Emma Lilley

Emma Lilley

Head of Legal, UK & Ireland at SD Worx

Emma Lilley is head of legal, UK and Ireland, at the Payroll, HR and workforce management solutions provider SD Worx, and one of a growing band of “lawfluencers”, with a loyal following in Instagram. She talks to the Brief about her career to-date and why she always found in-house more appealing than private practice.

Emma Lilley is head of legal for the UK and Ireland operation of the global HR services provider SD Worx. She is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Law, a future board member at O Shaped, an organisation that aims to lead change across the legal sector, and a prominent “lawfluencer”, whose In-house Potter Instagram account has more than 10,000 followers.

All this has been achieved within just five years of qualification. It might come as a surprise, then, to discover that as a teenager she never planned on having a legal career, and only embarked on a law degree with a foundation year at her hometown university, Staffordshire, through clearing after missing out on the ‘A’ level grades necessary to study music.

Nor was it exactly a case of professional love at first sight when she began to study law. The more she learned about “the traditional legal route” the less keen she was to pursue it.

“It didn’t seem as though it would be welcoming for someone like me, and I felt that I would be judged on the university I went to, my ‘A’ levels and where I was from,” Lilley explains.

The whole thing about having to attend careers fairs and sell yourself to prospective employers was really off-putting.

Mind the gap

Things reached such a point that she began to think “that if this was the only way to become a lawyer then I was going to have to think of something else to do”. This led her to take a gap year after her degree (first-class honours), “to work out what I wanted to do”.

During this year she discovered not only that the role of in-house counsel existed, but that it was possible to train and qualify in-house. “I felt that would be more me,” she says.

“The foundation and gap years that I took really helped me,” she continues.

People told me I was mad to take a gap year, because I would be a year behind everyone else. But it gave me the space to really think about my options and to work out what I wanted.

Training in-house

So, in 2015, she took a job as an in-house paralegal at the fuel card provider Wex Europe Services, a position that rolled over into a training contract the following year. The training contract lasted 18 months, rather than the customary 24, because the SRA discounted six months in recognition of time spent working as a paralegal, and included a three-month secondment to the employment department at Knights: “the only time I have spent in private practice”.

In 2018 she moved on to a role as a commercial solicitor at Manchester Airports Group. “That was great,” she says.

“However, then Covid happened, which hit travel really hard. It went from being a really positive, exciting environment, to being the opposite, and I didn’t want growth at this early point in my career to be stifled.”

In January 2021 she joined SDWorx, a global provider of outsourced HR and payroll services, as sole legal counsel for the UK and Ireland – a role in which she was placed by BCL Legal. In May 2023 she was promoted to head of legal for the UK and Ireland.

“The perfect balance”

She sits within the wider global legal team at SD Worx, which she says provides “the perfect balance of independence and support”.

Day-to-day, she says, “My role covers anything and everything of a legal nature in the UK and Ireland.” This includes drafting and reviewing customer contracts and supplier and partner agreements.

“Because of the nature of the services we provide I always have to be alert to changes in the law around data handling, and make sure we are up-to-date in that area,” she continues. “I also work closely with marketing and sales, because we’re dealing with their customers.”

The job also has company secretarial elements, as well as taking in intellectual property law and employment issues.

Lilley also gets involved in corporate M&A transactions, and worked on the company’s acquisition last year of Intelligo, a software supplier based in Ireland.

In-house Potter

As a social media influencer within the legal sector, Lilley says she “aims to inspire other in-house lawyers”.

She believes that, although many law firms are now starting to talk about diversity not just in terms of gender and race, but also socio-economic background, there remains a lot of work to do.

She says, “I think part of the problem might be the way it’s portrayed at university – that law firms won’t want you if you didn’t go to the right university, or if your ‘A’ levels weren’t good enough.

There are some law firms that say they don’t look at ‘A’ levels now but I don’t feel as though the top firms are open to you without the right educational background. And it still doesn’t feel like a welcoming place if you’re coming from a working-class background.

Looking to the future, she says that a big change building with in the sector is “that the next generation of lawyers are becoming more outspoken”.

For example, she says, candidates are asking about ESG issues in job interviews, meaning firms are having to “focus on their whole offer, not just the financial package they provide to employees”.

Not long ago, she continues, employees would have tried to hide the fact they might have taken part in a protest march at the weekend. “Now they are expecting their employers to support their activism,” she says.

“There’s obviously a fine line there that businesses are going to have to walk, to balance their employees’ demands with their corporate goals. It needs to be handled in the right way but I think it’s big change that is going to have a huge impact.”