I have recently reached something of a career milestone, since on September 15 this year I became 20 years qualified as a solicitor.
I have found that this genuinely does lead to a bit of naval gazing about the twists and turns of those 20 years. Also, I am due to give a talk to Truro High School for Girls’ Aspiring Lawyers group. To me this is a big responsibility – I feel I must tell these fresh-faced young girls nothing but the truth of my career as I experienced it. How could I face it if one of them made the wrong choice because of something I exaggerated or glossed over? The below are recollections that I will share with them and also now with you.
My dad always said I would make a good lawyer so of course I ignored him and studied for a joint honours degree in English and Theatre Studies. Coming out with a 2:1 from Warwick University into the early 90s recession was the first cold water shock for me and my friends. I remember nothing but telesales jobs in the papers (yes, the Internet was still in its infancy!) This was compounded by living up north with my aunt and uncle since my parents had moved to Spain. I remember temp jobs in smoke filled rooms, on income support; and taking a free word-processing (yes) course organised by Stockport job centre. The joy.
Life lesson 1: If you want to find a job easily out of university study something with a defined career path.
Economic shocks make everything harder even if you have tried to make yourself more employable. I thought my summer work experience in the BBC World Service would help. It didn’t.
Having moved to London and made the decision to study law, on the basis that this would make employers sit up and take notice, I then did the one-year law conversion course. First I had to convince my rather avuncular bank manager that if nothing else I could be a legal secretary and could he please lend me several thousand pounds. He went for it, my future husband signed us up for housing benefit and I was on my way. I achieved a distinction!
Still no training contract though so had to re-visit said bank manager to ask for several more thousand pounds waving the distinction certificate around. He said yes and I then did a further one-year Legal Practice course, during the course of which I got married and got a training contract, both extremely happy events.
Life lesson 2: If you think you can do it and people around you are supporting you then go for it. Do not put up with a disappointing job.
Eleven years of a great job in London. Having entered the firm thinking I wanted to specialise in medical negligence, by the time I finished my training contract I wanted to be a railway property specialist. This was great fun – commercial property but with extra bits so you could be in a meeting with lots of lofty city lawyers and then say: “….but I don’t believe you have considered Station Change regulations” and watch their faces go blank. Ha!
Life lesson 3: London in your twenties and early thirties is fab. It just is.
Then two things happened – children and my lovely London firm lost their railway panel contract. Another cold water shock. I was offered a “life raft” since I could have taken an in-house legal job at Network Rail (I think it was still Railtrack at that point). However (1) I thought that my proposed new boss was a bully and (2) I couldn’t face telling my colleagues “hey sorry I haven’t managed to secure that renewed contract we were after so all your careers are in jeopardy but at least I’m OK”. Also having small children and travelling to work every day after the Tube bombings makes you think. In my case it made me think of moving to the end of the country – Cornwall!
Life lesson 4: You have to be able to live with yourself so make your decisions on that basis.
Ah Cornwall. We arrived in January 2008, I had a four day a week job at a large regional firm which I loved and I remember by the time Spring came round sitting outside and saying in all seriousness to my husband that I thought we had landed in the Garden of Eden. JINX! Of course, there was a coily credit-crunchy serpent waiting for me to say that and soon I was faced with being turfed out of my job after eight months at a time when property lawyers across the country were being decimated by redundancy. Believe me – until you’ve gone into a meeting that you thought was about your pension and instead someone says “I’m sorry but we have to let you go”, you can’t know exactly how awful that feels. As the only breadwinner at that time I didn’t have much option but to dry my eyes and move fast.
Life lesson 5: Economic shocks happen and you can’t always control what happens to you.
All you can do is keep going – what’s the alternative? Also keep a sense of perspective – on the scale of things that can go wrong in life, your job hitting the wall is not right up there. I was lucky to have two job offers within three weeks. I remember staring dubiously at Hugh Murrell in a coffee shop as he explained why it was a good idea to join a tiny start-up law firm specialising only in corporate, commercial and commercial property in the middle of the credit crunch. Oh and due to the founding partners being under a restrictive covenant to stay out of Truro for a year, this micro firm would be operating out of a portacabin in the forecourt of Dales Garage.
I thought I should definitely take the offer from the larger and more established firm but somehow I signed up with Hugh instead. Call it luck, call it instinct. That tiny firm rode out the lean years and the renewable energy development bonanza that hit commercial property lawyers down here certainly didn’t hurt. Yay! I could do development work AND save the planet. We tripled our work force and are now based in central Truro. Things worked out.
Life lesson 6: Just keep working and trying to do the best job you can.
There is no magic ingredient but for me, I think the most important characteristic to cope in any career is resilience.
And that is what I will also be telling the schoolgirls and they will need to make of it what they can.
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