I started my law degree at Glasgow University in 1984. I was fortunate to study under two of the inspiring women featured in the 100 Voices Project – Professors Sheila McLean and Noreen Burrows. Dr Burrows (as she was then) was responsible for the European Law honours course. I also had a wonderful Adviser of Studies, Ian B McGhee, who provided me with vital guidance and support.
While it may not have been apparent to anyone outside my immediate family, including friends at university, I suffered with mental health problems throughout my teens and twenties, although these were not properly diagnosed until I reached my 30s. Attitudes to mental health were very different at that time and my parents, who were both health professionals, were strongly of the view that I should not enter the mental health system due to concerns about how this might affect my future.
Even today, I have only ever discussed my mental health challenges with a handful of people. However, in reflecting on my time in the law, I did not feel that I could leave this out, as it has had a significant influence on my experience.
I felt an enormous pressure to do well at university and had a dread of failure. This exacerbated my mental health problems and led to some unhealthy behaviour and several bouts of illness, including a particularly severe episode shortly before my finals. There was a real question mark over whether I would be able sit my final exams, but with the support of my mother and Mr McGhee, I managed to get through these. I found out later that Mr McGhee and my mother had devised a system to check that I had made it into each exam and Mr McGhee would then phone my mother to reassure her. I have always found this very touching.
I eventually gained a first class honours degree in European Law and, along with two other students, was awarded the prize for the top law graduate in 1988. I continued my studies at Glasgow with the Diploma, on which most of the classes took place in the then newly refurbished Stair Building.
When it came to finding a traineeship, I decided that I wanted to work for a firm that had a female partner, which was not that common in the late 80s, so I looked through the “White Book” and selected appropriate firms in Glasgow. I was lucky to get a traineeship with the firm of Wright, Johnstone and Mackenzie, which is still in existence.
I had a traditional traineeship, spending six months in four seats, and when I qualified, I was offered a position as an assistant in what was known as the Court department, but would be called the litigation or dispute resolution department now!
The work I undertook included a wide variety of civil and some criminal cases. After two years, I decided I was ready for a move and went to Hamilton Burns and Moore (which became HBM Sayers and is now BLM). Again, I gained experience in a variety of cases, although the focus was on reparation, acting on the instructions of insurance companies in the defence of claims for damages.
Things have come a long way since the early 90s when it would not have been considered appropriate for women to wear trousers when appearing in court – this would have been very much frowned upon! There were very few female sheriffs – I remember one or two at Glasgow and Edinburgh, but they were the exception. Although there are many more female sheriffs and Senators of the College of Justice today, this is still an area where men are in the majority.
I appeared in court regularly, often several times a week, in sheriff courts across Scotland and my experience of this varied. While most of the sheriffs were courteous and reasonable, there were a minority who were well-known for giving agents a very tough time, often for what appeared to be for no other reason than that they could. I cannot say that this was limited to female agents – I saw plenty of male agents suffering at the hands of an unreasonable sheriff, but there were occasions when, as a young female agent, I faced a more experienced male opponent who, along with the sheriff, seemed to take pleasure in watching me struggle.
I got married in 1993 and our daughter was born in 1996, followed by our son 18 months later. Unfortunately, I suffered post-natal depression after both births, and this was particularly severe after my son’s birth, which led to an admission to hospital. This was a very difficult time for both me and my family and was one of the factors that led to my decision to take some time out from work as I did not feel able to juggle work and home life. However, even without that experience, I would have chosen to return to work part-time if possible, as having a family was important to me and I wanted to devote time to my children while they were young.
I had worked for a partner who knew about my health challenges and was very supportive. He kept in touch with me and, over time, encouraged me to think about coming back to work. Gradually, I increased my hours from just one morning a week to two full days. I was very fortunate to have the understanding and support of a partner who saw me as an asset to the business and recognised that, although I could not take on a traditional fee-earning role, I had strengths and abilities that were of value. However, in the early 2000s, the perception was very much that if you worked part time, you did not take your career seriously, and it was very unusual for a solicitor to work part time. I think it would be accurate to say that, perhaps with very limited exceptions, the women who progressed to partnership at that time would have worked full time.
I remember a visit to a construction site where I had to interview some of the employees. The company’s director commented that our firm could not be taking the case seriously, as they had sent along the “wee part time lassie” to deal with it.
Having been away from the work environment for several years and then working very much part time, my confidence in my abilities, which had never been particularly strong, had taken quite a knock. I had concluded that I would not progress further and the best I could hope for was to be able to work part-time for as long as this suited me. Little did I know that my career would go on to develop in a way that I could never have imagined.
In 2007, my husband (who is also a solicitor) pointed out an advert in the Journal for a Professional Support Lawyer (PSL). I had not heard of this role, but my husband encouraged me to apply as he thought that it sounded like the sort of job I would enjoy, and the role was part time. I went to the interview and left knowing that I would love the role, so I was delighted when I was offered the job. I joined the dispute resolution team at Biggart Baillie (which became DWF in 2012) and found that the role of PSL played to my strengths – a love of research; organisational skills; training; drafting articles and practice notes.
The role of PSL began in the City of London in the 80s when firms recognised the need for experienced solicitors who could provide advice and support to colleagues without having to focus on transactional work for clients. The role has evolved significantly down south and is now a recognised alternative career path to fee earning for some. In Scotland, the role has not developed to the same extent and PSLs only represent a small percentage of the solicitors in Scotland, but in my view, having a PSL can bring significant benefits to a legal business. I am passionate about the professional support role and have written articles and taken part in events to promote this.
I worked very hard to make my first PSL role my own and actively sought out opportunities to develop the role and to work with other teams and departments across the business to raise the profile of professional support. I was promoted to Associate in 2010 and this was very important to me as, not long before that, I could not have envisaged achieving promotion.
In 2014, I was given the opportunity to take on a PSL role at Digby Brown. The firm had not had a PSL before, so I knew that I would have to impress to demonstrate the value that the role can bring. This coincided with my children leaving home for university, which allowed me to focus my attention on developing my role in a way that I would not have felt able to do previously.
I worked extremely hard and was thrilled when my contribution was recognised in 2017 and I was promoted to partner. It is still fairly unusual for a solicitor who works part time to be promoted to that level, even more so a non-fee earner, and I am very proud to have come this far, even if it has taken well over 20 years! It means a great deal for me to be recognised for the part I play in the success of the firm. I now have two colleagues working with me full time on providing professional support to our teams across Scotland and the role has expanded to take on aspects of risk and compliance.
The profession has come a long way since I joined and there are now far more women in partnership and other senior roles than there were 30 years ago, but there is still some way to go before women are fully represented, and although there are a number of reasons for this, it is still to some extent down to the choices many women have to make in balancing the demands of career and family - choices which fewer men have to consider.
However, I think it is important that I acknowledge that, throughout my time in the law, I have received important support from a number of men who have believed in me - from my advisor of studies to my boss at HBM Sayers, to the partners who have put me forward for promotion. My husband has been a constant source of support and encouragement and is very proud of what I have achieved.
I am fortunate to work in a business which does not support the presenteeism that is common in so many law firms – colleagues at all levels are encouraged to leave at the end of the working day and most solicitors have the opportunity to work from home one day a week (although at the time of writing we are all working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic). I continue to work part time (4 days a week) and the colleague who was promoted at the same time as me is a woman who works part time.
I also think it is important to acknowledge that, as women, we have a responsibility to support other female members of the profession, even if their career choices and decisions are not the same as our own. I regret to say that the attitude to those who work part-time which I encountered was often displayed by female colleagues who had made the decision to work full time and have help with their children.
Working part time has allowed me to get involved in other areas, which has been one of the aspects of working in the law that I have enjoyed most.
Until recently, I tutored on the Diploma at Glasgow and was senior tutor on two of the courses. I was also involved in developing and teaching a couple of courses on the Law School’s CPD programme. I loved tutoring and meeting so many promising students. It was a pleasure to get to know some of the lawyers of the future!
I am also a solicitor member of the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal, having been appointed in 2017.
I was delighted, if a bit overwhelmed, to be nominated and reach the final of the Inspirational Women in Law Awards 2019. The awards are organised by Spark 21, a charity founded to celebrate, inform and inspire future generations of women in the profession and which runs the First 100 Years project in England. It was an honour to join the other finalists and to find myself in the company of so many inspiring female lawyers.
Because of my own experience, I have a long-standing interest in mental health and wellbeing, particularly in the legal profession, and I am part of the Steering Group of LawScot Wellbeing, the LSS’s initiative to support emotional wellbeing across the legal community. In 2019, I was privileged to be asked to take on the role of Lawcare Champion for Scotland to promote the valuable work of the charity which provides support to anyone in the legal community experiencing mental health and wellbeing problems. The legal profession tends to attract people who, because of some of their personality traits such as perfectionism and self-sufficiency, are often prone to mental health issues, and this is something I feel strongly that, as a profession, we need to address.
I am very proud to be a woman in the law as I love my role and really value the opportunities that this has afforded me to promote an alternative to the traditional fee-earning role. I think that it is important for those joining the profession to hear that there are alternative routes to a satisfying career and I hope that, by being visible and promoting the path I took, this will help.
I would say to other women starting out in the profession that it is important to trust your own judgement and do what is best for you, even if it isn’t the conventional or traditional way of approaching a career in law. Look for opportunities and take these when they arise.