Kelly Brotherhood is an Associate Solicitor at BLM and a Director for Scottish Youth Football Association (SYFA). She is also a foster carer with TACT. She explains how her dyslexia affects her life and led her to a career in law.
I was born in Cornwall and my Dad was in the Royal Navy, which meant my family moved around. I started at a state school when I was 4. I struggled at state school. There were 40-odd children in my class. I’d be made to hold my pen “correctly”. My parents made the decision to send me to private school when I was 9-years-old. I went to St Antony’s Convent School in Sherborne. I started as a weekly boarder, which meant I went home at weekends. I loved it. It was an all-girls school and I thrived. When I started, I was tested and they told my parents I was at least a year behind in my reading and writing skills. Nothing else was mentioned, well not to me. When I was 11, I went to The Park School, again as a weekly boarder. It was here I was diagnosed as dyslexic. Back then, dyslexia was a nasty word and labelled you as stupid. But, to me, it just meant I learnt a different way to everyone else. That did not make it less hurtful when people called me stupid and thick, because I did not grasp a new concept as quickly as everyone else or mispronounced words because I could not visualise the word or used the wrong word.
My parents have always been very encouraging. They weren’t rich. They made so many sacrifices to send me to private school. They instilled in my sisters and I a huge work ethic. They taught me I could be anything I wanted to be, if I put my heart and soul into it and worked hard. They celebrated every achievement - big and small.
I passed all my GCSEs. I was lucky, as my private school was amazing and supported me. My class had eight students, so it was very much 1-2-1 teaching and they would adapt to how I learnt. I had elocution lessons, extra tutoring and continuous support. But I still had the label of being dyslexic. I remember being made to read with a polo half in my mouth, so I couldn’t move my lips and being made to read aloud at school. It was not pleasant.
Whilst at The Park School, my family moved to the Isle of Skye. On gaining my GCSEs, I moved north to be with them and attended Portree High School.
I’d learnt telling people I was dyslexic just left me open to ridicule. So I stopped admitting I was dyslexic. Instead, when I got mixed up, I’d just blame being blonde and laugh it off.
Whilst at Portree High, I applied to a student exchange to live in Japan for a year and attend a local High School. I was successful, which meant I sat my 5th year Highers in Hiroshima. I then sat my 6th year Highers back in Portree. Japan taught me so much about people and different customs.
I gained all my Highers and was the first person in my family to gain a place at university. I headed off to Edinburgh and obtained a BSc Hons in Biomedical Sciences. I loved university - the diversity and social life, but I still kept my dyslexia to myself. In my final exams, one of the questions was about the eye, which we’d studied in first year. I remember coming out of the exam and everyone panicking as they had not revised the eye. It had not bothered me. I’d learnt about the eye in my own special way in first year - a colour by numbers book - and remembered it all!
My dream was to be a Forensic Scientist. I went out in the world and could not get my dream job. I ended up working in labs, bars and laterally in a law firm, HBM Sayers. It was whilst working at HBM Sayers, I realised I wanted to be a lawyer. Well, that and Legally Blonde!
I applied to Strathclyde University to the part-time graduate LLB. I worked full-time and studied every night and most weekends. After a 4-year hard slog, I obtained my LLB. I then went onto Stirling University to undertake my Diploma in Legal Practice.
It was at Stirling that I started to realise my dyslexia was not something I should be ashamed of. I met fellow dyslexics studying law. I started to see the benefits of dyslexia. During my legal career, I’ve come to understand this even more - I am a civil litigator, my job is to stand up in court and defend cases - my dyslexia means I think outside the box. I don’t see a problem the way most people do. I remember during my traineeship being sent up to Aberdeen with counsel: counsel was discussing the case, a slip and trip in the work place, the pros and cons of the evidence and defence, and he asked me whether I had any questions. My first question was what shoes was the pursuer wearing. Counsel laughed, but then we won the case because of the shoes the pursuer was wearing.
What was your motivation for becoming a solicitor?
My over-riding motivation was to make my parents proud. How I did that did not really matter. Financial security was also important - my education gives the impression we had money - we didn’t. The Navy paid a large percentage of the fees. My parents divorced when I was 18 and my mum, who for the majority of her life had been a housewife, suddenly was on her own with three kids and having to fend for herself and get a full-time job. I wanted to ensure that never happened to me. I wanted to be financially secure myself.
I had a quick temper as a child, which looking back would’ve been my dyslexia. I was aggressive and confrontational and loved an argument. I am no longer aggressive nor confrontational, but I still love an argument, which is perfect for being a litigator!
I was also inspired by lawyers that I’d see on the TV and in the movies. Elle Woods is quite literally my ideal...as well as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Jake Brigance in A Time To Kill.
What challenges did you encounter?
I see the world differently to most people. I learn differently to the “norm”. Over the years of hiding my dyslexia, I learnt coping mechanisms. Some from teachers and others just figuring out how I learn. I have a mnemonic for everything! I am the stationery queen - I need highlighters and post-it notes. I need colour and brainstorms.
I firmly believe everyone learns differently and the trick is to figure out what works for you. Don’t follow the mainstream norm of learning - if you’re not learning and taking it in, then it is pointless.
The other challenge is being comfortable in your own skin. I know that’s easier said than done! I was the only person from my family to attend university. I had no idea what to expect. I did not know any other lawyers. There were no family lawyers in my circle. I knew I was different and I’d been led to believe, erroneously, that dyslexia made me stupid and I wouldn’t amount to anything. It did not matter in my mind that I’d passed all my exams; been accepted into uni, not once but twice; obtained a Diploma in Forensic Psychology; spoke fluent Japanese: I still had the label. But over time and with the world’s view of dyslexia changing, I have come round to realising that my dyslexia is a label I should be proud of, not ashamed of.
How did you overcome these?
I have learnt coping mechanisms over the years and, most importantly, that having a support system is vital. That support system is made up of my family, friends and colleagues.
I’m a strong believer in there being no stupid questions and I ask them all the time! I’m an advocate for explaining the most complex legal issues in bite-size pieces that anyone can understand, be they be 6 or 60. I still phone my Mum to check what word to use or how to spell a word. And technology is a godsend. I don’t know where I’d be without spell-check!
I’ve also learnt that dyslexia makes me an awesome lawyer. Because thinking outside the box and seeing the world differently to the “norm” isn’t a bad thing, it’s an amazing skill that should be celebrated.
Did you have a role model and, if you did, who was it?
My role models are my Mum and Dad. I saw growing up how hard they worked to provide and protect their family.
In respect of law, when I started at HBM Sayers, as an office junior, the partner in the office, Ronnie Fulton, took me under his wing and pushed me towards fulfilling my potential. When I was studying the Diploma, I couldn’t work full-time, but still had a mortgage to pay, so Ronnie gave me hours to work around my timetable. He encouraged me to fulfil my full potential and I will be eternally grateful for his input in my life. After finishing the Diploma, I applied to HBM Sayers, now BLM, for a traineeship and got the job.
Throughout my legal career, I’ve had the privilege of working with and, more importantly, learning from some of the top legal minds in Scotland. I was a trainee when my firm was involved with the Rosepark Care Home Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI). This was the longest running FAI in Scottish history, nine months. I spent the first 9 months of my traineeship sitting in between Paul McBride QC and Paul Wade, Solicitor Advocate and part-time Sheriff, as well as 16 counsel, hearing evidence from 212 witnesses. I learnt so much by osmosis - listening to the advocates on their feet; and I learnt even more by having lunch with them every day.
After qualifying, I’ve stayed with the same firm throughout; I began finding my feet in the legal sector. I started working with a number of different counsel and found the perfect match and mentor in John Thomson. I am now an Associate at BLM and my niche is fraud. Fraud fits me perfectly. I see the flags instantly. I read people, which is a skill I have acquired over the years. I see a defence in a case when no-one else sees it. I think my dyslexia’s the reason I have these skills.
Have you any advice for anyone considering a career in law?
It’s a great career and no day is the same. If you love solving problems and helping people, this is the career for you. The law affects every person in their daily life and, unfortunately, mostly when they are at their most vulnerable. Being a lawyer is not a one size fits all; law has so many different avenues open to anyone that wants a career. I love being in court - that may sound mad given my dyslexia, but I love the adrenaline and thinking on my feet, even when I stumble my words or have complete mind-blanks. But litigation and court is not for everyone, there’s private client, commercial, family law....literally, law touches everything we do in our lives and, as such, you need expert lawyers in every area.
Law teaches you so many transferable skills. Law also needs skills that you don’t learn at university - the skills you learn in everyday life. As a foster parent, the amount of transferable skills I have learnt in my career over the years still astounds me. Choosing to be a foster parent also illustrates the ethos you need to be a lawyer - compassion, protection and helping.
And if you are dyslexic, don’t let this put you off. Dyslexia means you see the world differently and think outside the box, which is one of the skills that would make you an amazing lawyer.