams and have managed to construct a niche career as a specialist advisor offering tailored legal advice within a global framework and designing and implementing sustainable employee and labour relations solutions. The truth is, most people think of employment lawyers as lawyers to clean up the mess or lawyers to call when things go wrong. But there is a lot more in our bag of tricks as employment lawyers, which is why driving a company’s business strategy is very important. Fundamentally, implementing good people processes makes people’s lives easier but as human beings, we don’t naturally like change. We need time to mourn old processes in order to adapt to new ones. We need that transition and this is an area where lots of companies become unstuck because they think that people will adapt to new processes without support. It’s not true. However efficient and transformative an initiative is, it is important that the change management aspect is handled with care. This is where I come in: I have built up and managed teams which typically comprise labour lawyers and employee relations specialists and positioned ourselves as in-sourced service providers, and serve as invaluable business partners. .
For instance, my last role involved building and developing a global centre of excellence, creating high value roles and establishing a global team of 20 labour lawyers and employee relations specialists, managing 60 markets and an employee population of over 14,000. Our goal was to drive employee engagement and design sustainable employee labour relations. Over the last two years, we shared best practice, reduced the duplication of efforts, developed analytical capabilities of the team and ultimately reduced external legal spend.
At some point, my career somehow found its way into the arts…
Outside the law, I have found other ways to channel my energy. Indeed when you take a lot on as a lawyer, it is a real challenge to balance work and personal life, but if you are determined, you can also take other things on and do them to high standards. In my case, it’s theatre.
I started off getting involved with amateur theatre groups both in France and the UK over 10 years ago. After a few years, I landed with a theatre company that felt like home. I’m now part of Tower Theatre: this is a theatre company that is run by volunteers,. Like our other competitors in this blurred space of unpaid and non-professional theatre, we don’t like being labeled as an amateur theatre company, as the assumption (rather unfairly) is that your work will be sub-standard. Although we are not paid for the work, our productions are done to a very high and professional standard and indeed we have many professionals involved, whether backstage or onstage, donating their valuable time and expertise. The important thing is, we are all doing it for the sheer love of theatre and if you think about the true meaning of the word “amateur” it means someone who is devoted or passionate about something; therefore, it does not have to mean poor quality theatre.
After a few years of being an itinerant company, Tower Theatre finally moved into our own home again and opened our own theatre in Stoke Newington in 2018. In my three years with Tower Theatre, I’ve been privileged to play some wonderful parts on stage. However, I have found that there has not been much in the way of diversity in theatre. The real turning point for me was my first play with Tower Theatre, when I played a part that was specifically written for a black woman (Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris). There is something very rewarding and validating about playing a character that shares your identifying characteristics. Apart from anything else, the discussion can be on whether your performance was credible or not as opposed to whether the director was justified in experimenting with colour blind casting. I do applaud directors that are open to so-called colour blind and gender blind casting (without that, I would not have been cast in many plays and yes, what’s wrong with having a female Hamlet and so on); however, I do not think this is a solution to bringing more diversity to theatre. There is so much wonderful material out there that depicts the lives of black people, so why not just promote those plays? Instead of re-writing an Ackybourn play (which traditionally depicts white, middle class people) by replacing it with a black character – and don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of Ackybourn, why not just simply put on a play which already has black people in it?
Well, this was the very argument I took to the Tower Theatre Artistic Director who wholeheartedly agreed with me and encouraged me to direct a play that had black characters in it. Up to that point, directing was not really something that I would have considered, but I realised that I couldn’t just sit and wait for someone to do this for me, if I wanted to drive change, I would have to get up and take action myself. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of directing. I found that my legal and management skills really came handy: the key is putting together a strong team and delegating to them. You have to trust in your ability as a leader that you have surrounded yourself with capable and talented people who know what they’re doing and you let them get on with it. I have never been a micro manager and the same went with directing a play. As a director, I had to be one of the early disruptors – the goal, simply to drive change.
I put on a play in June 2019 with an all-black cast called “Fix Up” written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Artistic Director of the Young Vic. It was the first play with an all-black cast in Tower Theatre’s over 80 year history and I’m proud to say, it was one of our best-selling plays of 2018-1019 and was critically acclaimed. The success of Fix Up showed that not only is the material out there, the talent is out there and so are the audiences – these were all reasons given in the past for not pursuing such plays. What made Fix Up so relatable is that it explored universal themes that would resonate with anyone of any ethnicity and just happened to choose as its subject matter a handful of disparate individuals of Caribbean origin, based in London.
Following on from the success of Fix Up, I was appointed as an Assistant Artistic Director at Tower Theatre. The Artistic Team is responsible for putting together our lineup of plays for the coming seasons. We are currently working on our Autumn 2020 season. We put on about 18 plays a year at Tower Theatre, across three seasons. My ambition is to ensure that we have at least one play per season which features black characters; therefore three plays a year. I am excited to say that I’ll be back to directing in June 2020 and the play I’ll be doing has an all-female, predominantly black cast. I am sitting on hundreds of plays by black playwrights in desperate need of directors, so any aspiring directors or actors out there should please get in touch with me.
The one key thing I value most in life and work is agility
As lawyers, it’s so easy to see yourself in very reductive terms. The truth is, you can be so many different things and you have the ability to pursue multiple interests. I am a lawyer but I’m also an actress. I’m a theatre director and I attempt to play golf. There’s a lot more you can do beyond your remit and nowadays, companies are a lot more porous in terms of job descriptions. It’s a great opportunity for you to step in and see how you can add value to that company by picking up the work that falls between the cracks and using that to develop your career.
I was brought up believing that there is no barrier to what I want to do in life
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, I grew up in the UK, went to boarding school in the country and grew up in North London. I was brought up believing that it’s just up to me to decide what I want to be and this has held true. I haven’t seen anything in my adult life to make me change that view. With the right mindset, you can achieve whatever you want. Of course there will be obstacles and some face more obstacles than others but that gives you the opportunity to do something exceptional.
I have to say, Black History Month is something that only came onto my radar in recent years
It wasn’t part of my consciousness growing up, because of my education and upbringing. The values of Black History Month were already embedded into my upbringing and as an adult, I realised that it may not have been the case for everyone. Throughout my life, I had access to black culture, black history and black role models.
My utopia is that one day, Black History Month will be so mainstream that it won’t need to be a month of celebrations. It will happen naturally all year-round. We might be way off from that but that’s what I would like to see. To me, the danger of Black History Month is that people will say, we’ll just get a month but for the other 11 months of the year, we don’t need to talk about black history. At school, when I learnt about the two world wars, we didn’t really hear about the black soldiers. My grand-father was doing radio transmissions in the RAF during WW2. The UK in particular enlisted many soldiers from its colonies in Africa and Asia to fight in both wars, yet their stories are never really brought into the foreground. There is not a single black face in photographs of the liberation of France celebrations on the Champs Elysées in Paris and yet we know it’s not true. Black History Month is relevant in that it makes sure that everyone of all ethnicities has access to that history. It should not even be called black history – it’s all our shared and collective history.
My role models are…
I’ve been very fortunate and my parents have been integral to my having role models around me – my mother and aunts, in particular. Role models are important, particularly if you share characteristics with them, whether gender, ethnicity, gender orientation, because it validates the fact that it’s fine to be thinking big and you have right before you exponents who have dared to think big and were successful.
In my legal career, one book which has had a profound impact on me, which I discovered in my final year of my law degree, was “Eve Was Framed” by Helena Kennedy. This book gave me a whole new perspective on how women fit in the workplace and in society at large. This book was my bible in college. It is interesting that the issues it addressed back in the 1990s are still so relevant today.
The whole Diversity & Inclusion piece is not just a PC tick box — it also makes good business sense
Any company that focuses on targeting a specific demographic exclusively prevents itself from finding new audiences and that’s not good for business. It’s good that more and more companies are focusing on diversity and inclusion and I’ve seen initiatives to raise awareness such as mandated unconscious bias training for people managers and senior leadership; these are all steps in the right direction. However until we have C-Suite and leadership embracing such initiatives, we won’t see real change. A CEO saying “I’m going to endorse an initiative to encourage the government to include more black history into the national curriculum” or “I’m attending Gay Pride marches this month and will be spearheading initiatives at the company in support” this is the type of call to action that is required. I haven’t seen enough of that yet. Some companies are doing some great things, they are pioneers with aggressive targets of 50/50 gender balance but unless you hold people to account, we’ll keep having the same discussions. It’s important to be an activist but the change needs to come from the top.
I am passionate about two areas – health and education
In Nigeria, I support charities that work with orphanages (such as the Red Cross), but is not enough. My ambition is to continue my father’s legacy – he used to sponsor children from deprived backgrounds and educate them all the way to university and then create employment for them through informal youth training initiatives. Health is my other passion and I lost my father to cancer. In fact, at some point, most of us are touched by cancer (whether through someone we know), which is is why I support Cancer Research UK and MacMillan.
At the moment, I’d like to explore community outreach work to encourage more young people to embrace the arts and in particular, theatre. Our Stoke Newington theatre provides us with a great opportunity to create strong links with the local community and seek out local talent. Around the time of Fix Up, we hosted an ‘Evening With The Playwright’, Kwame Kwei Armah at Tower Theatre. He said that he grew up just round the corner from our new theatre and actually used to live a few streets away. He was really impressed with our theatre and saw it as a great resource for young people. He talked about his own childhood and the inspiration for the bookshop depicted in Fix Up. He said that had he not turned to the arts (and theatre in particular), he could have ended up running with gangs.
Theatre clearly can’t solve all our societal problems, but it’s certainly a start to give young people who feel alienated an opportunity to feel they are part of something.
As a lawyer, delivering a professional service, it’s important to be responsive – to clients, to colleagues. But when each distraction can take up 15-23 minutes (depending on which study you look at) to recover, dealing with each individual query on an ad hoc basis can be costly.
Here are five strategies to help.
#1 Question Time vs Quiet Time
There’s a likely chance that while part of your work involves being responsive to other people’s needs, another part of it requires you to have your brain to yourself. When we’re always available to everyone we’re never fully available to anyone – and we can end up doing everything badly.
Carving out some quiet time might involve some tactical hiding: working offline, working from home, or hiding in a meeting room from time to time; deploying a ‘do not disturb’ signal in an open office; creating ‘meeting free’ zones in the day or week; or just letting your colleagues know when you need to get your head down and focus. It’s amazing how much work you can get done in even relatively small windows of uninterrupted time. It’s also amazing how many questions get resolved when you’re not there ready to respond instantly.
On the other hand, making yourself fully available at certain times for questions can be a good way of meeting the needs of others in a focused and dedicated way. Have a dedicated ‘question time’ or ‘clinic time’ or use team huddles or 1-1s to tackle questions, and encourage your team to batch up their questions, rather than rely on just-in-time responsiveness. Of course if it’s a genuine emergency, you can be fully responsive, but these tend to be far rarer than we think.
#2 Turn off notifications
Most of the technology you install on your computer or your phone has notifications turned on by default, tempting us into a habit of instant response and instant gratification.
Think about it, what do you genuinely need to be instantly notified about? What can wait until you’re ready to deal with it? Try turning off notifications by default, then only turning them back on when you actually want that level of notification.
If you’re nervous about this, then experiment with it on a trial basis – a couple of weeks, days or even hours. It’s human to feel a certain level of FOMO initially, but more often than not, we find the world carries on just fine without us – and in the meantime we can make so much more progress on all fronts when we can give each task, problem or person our full attention.
#3 Managing your own distractions
Sometimes our biggest distractions come from inside our own heads, when our brains come alive with ideas, thoughts, and reminders that have nothing to do with the task at hand.
Having a good “Second Brain” system can help to take the mental load off your own brain by keeping track of everything you need to get done in work and in life, and reducing the number of times your brain reminds you of something else you need to do when you’re in the middle of trying to focus.
Keeping a tangent log can also help if you’re prone to “shiny object syndrome” – coming up with brilliant ideas just when you’re trying to focus on something else. Use a notebook, post-it notes, or record a voice memo to capture that thought whenever you’re tempted to go off on a tangent. That way your brain can trust that it’s safe and captured, and you can come back to it and decide what really needs to be done about it.
#3 Set clear expectations
We often think that serving means letting someone else take the lead, and responding or reacting as appropriate. Whether that’s providing good client service, serving our team or our boss. We ask them what they want and we endeavour to give it to them. But that places a huge amount of responsibility on the person we’re serving – to know what’s possible, what’s appropriate, and what’s going to achieve the best results all round.
Sometimes we serve best when we take the lead. When we define what we have to offer and how we work best. When we do the hard work of working out the best way of meeting our clients’ needs. When we set clear expectations up front, and guide them through the experience, for example:
Let’s check in on Friday and see if you have any questions (rather than call me if you have any questions)
Feel free to email me at any point. I’ll always aim to get back to you within XX days/hours. If you need me to see anything sooner than that, please do give me a call or send me a text.
My working days are: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, so if you need anything from me by the end of the week, let me know ideally on Tuesday so I can carve out some time for you.
I’m going to be out of the office next week. Is there anything you need from me this week before I go?
#4 Aim for progress, not perfection
The biggest obstacle I hear when suggesting these strategies is “but I’m not sure that would work round here”. Culture is indeed powerful, but it’s also just a collection of individual habits. Being willing to challenge the status quo and to test assumptions is the first step to innovating in the way that you work.
If you’re finding your fragmented attention frustrating, the chances are your colleagues are experiencing the same challenges too. Start the conversation by suggesting the changes as an experiment, then aim for progress, rather than perfection. You may not eliminate all distractions, but even if you reduce them by 1 per day, that’s over an hour saved over the course of a week. And there may still be fire-fighting involved, but if you’re not fire-fighting all the time, you’ll be better equipped and prepared to deal with the genuine emergencies when they arrive.
#5 Recharge your capacity
As a lawyer you bill for your time, but what you really get paid for is your expertise, your judgement, your capacity to think well. Sometimes we see productivity as simply trying to squeeze in as much as possible – be more efficient with admin, take on more clients, squeeze more meetings into the day, bill more hours.
However, just because you can physically fit it into the diary doesn’t mean you have the mental capacity. In fact, our ability to make good judgement decisions is like a muscle that gets tired. Be aware of decision fatigue and make sure you take regular, quality breaks to restore your capacity. Don’t pursue efficiency at the cost of a deficiency in the quality of your work and more importantly your quality of life – at work and outside of work.
At Obelisk Support, we receive CVs of returning lawyers regularly, most of them accompanied by notes explaining why they took a career break. Whether it’s to have a family, to join family postings overseas or for health reasons, these lawyers come back to the law with a fresh perspective on their professional career and a desire to succeed. Our recruiting team reads all of them and after reviewing them, arranges individual interviews to learn about applicants who want to become legal consultants with us. Based on our recruiting team’s experience, the CV tips below are guidelines to help returning lawyers show future employers that they are the right person for the job.
#1 Proofread your CV for typos and jargon
This may sound obvious, but basic mistakes can prevent you getting to interview stage. Fine tuning a CV starts with checking it for spelling mistakes, including typos in company names.
Avoid shortcuts: acronyms or shortened names are not always obvious to everybody and might even cast a negative light on your CV if the reader needs to research their meaning. Use full names for companies, diplomas and professional accreditations.
Get to the point: when looking for lawyers to fill a particular position, our recruiting team likes to spot their expertise and skills clearly on a CV. Reading through paragraphs of waffly, flowery language or corporate jargon is time-consuming and confusing. Make sure your CV is honest and factual.
#2 Explain your career break
Life happens and career breaks are quite common. They are nothing to be ashamed of. No matter what you have been doing, explain the reasons for your career break and most importantly, what you have learnt during your time away from the law.
What have you learnt? During your career break, you’re bound to have picked up useful transferable skills without even realising it. Brought up a family? You’ll have great budgeting and timekeeping skills, as well as be able to handle responsibility. Gone travelling? You’ll have learnt about other cultures and maybe even picked up a new language. Taken over your family business? You’ll have learnt a lot about running a company and how legal fits into the grand scheme of things.
Explain any gaps. The following are good examples.
A career break for childcare and for a posting to Singapore with my husband.
Management role in my family’s entrepreneurial manufacturing company.
Brought up my two children, lived in America for my husband’s job.
Set up a business in Ecuador, teaching legal English.
Traveled in South East Asia volunteering for nature conservation programmes.
#3 Sell yourself
It’s not easy to sell yourself with confidence when you’ve been out of the workforce for an extended period. However, you need to learn to sell yourself so you can win that role and get back to the law.
Be a peacock! But be an honest peacock. Make sure that you can back any claim you make on paper with facts. Even if you don’t meet all the criteria of the job advert, you should feel confident that you can learn new skills on the job and still apply. Go ahead and be daring. Nobody can blame you for not knowing everything. With your solid training, you are able to look up answers to any questions once you get started. Let’s say it one more time: don’t under-value yourself.
Tailor your CV. When applying for any role, the employer will be looking for a specific set of skills. If you can tailor your CV to the role you’re applying for, you are increasing your chances to succeed. It helps to be creative too. If an experience is relevant to the future job, prospective employers want to hear about it. An award you’ve won for volunteering or an online certificate you’ve just completed can say a lot on your ability to fit with the company’s culture.
#4 First impressions matter
Quite literally, the first look at your CV will decide whether or not the reader carries on. On average, recruiters spend six seconds reviewing individual CVs. If the company you are applying for uses machine-reading tools for CVs, review time will be even shorter. Hence the importance of placing the right words in the right places.
Top is best. The top of your CV, like the top of your LinkedIn profile, is prime real estate to sell yourself. More specifically, it is where employers will look first (sometimes the only place they’ll look) so make sure the keywords and phrases from their job advert jump out at them from the top of the page.
Learn about keywords. In a nutshell, keywords are magic keys that can unlock any recruitment or matching process. Keywords let the employer know that you are qualified for the job. If you are not sure what keywords should be on your CV, look at the job description. If a company is looking for a finance lawyer with capital markets experience, these very words need to feature high on your CV. A simple LinkedIn search for the position you are applying for can yield all the necessary keywords you need on your resume. Obviously and as pointed out earlier, make sure you can back any claims you make on paper. If you apply for a commercial role at a FinTech company, expect to explain your expertise on financial regulations and e-commerce during the interview.
#5 Keep it short
Some CVs we receive at Obelisk Support can be as long as six or more pages long, including many paragraphs with bullet-point lists of skills, achievements and more. Information overload comes to mind. Keeping your CV short leaves room for in-person explanations during the interview and makes the interviewer’s job easier.
Two pages. The golden rule is you should keep your CV down to two pages, three pages tops. You don’t need to list all your professional career on a CV, as tempting as it is. Don’t waste precious space on jobs that are completely irrelevant to the post you’re applying for.
Include figures. While it may be tricky to quantify some of your earlier experiences, including figures in your CV definitely helps prospective employers appreciate your achievements. Here are a few examples:
Overseeing contract management for 100 companies.
Advising on and negotiating legal agreements, including sole legal responsibility for EUR 500 million for UK venture capitalist fund.
Leading a legal team of five in-house lawyers and external consultants with an annual budget of £800,000.
Advised client on its leveraged acquisition of a family entertainment provider (£450 million, 2012).
Now you are ready to apply and restart your legal career with new goals in mind. You may experience self-doubt at some point and job-hunting might not be all plain sailing, but remember the wise words of Lady Hale: “The main thing is that you simply cannot let it stop you doing what you actually know you really can do, or at least, think you can do. Or, assume you can do it until someone does find you out – why not?”
Indeed, why not? Good luck and believe in yourself!
A good playlist can turn chores into a dance party, power you through your work-out and make that 3-hour document review just about bearable. Here at the Attic, we know that in the legal profession long hours are more often the rule than the exception, so we set out to create a playlist with songs to fit just about every lawyer-ly moment to power you through to the weekend.
Here’s a rundown of our top ‘lawyerly’ songs – make sure you give our spotify playlist a listen and add your favourite songs to your own playlists!
This relaxed old country music track brings attention to the dilemma lawyers often face, particularly in the corporate world. In Wells’ words “Man made laws to set you free on Earth, but is God satisfied? Will your lawyer talk to God for you?”
Pop this song on just before you need to advise your client for the 3rd time today.
For when you’re on your way to an important meeting
No lawyer is a stranger to the complexities of negligence law, the constant concern of compensation culture and the most unlikely of cases which have developed. “Talk to my Lawyer” is a humorous satirical hit that is sure to put a smile on a negligence lawyer’s face – no matter the absurdity of the claims.
Don’t despair, if you’ve got a witness according to Brodsky you’re set – “I’ve got a witness, to put a hand on the Bible, Jury jury hallelujah, somebody’s liable”.
For when your client is worrying about the impact of American politics on their business
Some clients never seem to give you a break – pop this tune on to power you through those all hands on deck Friday night emergencies.
For the Trainee still at Law School
“Law School” by Chocolate Ghost House
This light-hearted parody of Maroon 5s Payphone is the perfect song for trainees whose hours are never-ending and still need to pass those exams at the end of their 40-hour weeks.
For when you’ve got that Friday commute home buzz
“Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley
Last not but least is this iconic hit by no other than the King of rock’n roll. This classic song is the perfect tune to get you ready for the weekend and let go of any pent up stress built up over the week!
Last night (10th July) saw us announce the winners of the 1st Global Law Photography competition, themed around climate change.
The judging panel, led by Marcus Jamieson-Pond, photographer and former CSR Manager, was impressed not only by the quality of all the photographs submitted but also by the accompanying stories explaining their significance. As well as being inspired by the thinking and creativity of the competition entrants, our audience at Lexis House was privileged to hear from Peter Barnett, climate litigation lawyer at ClientEarth. As an NGO working at the cutting edge of climate change, ClientEarth are using the law to fight the climate crisis and show the true power of lawyers to drive change in this area. Obelisk Support were delighted to raise funds for ClientEarth, as well as raising awareness of their work in this area.
Our thanks go to LexisNexis, home of the LexisPSL Environment service, who were supporters of this initiative and hosted the presentation evening.
Here are the three top photographs and our winners’ stories:
Winner – Magdalena Bakowska
This photo represents the spectacular Namib desert, considered to be the oldest desert in the world, to draw attention to the problem of global warming and water shortages, so common in this region. Arid regions of southern Africa, although beautiful, are particularly exposed to further drying. The region is said to be one of the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change and having less natural capacity to adapt to such impact, although, ironically, African nations are considered to have contributed the least to the problem of global warming.
Namibia’s climate is, in general, dry and hot, with already irregular rainfall patterns. As a result of climate change, the country, which is highly dependent on climate sensitive natural resources, is predicted to become even hotter, leading to aridification.
Highly-Commended – Camilla Bindra-Jones
All week concerns were expressed by SpringWatch for the fledglings under watch. Strong winds unusual for England in June came as predicted & scattered the precious cargo. I felt the parents sorrow & placed their children in a row. I know not why I took a photo & felt a need to bury them but maybe it was to stay the busyness of the world. Death makes us wish to turn back time; our recently awakened awareness of climate change calls us to a state of mindfulness. We must stand together and do as much as we can to try to stay the damage of us in time past.The swallows have nested in the open garages since 1993. The numbers arriving this year were reduced by around 70 per cent. It was this fact, along with the unusually strong winds that made the loss of the fledglings additionally upsetting.
Commended – Lauren Bruce
This photo was taken at the Solheimasandur plane wreck in Southern Iceland. Airplanes have a huge environmental impact, both the pollution when flying and in the environmental destruction of a crash. Strangely this crash site had been repurposed as a tourist attraction, juxtaposed against the natural beauty of its surroundings.