For the latest in our Women in Business blog series, Discovery Performance spoke to Ann Thompson, who gave her insights on the importance of mentors, flexibility and self-motivation.
1) How have you got to where you are today? Please could you tell us a bit about your career history?
My degree is actually in Law and Chemistry, because I couldn’t choose between science and the arts. I decided that I wanted to go into Law, but that I wanted to travel first. So, after university, I travelled for a couple of years, taking various temporary jobs in admin, accounts, and the like. Taking some time out to travel meant that I went back into law with more varied life experience and dedication. I would absolutely recommend taking a gap year (or two!) to really decide what you want to do after university, particularly if you are planning a career in law. Law school is a serious and expensive undertaking, so it’s a really good idea to take some breathing space and make sure that it is a path you’re really committed to taking.
After travelling, I was certain that I really did want to go into law, so I did the Bar finals and a pupillage before converting to work as a solicitor. I started off doing a bit of everything (crime, family, housing, etc), and found I really enjoyed mixing with people and supporting clients. My main role now is in family law, where I act on behalf of my clients, some of whom can even be children. Through one of my colleagues’ advice, I have also become a part-time judge in benefits tribunals, which is completely different to my usual role and an interesting change. In the future, I would like to continue gaining experience in different areas, such as mental health.
2) You’ve had a really interesting career in family and child-protection law – what drew you to this specialism?
I have always enjoyed criminal law and how it allows people to have a voice, so family law was a natural progression. It is an area where the work can sometimes be done less carefully than it should have been; for example, parents’ voices may or may not have been adequately heard, there are often delays, and non-British citizens may be unfairly penalised. Really, it is this righting of injustices which I particularly enjoy about working in family law.
After some time in family law, I joined the Children’s Panel. To qualify to be on the Children’s Panel, you have to have done a certain number of years, cases, and advocacy to begin with, before an interview and an examination, so it’s quite a long process. I started out by working on domestic violence cases, which often involve advocacy and child protection issues, where I worked with more senior colleagues and learnt the ropes. I was actually encouraged to apply to the panel by my then-boss, who was a fantastic mentor to me. She was extremely intelligent and competent, as well as incredibly compassionate, and very committed to nurturing people’s potential. When she learnt that I enjoyed this side of family law, she helped and encouraged me to pursue a place on the Children’s Panel.
3) What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in law today?
Make sure you truly want to do it, because it’s going to cost a fortune! I would also strongly recommend getting experience in a range of areas rather than just doing one thing; shadow people, take summer jobs (e.g. as a paralegal), or do a mini-pupillage. Different experiences can make you realise what you really want to do. If you’re doing a law degree, it is best to find out sooner than later if you want to do it! If you do realise that law isn’t for you, a law degree offers plenty of transferable skills, so you haven’t boxed yourself in. Use your degree to find out what you want to do, think about your career as you go along, and try to do a few placements.
I would also advise law students to go and see court hearings, in both criminal and civil court, to really get a feel of the atmosphere. Is it exciting or interesting? Is it somewhere you could see yourself working? You can easily find out what public hearings there are in your area, because any court will have a daily list of causes, which can usually be found online. Mooting (debates, mock trials), is also a great way to gain skills and get a feel for whether law is for you.
Ultimately, it is essential to try a lot of different things in your career, especially when you are just starting out. Many people actually return to law having done different things in different areas. I believe it is important to look at what a person can bring to a role, not just direct experience of that particular area. In fact, it is this diversity of thought which is so important in law. Finally, there is new case law and legislation all the time, so it is not hard to get experience in new areas of law, or in law full stop. It is just a case of being motivated enough to take these opportunities.
4) In a recent survey, it was revealed women make up, on average, just 24% of the partnershipsin UK law firms – why do you think this is?
I didn’t know it was that low – that’s ridiculous! I’m not really sure why that is. In my personal experience, family law isn’t particularly male; in fact, my team are mostly female. The four senior partners in our firm are women. That is fairly typical in family law, although I also work with some fantastic men. However, in city firms, male barristers are more likely to go into the finance side of law.
It may also have something to do with the culture in corporate law – there is a tendency to take pride in working crazy hours, and you are expected to take part in a lot of networking events. This is not always compatible with family life, or indeed a good work-life balance, and, in my opinion, the hours are not always necessary. Since childcare duties still more often fall to women, this could deter women from taking on these time-demanding roles.
I also think that in family law, because the departments are smaller, it might be more obvious that having a work-life balance is important. Huge teams will have specific tasks, and not work with individuals, which can feed the culture of presenteeism that you see a lot in law.
5) The big news last year was that the Women on Boards initiative exceeded its target, but what do you see as the next step for diversity in business?
I know that the initiative is now trying to extend the target to 33%, which is good, and I agree with the attitude that ‘using the carrot not the stick’ is a far better way to encourage businesses to embrace diversity than forcing quotas on them.
I think the next step is to examine corporate culture – why aren’t women already on boards? I would guess that it’s because of the male-dominated business climate, and the incompatibility of antisocial hours with family life. I think that co-working or part-time working initiatives should absolutely be applied to boards to make meetings more compatible with remote working. After all, conference calls are a part of everyday business life, so why not extend this to board meetings? In fact, if participants were not forced to trek into endless meetings, these remote meetings might be more focused because of the time saved.
This approach is something which has been embraced in civil courts, and family court is beginning to follow suit. We have a lot of advocate meetings on the phone, and they tend to be much quicker and more focused; just as much gets done as in a face-to-face meeting, but it is much more focused. Civil court in particular does many telephone hearings and videolinks, and the role of technology in these proceedings is growing. Of course, as in a business setting, this approach does not work for every situation, and in family law, face-to-face meetings can be extremely important. In my area, we use remote meetings most often for interim hearings, where a narrow issue is being discussed. That way, I am in the room with my client, supporting them, and we connect with the court via videolink. This flexibility can be extremely beneficial, and is absolutely something which could and should be applied to increase diversity in business.
Written by Florence Sturt-Hammond