Emily Ashton (pictured left) and Catherine Harris (right) work in the legal team at the homewares and furnishings retailer Dunelm. They tell The Brief about what inspired them to pursue careers in the law, the key characteristics of successful in-house lawyers and what they enjoy about working for a growing FTSE 250 retail phenomenon.
What/who made you consider law as a career?
Emily: I loved a good argument as a child and that’s continued as I’ve got older but I now call it playing “devils’ advocate”. So, trying to see the other side of the story and challenging what I’m being told seems to have been a trait throughout life.
Being able to do this as part of my job was definitely a draw towards a career in law. I have friends and family in various law-related jobs and they always seemed fulfilled and interested in their careers.
And then the sensible bit of wanting a stable, long-term career all led me to pursue a career in law via the GDL law conversion route after an unrelated undergraduate degree.
Catherine: I’ve always enjoyed research and being organised, skills that lend themselves to a legal career, so was fortunate to be offered a school work experience opportunity with a law firm around 14 which developed my existing interest in law.
I then met a brilliant lawyer called Nick Goddard who worked in house at a local county council. He offered me the opportunity to shadow him at work for a week during the summer holidays and gave an insight into what working in a different legal environment could be and the impact it can have on a local community.
He was the first of a number of generous lawyers who gave their time and expertise to develop and encourage my growing passion for law.
What do you enjoy most about working as an in-house lawyer?
Emily: Working for a business with great products and a fantastic brand is really engaging and being part of its success and growth is exciting and motivating. Fulfilling an integral support function which helps the business do this makes you feel part of something bigger.
The legal team support all the functions within the business, so your general knowledge and understanding of marketing, tech, data, sales etc grows rapidly, helping me to make commercial, pragmatic decisions and tailor legal advice accordingly. Overall, I really enjoy the variety, pace and challenge of working in-house.
Catherine: The variety of work, the opportunity to make and support decisions which influence the direction of a business and the brilliant people. Working in private practice I met and worked with some exceptionally clever solicitors and inspiring people.
Being in-house widens that pool of talent and I’ve had some fantastic opportunities to work with specialists in their field both in the UK and abroad. It’s a genuine pleasure and fascinating to work with people who are experts in an entirely different area to my own.
What attracted you to work for your current company?
Emily: Dunelm is such a well known brand that I jumped at the chance to find out more about the role. They have grown rapidly in recent years and have a clear strategy and ambitious plans for the future including around sustainability and the environment.
The culture is relaxed and open and the business does a lot to support colleagues and maintain a good work-life balance. The experience of working for a FTSE 250, growing business was a huge draw, it’s challenging but fun!
Catherine: Initially it was the opportunity to work for a retail business that had the agility and ambition to thrive despite a difficult market place (I moved to Dunelm during the second lockdown and in the midst of a global pandemic).
Reading the annual report prior to interview and meeting with the CFO I was encouraged to accept the role by the impressive sustainability ambitions and environmental focus of the company. I was struck by the forward-looking approach and preparedness to grasp big decisions which could have a significant impact given the scale of the business.
What are the main deliverables of your role?
Emily: It’s a wide remit but the main deliverables I’d say are responsive, tailored legal advice to the business with suggested solutions where needed. Involvement in cross functional projects to provide legal support throughout. contract review, negotiation and advice on a risk-based basis.
Catherine: Unlike private practice, where I gave advice on what the law was, my in-house career has been commercial opportunity and risk management against a legal matrix. This means that, although my “traditional” deliverables are commercial contracts, marketing and advertising compliance, intellectual property, preparation and provision of compliance training and general legal support, my advice is focused on supporting the business’s needs and ambitions and all support is given against that context.
What do you feel are the most important character traits of an in-house lawyer?
Emily: I’d completely agree with Catherine’s much more eloquent response below. I’ve summarised my view to:
- Attention to detail
And ability to produce lots of lists!
Catherine: In-house lawyers need to have good people skills to be able to get involved in the business and understand the wider commercial environment that company operates in. Seeing the bigger picture is also important for horizon scanning – to advise the business of legal developments that may have an impact on your company.
In-house is incredibly fast paced and diverse, which means you also need to be agile and curious as you’ll be continuously learning. I had the opportunity to work with an inspirational leader at Barclaycard, Olivia Broderick, who once gave me the advice to always ask questions, even if you are the most junior team member in the room, because your questions have value.
I’d pass that advice on and emphasise the importance of a flexible and commercial approach. Anyone can say “no” to a problem, but a valuable in-house counsel will think laterally and offer alternative solutions.
When/if you look for new team members – what is most important to you and why? Ability or character?
Emily: Both, but character is more important overall as team working is key both within the legal team and the business as a whole.
Catherine: The legal profession can be intense and challenging, and there is a base level of competence that is a given. If an individual has the necessary skills to fulfil the relevant role then character is going to be key.
We can support colleagues and develop skills sets to grow talent within a team so it’s great to see someone’s character and personality at interview, as we will likely be working closely together.
What would you say to any lawyer considering a move in-house?
Emily: Speak to people in the role to see if it’s for you. Be prepared for less structure and a different, less rigid career path from private practice.
You need broader knowledge of numerous areas of law, so being an expert in one area is not what it’s about. But if you want a broad, varied and commercial role with arguably a better work-life balance where you’re integral to a business then in-house is the perfect fit.
Catherine: I’ve been fortunate to work for businesses with strong consumer brand recognition, that I am interested in and can be passionate about. I’d suggest looking for a business where the brand values and company product appeal to you as I’ve found it makes working for that business both exciting and engaging.
Expect to roll your sleeves up and get involved in a variety of topics. Every day will be different, and it’s unlikely any day will go according to your carefully laid plans, so take the opportunity to be adaptable and learn to roll with what the business needs.
If you give it a try and decide in-house isn’t for you, you can always return to private practice with a valuable insight into the challenges and opportunities facing a business and the style of advice they will value.
- Connect with Emily Ashton via LinkedIn
- Connect with Catherine Harris via LinkedIn