January 2, 2019
What led you into a law career?
The honest answer is, I’m not sure. I did okay at school and so the careers advice was that I should go into either law or medicine. I remember my mother saying to me, ‘you can argue your way out of a paper bag, you should go into the legal profession’. I really enjoyed the first year of my law degree but in my second year, I began to wonder if it was the right path for me. I wanted to keep my options open so I applied to York University to do a masters in computing. It was a highly-respected course at the time and you were guaranteed a job at the end of it.
By the end of my law degree, I’d realised that I did want to pursue a legal career but I decided to continue with the masters. Afterwards, I did my LPC at York University and started to apply for trainee contracts. I intended to go into IT law but I got a training contract at Ward Hadaway in Newcastle and fell in love with private client work.
Do you regret doing the masters?
I may not have used IT in a professional sense but it’s still proved very helpful in my career. When I first started at Ward Hadaway, we didn’t have a formal IT department and I was able to use my expertise, especially in coding. The masters also taught me about systems analysis, which I definitely use in my work.
What is it about private client work that appeals to you?
The best thing about private client work is that you really get to know your clients. They must trust you completely as they’re often divulging personal information about their assets, their family and their relationships. The great thing is that I’ve acted for clients and I’m now acting for their children. You don’t get that same relationship building in other areas of law.
What qualities do you need to be a successful private client lawyer?
You need to be able to build a rapport with someone very quickly. I always say to my trainees and colleagues that you have to give a bit of yourself. Clients don’t want to just see you as a walking legal textbook. Most of my clients know my husband’s name, they know my dog’s name, and they know that I used to ride a motorbike.
You joined Hay & Kilner in 2011 after 15 years at Ward Hadaway, where you had become a partner. Why the move?
I knew Kirsten Cook, who was head of private client at Hay & Kilner and had previously been at Ward Hadaway. Kirsten and I used to get together to share knowledge and talk about the sector. A few times she’d asked if I would consider moving to Hay & Kilner but I was happy where I was. Then one day, we were having dinner and Kirsten asked me again. I said, ‘let’s explore it’, and we did. As I found out more about Hay & Kilner, I realised there was an opportunity for me to make a real difference at the firm.
When did your association with Newcastle Law Society begin?
When I was a trainee, I was chairman of the Trainee Solicitor Group and had to attend Law Society Committee meetings and go to the annual dinner. But I didn’t get involved in the society again until I joined Hay & Kilner. Kate Goodings – who is director of operations at the society and who knew me from my trainee days – asked if I would join the committee and I said yes.
Initially, it was meant to be a three-year stint but then I got a phone call from Verity Dobbie, who was the immediate past president, who asked if I’d be interested in becoming president. It came as a complete bolt out of the blue. I said I’d have to think about and that I needed to talk to my fellow partners at Hay & Kilner. I also rang past presidents and they all said they loved the experience and that I should definitely do it. So I accepted.
What does the role of Newcastle Law Society president entail?
It’s a year in office, which starts in March, and it’s a role you could do full time if you had a real mission you wanted to achieve.
You run a committee that responds to policy and consultations, and you also act as a helpline for members who have a query about law. They’ll get in touch with us and if we can’t help, we’ll put them in contact with someone who can.
In addition, the society runs a programme of lectures and dinners throughout the year.
Did you have a mission when you became president?
I wouldn’t say it was a mission but I’ve made a concerted effort to try and engage with more commercial law firms. My vice president, Chris Hugill, who is at Ward Hadaway, is very keen on this too and has been helping me to work with commercial lawyers and asking them what they want from the society. It’s still a work in progress and I’ll probably stay on the committee for another year with Chris to see if we can keep that momentum going.
What is your overall impression of the law sector in the region?
I think the local sector is thriving and it’s great to see new firms are opening in the region – especially the niche ones.
The Law Society carried out a research project in 2017, which revealed that the North East, along with Wales, came out top for the having the best opportunities to become a partner in a law firm. That’s great news for youngsters joining the profession.
What’s the biggest challenge for the North East law sector?
Despite evidence showing that there are opportunities to build a career in law in the region, we still suffer from brain drain. Young lawyers qualify in the North East but if they can get training contracts in London or Manchester, they tend to go. At this year’s Newcastle Law Society dinner, we gave out certificates to newly-qualified lawyers who had completed their qualifications and training in the region. There were loads of them and we need to keep this talent in the region.
Historically, there’s been a lack of training contracts for law students finishing their studies. Is this still the case?
There are still far too many people coming out of law school, which is something that the society’s talked about in the last committee meeting. I’m not sure prospective students’ expectations are managed enough when they’re applying for their degrees. There aren’t enough jobs for all of them.
When I finished my LPC, I heard a rumour that across the UK, there were 8000 people with a law degree, 3000 of those had LPC, and there were only 1000 training contracts on offer. I sent off 180 applications for a training contract and got one interview at Ward Hadaway.
What are your thoughts about apprenticeships in law?
Arguably, it means there’ll be even fewer training contracts as firms go down the apprenticeship route, but I do think they are an excellent idea for getting people into law early, getting them used to work, and allowing them to earn. Accountancy has been doing it for years. Law apprenticeships are still very much in their infancy but I can see it’s going to be the way forward for many. If I’d had the opportunity to do a law apprenticeship, I would have definitely considered it.
What’s been your highlight as Newcastle Law Society president?
As president, you get to attend the opening of the Legal Year in London on October 1. You go to a service at Westminster Abbey – attended by the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and all the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court judges. It’s a ceremony that’s been running for over 1000 years and it really reminds you that you’re part of a profession.
Talking to law society presidents in other areas, do you get a sense of what challenges they’re facing?
They’re all facing the same things: challenges around the next generation of lawyers wanting a better work-life balance, the uncertainty around Brexit and the issues around transparency rules that came into effect last week.
Tell me more about the transparency rules?
The solicitors must now advertise their fees for certain work areas. So, if you take something that I do – probate – you have to give an indication of fees on your website. The problem is it depends on so many things, such as how much is in the estate, what assets you have and how many beneficiaries there are. You end up putting so many caveats on the fee estimate that you wonder if it’s beneficial to the public. The only people looking at it will probably be other lawyers.
Regulation is something that’s crippling firms – with transparency rules, GDPR, and anti-money laundering controls.
So if you had a magic wand, would you get rid of this regulation?
It’s funny, you moan about these things but you also see the reasons for having them. They’re all client-driven, which is important, but you sometimes wonder, ‘when will I have time to give legal advice?’.
Your law society presidency finishes in March 2019; what’s next for you?
I sit on the management board at Hay & Kilner, which is great because I can get involved in all the strategy of the firm, and I hope to be able to continue that.
I’m also head of the private client department and I have a fantastic team. The idea is that one will eventually lead the department. With private client work it’s essential to have good successors because of the relationships you have with your clients. I’ll be looking to someone I can trust and who is technically good enough to hand over the work to, before I retire – but that won’t be for a while yet!
Newcastle Law Society