In 2019, I was honoured to be appointed Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prosecution in Scotland. My statutory role involves independently assessing the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and reporting publicly on my findings. While I may be only the third person to hold this post, I’m thrilled to say I am not the first woman. And while this post may seem an obvious one for a Glasgow law graduate, I took what some may think was a rather unconventional route to get here. Taking the path less well travelled, I never practised as a solicitor but instead have spent my career using the law and policy as tools to bring about improvements in public services with a view to creating a community in which the human rights of all are protected and promoted. Despite the less conventional path, it’s clear to me that the seeds for my future career were planted at Glasgow where I learned invaluable legal and life skills, and for that I’m grateful.
Arriving at the University of Glasgow in 1996, I was clear that I wanted to study law, but probably not so clear about what that might actually involve, what to expect during the next four years, and with no particular long term goal in mind. Not knowing any real-life lawyers but being fond of the odd American legal drama, I was lucky that my teenage self chose a course and a place of study that in hindsight were exactly right for me. While even being accepted to study law was the achievement of a long-held dream, little did I know that I was just getting started – I was about to make lifelong friends, to be first daunted but then encouraged and spurred on by my incredibly smart peers, to be inspired to put human rights at the heart of my working life, and to take advantage of opportunities to live and study abroad.
One of the most significant moments during my time at Glasgow came during those very first few weeks, when I was captivated by lectures on child law by Elaine Sutherland and I first heard mention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those early lectures sparked an interest in children’s rights that continues to this day, and set my career path in motion. While children’s rights were the focus of my early career, this later broadened to human rights generally after an LLM in Human Rights Law, and a new interest in the rights of those deprived of their liberty. I consider myself fortunate, that my working life has been spent focusing on issues that I believe in and feel passionately about.
Say yes to everything
A second significant moment in my time at Glasgow was being given the opportunity to study abroad, at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio. I would strongly encourage any student to take advantage of opportunities to study abroad. The chance to live elsewhere, to meet new people, to challenge yourself, to become more self-reliant, and to learn more about yourself and others is one that should not be missed. I was lucky enough to go to Ohio with a fellow Glasgow law student. We had a shared approach to our six months abroad – to make the most of our time away, to travel as much as our classes allowed, and to experience American life, as previously seen in film and TV.
We jointly signed up for a Trial Advocacy class which involved performing a different element of a trial each week and being filmed while doing so. The class culminated in a full trial simulation before a judge and jury in a local court. The class was one which neither of us would likely have done at home. However, signing up for something so far out of our respective comfort zones seemed to fit our newly acquired globetrotting lifestyle. Trial Advocacy proved to be one of the most terrifying and rewarding classes we had ever taken. It was also great fun, and a special thanks is due to our professor and classmates who each week answered with good humour our questions based on the previous night’s episode of Ally McBeal.
Studying in America provided me with a valuable life lesson – to say yes to whatever opportunities come my way (no matter how daunting) and to experience as much of the world as possible. On the wall of the court in which we had our Trial Advocacy class was inscribed a quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.’
My positive experience in America encouraged me to take up further opportunities to travel throughout my career. This included returning to Ohio to work after graduation, but also when advising on the prevention of torture and ill-treatment in prisons and other places of detention in countries such as Afghanistan, Russia and Bahrain.
The path less travelled
Settling back into my fourth year at Glasgow after my time abroad was in itself a challenge, and soon I was being expected to make decisions about the future. This I found difficult. I wasn’t convinced that the well-trodden path of diploma and traineeship were for me, but I wasn’t yet sure what would take its place. One thing I had noticed in America was that it seemed far more common for people to study law and to use that experience in various ways, without necessarily practicing law in a traditional sense. With this in mind, I applied to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission Fellowship Programme. This Programme, which has been running since the 1960s, offers a 13-month paid fellowship to graduates interested in a career in public service.
As a member of the Fellowship class of 2001, I was assigned to the Democratic Caucus of the Ohio House of Representatives where I worked in a communications role, writing speeches, briefings and newsletters, attending committee hearings, and liaising with the media. I spent a wonderful 13-months learning about state government and the inner workings of the state legislature. One of my key takeaways – and there were many – from the fellowship was the notion of public service. This is something that is rarely talked about in Scotland and the rest of the UK, even though hundreds of thousands of people are committed to working in our public services every day. In America, ‘public service’ was unashamedly talked about as a worthwhile career option. The idea of using your education, skills and experience in the service of your community, and doing a job you feel passionately about, is one that has since influenced my career choices.
During my fellowship, I also came across people who worked in policy. Until then, I rather naively had no idea this was even a job, never mind a possible career path. This planted a seed however, and so began a career of using both law and policy as tools for change.
Women in law
During my time as an undergraduate law student from 1996 to 2000, women were very well represented among the student body. In hindsight, this probably misled many of us as to what we might experience within the workplace and in society generally, even in the 21st century. Reading the stories of the other women in law, particularly the women professors who were the first of their kind at Glasgow, I regret that I likely failed to appreciate their significance at the time – they were there when I arrived, and therefore my ‘normal’.
Today, I’m increasingly aware of the ways in which women unwittingly hold themselves back – by not speaking up, by not pushing ourselves forward when we should. A critical moment in any woman’s career is probably the first time she doesn’t apply for a job because she feels underqualified, but a man significantly less experienced and skilled not only applies for the job but gets it. We need to acknowledge the role that society plays in shaping women this way, a society which limits opportunities for women, such as by placing more value on traditionally male traits, or by failing to offer the flexibility that is needed to allow those with childcare and caring responsibilities to maintain their position in the workplace.
I’m honoured to be part of this initiative, recording the stories of women from a variety of backgrounds who have embraced the law in one way or another, and who have carved out careers for themselves across a range of sectors and specialisms. As we know, it’s hard to be what you can’t see, whether that reflects sex, race, disability or any other characteristic. I can only imagine how fascinated my student self would have been to read these inspiring women’s stories and to consider all the possibilities.
While I had no particular female legal role models that led me into the law, I do have a mother who left school at 15, who worked multiple jobs to support her children, who took them to a new continent in search of a better life (and came back again), and who returned to education in her 30s, graduating at the age of 38. She taught me to work hard, and encouraged me to believe I could do or be anything. She never sought to limit me, even when my choices took me far away. I wish everyone had a cheerleader like her. I also benefited from many women friends and colleagues who supported and encouraged me along the way.
I’m proud to know that the first female lawyer in the UK, Madge Easton Anderson, was a Glasgow graduate. I regret that I didn’t know and celebrate this sooner, but feel we’re all getting better at acknowledging the contribution of the women who paved our way. This includes not just pioneers like Madge Easton Anderson, but my own mother and grandmothers who may not have been ‘women in law’ but who laid the groundwork for this particular woman in law.
Laura Paton has a background in human rights law with a particular focus on the rights of those involved in the criminal justice system and the rights of children and young people. Until appointed as HM Chief Inspector of Prosecution in Scotland in 2019, she was a Lead Inspector for HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland where she inspected the state, efficiency and effectiveness of policing from 2013 to 2019. Laura led inspections of a wide range of policing activity including local policing, custody, crime recording, call handling, firearms licensing and railway policing.
Previously, Laura worked with HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) in England and Wales providing policy and human rights advice on the independent inspection of prisons and other forms of custody. This included developing a framework for the inspection of military detention facilities in Afghanistan. From 2009 to 2013, Laura was also the first coordinator of the UK's National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), a group of organisations tasked under international law with monitoring all places of detention. Laura regularly advised governments and NPMs around the world on the human rights-based inspection of detention. Prior to joining HMIP, she worked for the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland, where she coordinated the first shadow report submitted by the four UK Children’s Commissioners to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and developed a model for children’s rights impact assessments. Laura also worked in the voluntary sector for Children 1st and the Children’s Legal Centre, where she was editor of a journal of law and policy affecting children and their families.
Laura currently serves as a trustee for Together, the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights. She has a First Class Honours Degree in Scots Law from the University of Glasgow and a LLM in Human Rights Law from Glasgow Graduate School of Law.