Representing drug dealers on one of the country’s meanest streets to providing crucial advice on multi-billion-pound public sector procurement projects
Emily Powell is a Partner in the corporate and commercial team at the Cardiff-headquartered top-100 firm Hugh James. She told The Brief about a career that has taken her from representing drug dealers on one of the country’s meanest streets to providing crucial advice on multi-billion-pound public sector procurement projects.
Within the legal sector there are numerous cases of people moving into in-house counsel roles following successful careers in private practice. It is rarer to come across individuals who have moved in the opposite direction.
One such lawyer is Emily Powell, Partner in the corporate and commercial team at Hugh James in Cardiff.
Powell joined Hugh James in 2017 following a nine-year stint at the Ministry of Defence, advising on procurement for major projects. This background is reflected in her current role advising public sector clients on procurement and assisting private sector clients, particularly those that supply the public sector.
Powell’s client list includes rail operators, defence contractors, central and local authorities and registered social landlords.
Her background at the MoD is reflected in Powell’s sizeable defence sector client bank. Hugh James advises the Single Source Regulations Office, a defence regulator, as well as numerous companies that supply the MoD.
Powell’s enthusiasm for her specialist area is clear. There are, she says, set rules and procedures to follow in procurement but also, because it is a relatively new practice area, there remains significant scope for creative thinking.
She says, “At the moment the public sector organisations in South Wales, for example, seem to be really interested in collaboration. We are helping them develop solutions within the procurement rules to enable them to work together and either benefit from economies of scale or collaborate, particularly in social housing to deal with homelessness in the area.”
When I was looking around to go into private practice culture was absolutely critical, It’s important for me to feel valued where I work, to feel supported and to be able to have an open dialogue with my employer. The corporate and commercial team at Hugh James is a great place, we all get on very, very well and, in terms of support, I get exactly what I need.
Procurement, and indeed the law, were not always on Powell’s horizon. She studied biology at Exeter University in the early 2000s and, having discounted teaching, research and medicine as career paths, her attention was eventually piqued when the university careers service suggested taking a law conversion course.
She says, “I thought it was something that actually wasn’t so far removed from science as you might think because there is a real analytical side to advising a client and looking at the application of the law. Then, having done my conversion course and enjoyed it, I went on to the LPC and never looked back.”
It was not, however, immediately clear that she was destined to specialise in commercial law. Instead she qualified with a criminal practice based on Stapleton Road in Bristol, where she remained for two years post-qualification.
“Stapleton Road was one of the top ten crime hotspots identified by Tony Blair’s government,” she says. “It was a drug dealers’ area and we had a lot of really interesting work.
“There were a lot of very serious assaults, murders and sexual offences. It was quite a baptism of fire, and you quickly develop the hide of a rhino because if at the age of 23 you can deal with much older, hostile police officers then you can deal with anything.”
However, much as she enjoyed criminal defence work, Powell eventually concluded that “crime really didn’t pay” and looked around for other more financially rewarding options.
Equipping the forces
An advertised role in the legal team at the MoD’s procurement headquarters in Filton, Bristol caught her attention because, although many employers pigeon-hole lawyers based on their early specialisations, “Government takes the view that if you can train in one area of law then you can be trained in another.”
The MoD provided, in its own way, another baptism of fire. “The thing that stays with me is my first day in the office there,” Powell says.
“I was shadowing a more senior lawyer who took me into a meeting with her. We walked into the room and one of the first things I realised was that we were discussing a £5 billion equipment programme.
“That’s when I was struck by the scope and scale of what we were dealing with, and also the contribution we were making to society by equipping the armed forces.”
Nine years later, however, she decided the time had come to move on. She says, “I loved my job in the MoD but I got to the point where I thought if I stayed there any longer I would have been there for the rest of my career, and I was too young for that.”
However, the MoD proved a hard act to follow and Powell was actually about to give up on her job search when a recruitment consultant approached her with the opportunity to join Hugh James as a partner.
At the moment the public sector organisations in South Wales, for example, seem to be really interested in collaboration. We are helping them develop solutions within the procurement rules to enable them to work together and either benefit from economies of scale or collaborate, particularly in social housing to deal with homelessness in the area.
Hugh James is a top 100 national firm that employs around 750 staff and 64 partners at its offices in Cardiff and London. The corporate and commercial team she joined currently includes three other partners, a senior associate, two solicitors, two trainees and a paralegal.
It was not, though, the firm’s scale that attracted Powell so much as its culture. “When I was looking around to go into private practice culture was absolutely critical,” she says.
“It’s important for me to feel valued where I work, to feel supported and to be able to have an open dialogue with my employer. The corporate and commercial team at Hugh James is a great place, we all get on very, very well and, in terms of support, I get exactly what I need.”
Powell, who is kept busy outside of work by her two young children, dog, cat and two horses, has found her professional niche and an environment in which she feels she can develop her potential. Based on this experience, what advice would she give to junior lawyers seeking to establish their careers?
“Be the best you can be,” she says. “Work hard, take the opportunities when they come to you and don’t be disheartened if you don’t get to where you want to be the first time.
“Where you end up is not necessarily where you thought you were going to end up but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly where you should be when you get there.”