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What made you initially choose to pursue a career in law?
Despite this being a common reason for choosing a legal career in the late nineties, it wasn’t anything to do with Ally McBeal (showing my age!). I was a very analytical child and teenager, always wanting to understand the “right” answer or the best solution to a problem and, probably quite bossily, telling people what it was! I think this trait very much lends itself to a career in law, because in my current role I am essentially analysing the problems of a business and advising on the best course of action, whilst ensuring it is in accordance with the law.
Can you tell us a bit about your own career to date?
I studied Law at Liverpool University and absolutely loved the historical nature of the degree, the unusual case law and understanding the parameters which govern our society. Like I imagine most law students, I got a shock when the training contract I commenced at Hammonds Suddards Edge (as was) did not quite live up to my expectations of practising law! However, working all hours in a commercial firm in London was a great experience and most certainly a character building one.
It was only when I qualified into the contentious construction team in Manchester that I really found my feet and was able to use my skills to apply the law to try and solve (or at least mitigate) businesses’ problems. I found myself working on live projects, rather than just formal disputes post completion, where I could actually influence and make a difference to the outcome for my clients. For me, I found this type of work the most satisfying and fulfilling.
I stayed at Hammonds for six years, before the team I was in made a move to McGrigors, a firm established in Scotland but relatively new to the North West. About 16 months after the move, McGrigors merged with Pinsents and the team I was part of had to leave due to a client conflict. However, fortunately, we were able to move together and we found a new home at Eversheds. I became a principal associate within a new contentious construction team there.
Although I enjoyed the work I was doing and the people I worked with, I really wanted to try and focus on the job satisfaction I had found being a business adviser and devising solutions which were hopefully going to make a real difference to the operation and success of the business. In house roles in the construction industry do not come up often, so I jumped at the chance of taking a role in-house at Balfour Beatty in 2013.
What does your current role at Balfour Beatty involve?
I am based in Manchester, and cover three separate business streams (Major Projects, Engineering Services and Regional) across the North and Midlands. This means the work load is quite intense, but always varied and challenging. I also get an incredibly broad range of issues coming across my desk and a real insight into both the operational and commercial side of the business.
A typical week can include presenting a training session or workshop to project and commercial managers, advising on a suitable commercial strategy to ensure recovery on a live project, negotiating the terms of a building contract and giving urgent advice in the event of sub-contractor insolvency. The nature of the business means you are often required to think on your feet, with answers required in hours rather than days. It is imperative that the answer is both right and pragmatic; the usual caveats a private practice lawyer might include don’t really have a place in this environment.
You started your career in private practice and you then decided to move in-house. What prompted that decision?
I was predominantly a contentious lawyer in private practice, often involved in large multi-national disputes at the end of a project where the parties’ relationships had entirely broken down. In these situations, I felt it was quite difficult to make clients follow properly strategic and pragmatic advice, given how entrenched they were.
However, when I did get the opportunity to advise clients on live projects, I really enjoyed this type of work as I was actually able to influence decisions (and ultimately outcomes) in a tangible and practical way for my client’s business. I found this advisory role to be much more fulfilling and wanted to carry out this function from within a business, where I could be involved in the whole lifecycle of projects rather than just providing intermittent advice. Being in-house affords you this opportunity as you have a real vested interest in the business you are working in and the advice you are giving.
How have you found the transition?
I will admit that it was difficult at first because of the range and number of matters. In a law firm, and certainly in construction, you would typically have three or four large matters which were all consuming and which you knew everything about. As a member of the legal team in a company the size of Balfour Beatty, you can have fifty to sixty different projects on at any one time and you do not necessarily have the luxury of being told all of the detail (despite asking!).
You simply cannot approach these issues in the same way as you would in private practice because it won’t necessarily be as useful or as helpful to the team or the business as a whole. Instead, you have to provide advice in a much more bespoke, flexible and pragmatic way. The more you get to know the business and the people within it, the easier this becomes.
What have been the best/ worst things?
I think one of the difficulties has been not always having other lawyers around me in Manchester to bounce ideas off, particularly because I came from a large private practice team. However, there is a wider legal team in Scotland and London who are always there if I want to pick up the phone. Interestingly, the independence and autonomy is also one of the best things – you feel supported, yet entirely trusted to make your own judgement calls and you are responsible for prioritising the work accordingly.
I also think the breadth and depth of work which I have experienced is absolutely invaluable and, although it sounds very cringe-worthy, it has genuinely made me a better and more commercial lawyer. I am involved in the lifecycle of construction projects, from negotiating the contract, advising on the administration and correspondence during the works, to dealing with any final account recovery issues at the end. To me this is an incredibly satisfying and fulfilling role to have within a business.
What do you think is in-store for the construction industry in the UK in 2015?
I feel very positive about the industry as a whole and I think the current growth in the UK will continue. Obviously the industry has had a difficult few years, but there seems to be real positivity around big infrastructure and rail projects and large scale mixed use developments. The boom in the property market has also led to a huge increase in private housing initiatives and this is set to continue.
We will have to see what happens after the general election in terms of investment in the industry. However, you only have to walk around Manchester to see the increase in the number of cranes, the tram developments and the swanky new hotels to recognise this growth.
Congratulations on being named Young In House Lawyer of the Year 2014. How did the award come about and what does it mean to you?
Thank you very much. I must admit it was a bit of a surprise, given that I had only been in-house just over a year. In fact, I wore rather foolish high heels on the night as I certainly did not expect to have to navigate the steps to the stage in front of hundreds of people!
I actually attended the Commerce and Industry Group BBQ in the summer and someone mentioned it to me. I thought it would be a good opportunity to try and get short-listed in order to get known in the industry and put Balfour’s legal team on the map. My former colleague, Amber Grey, nominated me and I was then fortunate enough to be short-listed. A month or so before the event I was interviewed by a panel comprising of a partner from Pannone, Ruth Taylor from BCL Legal and a barrister who wanted to understand my role and why I thought I deserved the award. I found out I was successful on the night. The award is such a prestigious and recognised award in the North West, as is the C&I Group, so I was absolutely thrilled to win.
Finally, any tips/ advice for readers who maybe thinking of moving from private practice into in-house?
My advice would be to think carefully about how you like working and what environment you perform best in before making the move. It goes without saying that it is very different working in business to private practice, and this may be even more so in the construction industry. You should therefore have a clear idea about the type of sector you are interested in before you make any decision and how your private practice experience and skills can be transferred to that particular sector or industry. Ultimately, if you want to broaden your experience, challenge yourself and feel like you are making a real difference to how a business operates and functions, I would say go for it!