Helen Shay, social mobility ambassador
What inspired you to study law?
I actually studied English at university, then took the conversion course.
I've always thought literature and law were similar, in that words and their precise meaning – together with context and nuance – matter so much. That interplay has always fascinated me.
Often in practising law, I've felt taking English has helped me as much as my legal studies.
I also like the problem-solving challenges raised with law and the need for discipline, when applying legal principles to get the right outcome.
Did you receive encouragement to pursue your ambitions?
None at all.
No one in my family had worked in the legal profession or been very studious. They'd all worked in traditionally northern industries, most of which were in decline. I didn't know any solicitors.
Careers officers were off-putting and seemed to expect me to go into teaching.
One careers officer told me I couldn't do it because it was only for people who had a solicitor uncle, who would give them a job later (implying that, from my background, I obviously didn't have the right uncle). That probably triggered my determination to qualify.
Where did you study law?
After my BA at Manchester, I went to Chester College of Law for the conversion course and then solicitors' finals.
Did you encounter any challenges studying law?
There were a lot of challenges, especially financial. I'd had a grant for university and naively thought there would be help available for postgraduate law also.
It was difficult for my parents to help and there was pressure for me to get a job, so I applied during the employers' 'milk round' in my third year at university.
I was offered a job in retail management, but it made me realise how much it was law that I was really interested in, so I turned it down and took law. This meant having casual employment as well during evenings and student vacations, a family loan and living very frugally whilst studying.
Few of those I met at law college had that pressure or understood why I couldn't socialise much. Most of them had attended private schools and regarded me as a bit of an oddity.
There was also occasional disparagement from a few arrogant students from well-off backgrounds, which was hurtful but it was best to ignore that and just get on with it.
What type of law do you specialise in?
I've had a long career, with some subject area switches.
During my training, the partners identified I had a talent for commercial matters, especially commercial property. I enjoyed the pace of that and working closely with entrepreneurial clients.
When I had young children, an opportunity came up to work more flexibly in-house with Next Plc, which was then going through massive expansion, so it was an exciting time. In-house, you tend to specialise less and gain more breadth, so I covered general commercial matters, contentious and non-contentious.
When I later moved nearer to London, I went into financial services with an organisation that then morphed into the Financial Ombudsman Service at Canary Wharf, having a very varied caseload.
On moving back to Yorkshire, I worked with Skipton Building Society, including picking up commercial property again, and then moved to University of York to be their first general counsel.
That role broadened my skill set to include more equality law and compliance, as the higher education sector became increasingly regulated. Equality law has been particularly absorbing and challenging.
Why did you want to become a Law Society social mobility ambassador?
I've seen a lot of changes in the profession during my career and I want to help make sure it keeps moving in the right direction towards more diversity and inclusivity.
I've loved being a solicitor and I want that option to be more easily available to others from less affluent backgrounds, bearing in mind the obstacles I had to face.
The profession needs to reflect society at large and include a wide variety of entrants to get the best talent.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given regarding your career?
Not to be intimidated. You can be put down because of your background or accent, or something equally unfair.
This ties in with one of my favourite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
Has your idea of success changed over time in your career?
Yes. I started off like many NQs, aiming for partnership, but once I moved in-house, I enjoyed being part of the DNA of the business.
Becoming more involved in equality law has also led to my valuing success more in terms of the change that can be brought to an organisation's culture and overall improvement to lives.
Recently, I have been selected to be a non-executive director of a large pension fund, which is both a privilege and a big responsibility.
I feel that my social background and legal training give me a very useful perspective to bring to the board and serve the interests of members.
Do people have misconceptions about becoming a solicitor?
Yes. It still has a yellow-brick road image that it leads to instant wealth and prestige, and that can give way to later disappointment, as it's very competitive.
It's better to become a solicitor because you enjoy practising law – though be warned that it can be very addictive!
What skills would you say are essential for the job?
Skills-wise, precision and attention to detail (including any devil in it) are important. Qualities of empathy, resilience and tenacity help too.
You need to be hard-working, as law takes no prisoners and is very challenging. A sense of humour always helps.
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