Tell us about your journey into the legal profession?
I studied the LLB at Staffordshire University. My A-level results weren’t up to scratch so I first had to complete a foundation year at Staffs – a way to get access to the traditional three-year degree. I took a gap year in 2012-13, meaning it took me five years to graduate. Thankfully it all worked out in the end.
I trained at WEX Europe Services, which is a fuel card business. My main office was in Crewe, although I did get to travel to different European cities as part of the job.
I won’t lie – both were challenging, especially my training contract as I studied the LPC [Legal Practice Course] MSc at the same time. The way I structured it, though, has really benefitted my career, so I’m happy with the decisions I made.
What was it about working in-house that attracted you?
Business decisions and the assessment of risk have always interested me more than the legal facts. I also wasn’t drawn to the traditional way of practising, so discovering in-house was a major win for me.
I would much prefer to be integrated into one business and have a seat around the table as a team member and legal adviser, rather than having multiple clients with different business aims. That’s just personal preference, though; the alternatives have their own benefits. My interests were much better placed in-house.
I just wish I’d realised it was possible to train in-house earlier – it would have saved me a lot of stress and heartache!
As part of your in-house traineeship, you were seconded to private practice for three months. How did you find that experience and what did you learn?
Although it was for a short period, my secondment provided the experience I needed to become a better in-house lawyer. Experiencing legal services from within a law firm really helped me to understand the industry and add some of the pieces to the puzzle during my training.
It was also my first experience of working with people more junior than me, and I learned to understand the hierarchy in private practice and how delegation works in that environment.
I’m so glad that I had the experience of working in a firm. Looking at legal services from a different perspective has helped me when instructing and managing external counsel, something that in-house lawyers are likely to do as part of their role.
You are now the sole legal counsel (UK&I) at SD Worx, a leading European provider of payroll and HR services. Do you find being the sole lawyer in your organisation tough at times?
It’s tough in the sense that I put a lot of pressure on myself to do the best for my colleagues, but I am supported by a strong, international team who are well established. On more occasions than not, there is something in my inbox that I have not dealt with before and it is my job not only to figure it out, but also to provide sound legal advice that can relied on at the highest level. If I thought about that too much I’d let the pressure get to me!
In those circumstances, I remind myself that I’ve been in this position many times before. I conquered it then, so why not now? As a qualified lawyer, you are armed with the skills you need to overcome tough matters, whether that is the skill of finding a solution yourself, or the skill of knowing who and how to ask for advice. Relying on those skills in a pressured environment is key.
Is the in-house sector well represented in terms of equality and diversity? Are there any improvements the legal profession could make in these areas?
In-house in England & Wales is more diverse than private practice, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Recent studies have unveiled prejudice against different groups, with the Bar Standards Board’s findings that white, male barristers earn more than their female and ethnic minorities counterparts being just one example.
There are many great initiatives happening which should be celebrated. It is important though to put emphasis on preventing problems from happening, in addition to how organisations should deal with them when they do. One idea may be to use the recruitment process to bring out any biases (unconscious or not) as a way of assessing any issues prior to them infiltrating an organisation’s culture down the line.
I published a list of 49 ways to increase diversity in the legal profession which you can read on my In-house Potter blog.
How have attitudes in the legal profession changed since you started out?
I see many lawyers putting themselves out there and showing their personalities on social media more than they used to. I am a huge advocate for this and hope it continues long after we are through the pandemic.
I feel that the profession is more accepting of lawyers acting this way, and there are also many examples of alternative law firms that are thriving through doing so. I too certainly feel more confident sharing more of my life online, but feel there is still some stigma around it. Thankfully, this stigma fades a little more with every post and I am here for it!
What tips do you have for students looking for in-house training contracts?
Don’t underestimate the power of paralegal experience, especially as now, in England & Wales, it can count towards your training for becoming qualified under the new SQE route.
The 18 months I spent as a paralegal have paid dividends in more ways than one, examples being having six months knocked off my training contract as “time to count”, and allowing me to take on more senior roles early on in my career.
In-house training contracts are often awarded internally. Limited public job openings have the effect of students thinking that they aren’t out there. I can completely understand this, but it is not the case. A paralegal role may be your way in, just as it was for me.
What advice would you give to lawyers who are considering making a move in-house? What makes a good in-house lawyer?
Providing legal advice to clients from within a law firm does not mean that you know what they want from an in-house lawyer. Yes, you will have more of a steer on how they’d like advice delivered through instructions and dialogue, but lawyers looking to make the move shouldn’t rely on this knowledge alone.
Different expectations are placed on a lawyer appointed by the business you are advising. It is important to appreciate this from an early stage and recognise that every colleague will expect a different service from you. Emotional intelligence is crucial in-house, and relying on this will really elevate your position within the business.
You founded “In-house Potter”. How did you come up with the name? Tell us about this work and what you hope to achieve?
In-house Potter is a nod to my roots. I am keen to evidence that anyone can overcome stereotypes in the profession, and that you don’t have to change who you are to become successful in law.
Many of us face barriers in different ways. Unfortunately, many of these barriers are nothing to do with us as individuals, but the way we are perceived by the industry in general.
I grew up and studied in Stoke-on-Trent, which is known for its pottery industry. The “Potteries” is used interchangeably for “Stoke”, just as “Potter” is for “Stokie”. It was important for me to include this nod within my branding, as, not only am I proud of how far I have come, I wanted to show that you don’t have to be from a well-established city bursting with law firms to be a lawyer.
Despite degrading comments from others regarding choices I have made, I carry my Stokie accent with pride in the knowledge that I haven’t let the views of others affect my career choices. I am passionate about helping others to do the same.
You can watch my IGTV channel [Instagram], which explains my experience in more detail.
Where can people find out more about In-house Potter?
My direct messages are always open. I’d love for you to say “hello”.
What is your most unusual/interesting study experience?
Imagine a stressed LPC student, head in her hands one morning at Starbucks, Manchester Piccadilly Station, prior to her advocacy assessment. In walks Jimmy Carr, one of the most charismatic, engaging personalities just wanting to get his coffee fix.
The red-eyed student (yes, that’s me), acting on instinct with no time to think about it, walks up to Jimmy and manages to squeak a “hello” and ask for some advice: “Do you have any confidence tips please?”
Don’t ask me how, in the same moment of doubting I could go ahead with my exam, I had the bravery to approach Jimmy Carr with this question. But am I so glad I did – the advice he gave to me over coffee was absolutely incredible and I could never thank him enough. I went on to smash my exam.
Every time I tell that story I don’t quite believe it myself, but I promise you, it’s true!
Finally, what do you love about your job and what do you love doing when the working day is done?
I love that I have the freedom to be creative in delivering legal advice. I also work with a fantastic team who believe in one vision, which we work on together to ensure that it flows through to the legal work we do.
My work colleagues are probably fed up hearing about this, but after work I’ll likely be planning my home renovation – check my Instagram for home office updates!
Questions put by Hope Craig, In-house Lawyers’ Committee member
Emma Lilley, Legal counsel (UK & I), SD Worx