Lawyers with disabilities

My journey as a senior leader

For this year’s senior leader interview marking Disability History Month, we meet Wendy Hardaker CB.

Wendy Hardaker is a white woman with light grey curly hair. She wears dark framed glasses and stands in front of a hedge.Wendy qualified as a solicitor in 1997 having joined the Government Legal Profession (GLP) as a legal trainee in 1995.

She is a carer and has type 2 diabetes, sciatica and permanent nerve damage which impacts her mobility.

Wendy has worked at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Department for Trade and Industry (as was), Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Office of Government Commerce before becoming the Head of Commercial Law at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in 2008.

In 2014, she was appointed as Commercial Law Director for the newly established Commercial Law Group, one of the Government Legal Department (GLD) Expert Services. Most recently, Wendy was appointed interim Director General of GLD, in which she managed a portfolio of legal teams.

Wendy is currently on a short 6 month career break before embarking on her next role.

What did your journey to senior legal leader look like?

I started working for the government as a legal trainee more years ago than I care to remember.

I had very little idea of what a government lawyer did but, I quickly discovered it included building and developing a wide range of legal skills and working in a variety of areas.

My journey has included: drafting legislation, leading litigation cases, spending time in Brussels negotiating and implementing EU legislation, negotiating successful outcomes for multimillion-pound commercial disputes and being involved in shaping life-changing law.

Alongside these amazing roles, I have benefited from the opportunities the Government Legal Profession (GLP) has given me to grow my career while being a carer and, more recently, learning to live with chronic illness.

I am a type 2 diabetic and have sciatica and permanent nerve damage in one of my feet and legs that impacts my mobility.

Being able to work flexibly and having supportive and caring colleagues and managers has been of great importance to me and enabled me to fulfil my potential. As I’ve become more senior, I’ve helped others to do the same.

Have you had any disabled role models during your career?

The Civil Service, of which the GLP is a part, is an incredible place for finding role models. The importance of diversity and inclusion is well understood and genuinely integrated into ways of working. 

A hugely diverse range of people work as lawyers and business professionals within government which means I haven’t been short of roles models who have supported me over the years. Their determination, enthusiasm, adaptability, good humour in the face of adversity and ability to keep going no matter what has given me a very different perspective. 

After my diabetes diagnosis, one of them said to me “it is not a death sentence” and it certainly is not.

I’ve always believed I can do anything I want to do if I work hard enough, but I know that I now need to be more disciplined and controlled in the way in which I exert my effort as part of managing my diabetes. 

This ability to adapt and seeing it as a strength rather than a weakness is the most recent life lesson I’ve taken from my many wonderful role models. It’s something I am learning to do with their never ceasing support.

Now in a leadership position, how do you try and positively impact diversity and inclusion, and specifically disability diversity and inclusion?

By talking about it! It isn’t always easy to talk about diversity and inclusion or to share your own story, but as a senior leader I believe it is important to do so.

Back in 2015, I became GLD’s first Carers Champion. In that role I was asked to speak about my experiences as a carer. This was not something I’d done before. I had always kept everything private because I was worried that telling people about my situation would mean they saw me differently. 

The first time I stood in front of a set of my peers and told them my story was one of the hardest things I had ever done. In fact, I ended up in tears. But I am so glad I found the courage to do it.

Since then, I have spoken about my experiences of being a carer, diabetic and learning to live with a chronic condition many times.

By telling my story, I know some people have felt able to speak up to their managers and to others and get the help and support they need. I also know there are others out there still suffering in silence, too afraid to say anything.

Asking for help and support is not a weakness, in my view, it is a strength, but I know it doesn’t always feel like that.

My aspiration is to be a member of a profession where everyone can be themselves and be valued and respected for what they can do rather than scared to explain what they cannot. So, I am going to keep telling my story and I encourage other senior legal leaders to do the same.

What do you think disabled lawyers bring to the profession?

Our experiences are what make us who we are, they help to define us and to strengthen and inform our values. Everyone is unique and has great things to offer.

Many disabled people have been through tremendous adversity, they have often suffered great pain, had to deal with situations others cannot even imagine and have had to overcome many hurdles just to live let alone to thrive and succeed.

This makes them some of the strongest, most determined and most focused people I have ever met.

They are inspiring, often more empathetic because of their own experiences and great problem solvers. All of these strengths, and many more, make them a tremendous asset to the sector and I really do hope many more disabled people will want to join our profession.

Do you have any advice to your disabled colleagues who aspire for partnership or more senior positions?

My advice is to find senior mentors or people on your side and keep talking to them and others. 

In 2012 my brother was diagnosed with cancer, went into a coma during treatment and spent much of that year in one hospital or another. I didn’t tell anyone what was going on, my work suffered, and I got to the point where my resignation letter was drafted. Frankly, I was in a bit of a state.

When I finally told someone, they immediately offered me the support I needed. They helped me find a job in the north west rather than being in London so I could be nearer to my family, they gave me the time and space I needed to sort myself out and, most importantly, they never lost faith in me.

I kept in touch and a number of years later when the Commercial Law Director post came up, they were one of the first people on the phone to me to tell me about it. They offered me support if I wanted to go for it – which I did, and subsequently got it. They were a wonderful source of guidance when I took on that role.

Having senior mentors and colleagues on your side is so important, not just because they might be able to help you progress, but also because if you’re lucky as I was, they become good friends too.

I myself am a mentor to various junior lawyers and civil servants and I know there are a number of mentoring schemes available for people to join, such as Bridging the Bar, which aims to promote equal opportunities and diversity at the Bar of England and Wales 

What advice do you have to non-disabled leaders? What more could be done from the top to increase understanding and inclusion of disabled people and D&I generally?

Don’t judge a book by its cover!

In other words, don’t make assumptions about what someone can or cannot do, rather ask them, listen to what they have to say, give them space, and encourage then to grasp opportunities in the knowledge that you will support them.

Offering a safety net can be so important in building confidence in others. As part of doing this, I am a big fan of reverse mentoring. It enables senior leaders to gain a better understanding of how others feel and I’ve learnt a tremendous amount from the various people I have mentored over the years. Their perspectives, thoughts and views have been invaluable.

I also believe it’s important to have some simple structures and procedures in place to aid having conversations. In the Government Legal Department, we’ve introduced both Carer and Disability Passports and these have proved instrumental in facilitating open and honest conversations at all levels.

I would encourage every organisation to do the same if they have not already done so.

Finally, I just want to say that as you get more senior having these conversations remains just as vital. I myself have discussed and agreed passports with my boss – Susanna McGibbon, Treasury Solicitor and GLD’s Permanent Secretary. Susanna cares and understands and her willingness to listen and help me find ways to make everything work have been so important to me.

She and others over the years have helped me find ways to have a brilliant, exciting and rewarding career, while at the same time enabling me to do what I need to do as a carer and  to manage my health conditions.

My final piece of advice to non-disabled leaders is to be open and willing to discuss individual needs with everyone whatever their level and whatever their role.

Find out about our Lawyers with Disabilities Division

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