Breaking new ground: modern career paths for today's legal professionals
A lot has changed in the last 100 years since the first woman was admitted to the roll in England and Wales.
The need for a work-life balance, new discourses on wellbeing and technological advancements have all changed the working lives of legal professionals.
We spoke to four women, who have each taken a less conventional path to build successful careers in law that suit them.
They demonstrate how a foundation of legal training combined with a wider appreciation of client needs can take you beyond the corner office to the boardroom and beyond.
“It is an opportunity that has exceeded my expectations” – Margaret Obi, Deputy High Court Judge
It was never my intention to become a judge. When I left partnership, it was to pursue new intellectual challenges and increased flexibility.
However, I saw a video of Heather Hallett LJ (as she then was) speaking about a new initiative to attract more lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds to sit as Deputy High Court Judges without the need to sit as recorder first.
It is an opportunity that has exceeded my expectations. It is a real privilege to be a judge.
Not only is the work varied and intellectually stimulating but there is a deep sense of satisfaction in upholding the rule of law.
Naturally, there are challenges too. I am a criminal defence solicitor by background but as a judge, I make decisions in civil cases.
Within a day (or often less) I must quickly understand the factual and legal content of a new case, digest competing submissions, and decide which is right so I can produce a well-reasoned judgment.
This constant diet of unfamiliar law is not for everyone, but I thought it would suit me and that has proved to be true.
Solicitor judges are still relatively uncommon especially on the High Court Bench so you first need self-belief before you can convince anyone else that you’re ready for the challenge.
"People have this perception that you can’t move around but it doesn’t have to be like that” – Liz Turner, general counsel at Sophian Limited
I was the first person in my family to go to university.
It was very daunting at the beginning but I found myself at a regional office of a global firm and was on the partnership track at 31, but also planning to adopt my daughter.
When I sat down with my manager for our annual review, he told me I needed to up my billable hours by 15% and I couldn’t see how I could balance that with caring for her.
Maybe if I’d had a role model back then who could show me how then I’d have found a way, but instead I needed more flexibility.
I took a post as a lecturer for undergraduate and LPC teaching which was a good way to stay in touch with practice, but the most fulfilling part was seeing students off on the start of their journey.
I then took an opportunity to return to private practice and having stayed up to date it was an easy transition.
I became much better at mentoring junior members of staff and helping to encourage people who might have become pigeonholed or stuck.
However, after the pandemic and time on furlough, I moved again into an in-house role where I can deliver value without needing to justify it in billable hours.
I have never really been one for a conventional career.
People have this perception that you can’t move around and that you are stuck on a path, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
Don’t be afraid to try things out and don’t think it’s just a linear progression.
There’s a lot to be gained from trying different roles.
“Change is hard, but don’t underestimate what you bring to the table” – Neha Lugg, senior legal trainer at Lewis Silkin
I started my career in private practice and qualified into employment law.
I enjoyed the work, but I was fortunate enough to go on secondment during my training contract and found that I loved being able to fit into a business and provide really tailored advice.
I went on to work within in-house legal teams for large multinational organisations.
More than 10 years later I now work as a senior legal trainer delivering training on a wide range of employment law topics to support organisations maintain effective working practices and improve workplace culture.
Sometimes I will be working to support HR professionals and people managers with the more complex parts of their roles like handling difficult conversations or what wellness really looks like.
More recently, I have focused on diversity, equity and inclusion and work with clients to embed more inclusive working practices. It’s a really varied and interesting role.
I’ve also spent time during my career working as a professional support lawyer.
This involved making sure fee earners are never caught out by the latest developments and that the firm’s guidance and precedents were kept updated.
As a student, I only ever knew of the traditional solicitor route to partner but we need to build awareness of the breadth of the legal profession.
I definitely have not taken a conventional career path, but I’ve taken forward what I’ve learned from each role.
What would I say to someone thinking of changing career direction?
Change is hard, but don’t underestimate the skills you’ve learned and what you can bring to the table.
“The SQE route gives people like me options” – Lara Oseni, legal officer and case presenter at General Pharmaceutical Counsel
I remember at college, being told by a law lecturer “it's not about what you know, it's about who you know”.
This instantly put me off joining the legal profession, because I was a first-generation university student, and I did not know any professionals.
The introduction of the SQE meant that I could take a different route to enter the legal profession. I can utilise my already vast years of legal experience with the last phase of my legal studies.
Studying and working is not something that is new to me nor to lots of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. That doesn’t make it any less challenging, but I am determined, because this is something I really want.
I feel as though I am getting closer to attaining the career that I have wanted for so long. I started out as a paralegal, and I am now a legal officer (the equivalent of a legal trainee) in the fitness to practise department of the General Pharmaceutical Council (the GPhC).
I get to improve my advocacy skills by presenting cases on behalf of the GPhC and have been involved in some amazing projects, such as contributing to the development of the Equality Diversity and Inclusion Strategy.
I have had moments of imposter syndrome, and doubts from not seeing enough people who look like me in this field, but recently I have been very fortunate to be mentored by some amazing people (mainly women).
The SQE route gives people like me options. We are not all the same and so we need different routes into the profession to accommodate that.
The legal profession needs to ensure that people feel like they belong and that there is space for them. This hasn’t always been the case with traditional routes.
Never give up and never be afraid to find creative ways to challenge how things are done.
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