Top Tips on Making Partner

Emma Brookes shares her story on how she entered the legal sphere and gives top tips on how to make partner.

I don’t come from a family of lawyers. My parents were both journalists and I thought I might follow in their footsteps. However, aged 14, I got the opportunity to do work experience at a criminal law firm in my home town of Rotherham. It doesn’t sound very glamorous but gosh, it was exciting! This was over 25 years ago and back in the ‘good old days’ when criminal legal aid work was exciting, challenging and properly funded. I was lucky enough to spend the week ‘work shadowing’ three highly successful, charismatic partners (two men, one woman) whom I accompanied to the Magistrates’ court every day for a week. I was fascinated by the fast pace of criminal law, the relationships between criminal lawyers and their clients, the formality, pomp and ceremony of the court (yes, even in Rotherham!) and the clever way lawyers presented their clients’ cases in the very best light. By the end of the week, I had decided that this was THE career for me – I could actually make a difference to people’s lives. If I did my job well, I could stop people going to prison! Attending an inspirational lecture by Michael Mansfield during my sixth form sealed my fate. I was hooked…

Most of my work now involves representing individuals being investigated or prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

I don’t recall having any doubt that becoming a lawyer was achievable – back then, being a woman wasn’t something that I even considered could be an obstacle. Perhaps that’s because I was lucky enough to be raised by a staunchly feminist mother who had her own successful career and both parents who believed I could do anything I put my mind to.

Fast forward a decade and I’d studied law, watched far too many episodes of ‘This Life’ and remained determined to be a criminal lawyer. The first day of my much sought after training contract brought me down to earth with a bump. I learned that I would spend my first six months in ‘Wills and Probate’. My first task was to go to a recently deceased elderly client’s home, and as the firm were executors of her will, sort through her belongings (including her underwear drawer) for evidence of all her assets. Not the great beginning I had imagined.

However, I was soon thrust into the murky and totally absorbing world of criminal law, which I of course loved. After qualifying, I moved to London where I was thrown in at the deep end representing clients on cases including murder, rape and drugs offences. After my time ‘in the trenches’, I moved to a firm specialising in business crime, representing professionals – such as solicitors and accountants charged with serious financial crimes.

I was delighted to be made a partner nearly two years ago. Unlike many law firms, Byrne and Partners has an equal 50/50 split of male and female partners and we are led by a female Managing Partner.

I moved to my current firm as a senior associate solicitor four years ago and here I have been privileged to work on some of the most serious and high-profile investigations and prosecutions from the last few years. Most of my work now involves representing individuals being investigated or prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). My work is often high-profile, multi-jurisdictional and involves enforcement agencies throughout the world. I represented one of the defendants in the Barclays LIBOR trial and a number of individuals facing serious allegations of bribery and corruption.

Throughout my career, there have of course been times when being a woman has made things harder.

My work involves travel, I’ve interviewed witnesses in Nairobi and attended conferences and court hearings in New York, Athens and Paris. I was delighted to be made a partner nearly two years ago. Unlike many law firms, Byrne and Partners has an equal 50/50 split of male and female partners and we are led by a female Managing Partner.

But more importantly, the vast majority of my clients were men.

Throughout my career, there have of course been times when being a woman has made things harder. In the early stages, many of the environments in which I spent my time were completely male-dominated – police stations, prisons, courts and even the judiciary. But more importantly, the vast majority of my clients were men.

This was a challenge at times. As a young criminal lawyer, I would regularly attend police stations in the less salubrious parts of London, very late at night, to represent men accused of extremely serious and violent offences. I would be locked in a consultation room (or at that time, a cell!) with an often highly agitated client facing years in prison. In these situations, I had to be assertive and absolutely certain of my advice in order to be able to quickly gain the trust of my client before going into the stressful environment of a police interview.

There’s no doubt this toughened me up.

I learned that the best way to do this was by doing my job properly – representing my client to the very best of my ability and importantly making sure that I dealt with the police in a fair but firm way. I never allowed the police to ‘forget’ the rules and was vocal in asserting my client’s rights. I had to be consistent with this approach, however heinous a crime my client was accused of and however unpleasant they might have been to me during the process. There’s no doubt this toughened me up.

Like many professional women, I often find myself the only woman round the table. And many people’s perception of the archetypal lawyer is of a man. This pushes me to make the very best first impression and work hard to ensure the client has faith in me. Is that because I’m a woman? Maybe. Is that because I’m relatively young for a partner? Maybe.

Don’t try to ‘network like a man’ if that doesn’t suit you

My top tips:

  1. Believe in yourself and trust your own judgment. Very early on in my career I was given a huge amount of responsibility for very serious cases and this equipped me to ‘think on my feet’ and take responsibility for my decisions. So, welcome any extra responsibility offered.
  2. Don’t try to ‘network like a man’ if that doesn’t suit you – develop your own style and way of forming meaningful business contacts. You don’t have to attend golf days (unless of course you want to!) nor should you feel you have to be the last one standing at a drinks event. Be you – otherwise your marketing will be ineffective and exhausting!
  3. Accept help – this is not a sign of weakness. Very few successful people get to where they are by doing it all on their own. I have had a couple of amazing people throughout my career who I’d describe as ‘mentors’. They have believed in me, championed me and pushed me to do things I might not have done without their encouragement.
  4. Keep up to date on what is going on – not just in law but in the world generally. Politics, economics and global events are impacting more and more on many different areas of law. Use the time on your commute into work to read or listen to the news and keep abreast of all the latest developments. The same lessons apply if you’re meeting a new client – read around their case, be aware of the trends in their area of business. Knowing something about their world will go a long way to ‘breaking the ice’ in your initial meeting.
  5. To coin a phrase from a highly successful woman – ‘lean in’. This advice has to be aimed primarily at women with children. I truly believe that women should not give up on their career whilst their children are young. It will be hard but keep going, even if it’s part-time. Unfair as it may seem, taking just a few years out can set women back a decade in terms of career progression. The inconvenient truth is that women’s careers are generally on an upward trajectory at exactly the same time as many have children. Over 50% of solicitors at qualification are women, but things go downhill from there. At larger firms in particular, the latest statistics show that only 29% of partners are female.

The top levels of law firms are still dominated by white, middle class, middle aged men but things are changing, and you can be part of that change.

When I was offered a job at Byrne and Partners, it was an amazing opportunity to work on high calibre cases. My children were just 5 and 3 so it was a big decision. However, I was acutely aware that the ‘perfect job’ doesn’t often come at the ‘perfect time’ and I have never once regretted it.

  1. Share your ‘domestic’ responsibilities and surround yourself with a great support network. Many of my recent cases have involved travelling which I am able to do because my husband is just as capable as I am of ‘holding the fort’. Also, invest as much as you can possibly afford in great, reliable childcare. This will leave you free to focus on work – and help to alleviate some of the inevitable guilt.
  2. Take responsibility to empower other women. Do not fall into the ‘unconscious bias’ that sometimes hold the female workforce back. I haven’t experienced this from other women within the profession, but here is an example. My daughter was off school sick and my husband had taken her to our local GP. After he had given her a brief run-down of symptoms, the female GP looked at my husband in a disapproving way, then at my daughter with sympathy and asked ‘I’m just wondering, where is her mum?!’ It was 10am on a Tuesday morning and it had not crossed this (fellow professional) woman’s mind that I might be at work! Sadly, this story shows that society still has some way to go before men and women are seen as equals, both on the work and domestic front.
  3. Be kind to people on your way up. Whatever your position – trainee or partner – no one wants to work with someone who is angry, difficult or rude. Being reasonable, considerate and fair will earn you far more respect from colleagues in the long term.
  4. However busy and focused you are on work, always cherish and invest time in your life outside work, whatever that is – partner, family, friends, travel or sport. On my more difficult days, I take immense comfort from the life I have away from the office!

The top levels of law firms are still dominated by white, middle class, middle aged men but things are changing, and you can be part of that change.

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