Ex-City lawyer mixes law with journalism
Polly Jeanneret was an employment lawyer at City firm Charles Russell, with seven years of legal experience behind her, when she left to have a baby. While pregnant, she began to write a few articles and built up a small portfolio. She now combines writing with motherhood and working as a lawyer for Halebury, a legal services company. We asked her how she got where she is and how she is finding balancing these different aspects of her career.
mtl: Hi Polly, tell us about working in private practice.
Polly: I trained at Charles Russell and qualified there in 2000. Prior to practising law, I had worked in publishing, but moved away from it as I had not found it challenging enough - at the time. I spent altogether nine years at Charles Russell, during a period when the firm was modernising itself - something that it has done very successfully. The employment and pensions team is headed up by David Green, who lets his trainees and assistants have a lot of autonomy, which means you learn fast and develop your own way of doing things. It was a good time to be an employment lawyer as every year there was a major piece of new and important legislation coming out.
At three years PQE, I took a sabbatical and went to Cambodia to work with a charity that raises awareness of the rights of women and children in the country. It was an eye opening experience and I have never been quite the same since… We dealt with prostitution, polygamy and sex trafficking and encouraged local lawyers to use the law that they have more stringently. The country is so far behind us in terms of the rule of law that English lawyers can add value in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated. When I arrived back, I started back at work and got married. However, something felt not quite right and I put this down to having spent some time outside the office, doing something completely different.
Modern History, Wadham College, Oxford
Lived in the USA then into publishing
CPE and LPC
Trainee, Charles Russell
Assistant, employment, Charles Russell
6 month sabbatical to Cambodia
Bella Jeanneret was born
Left Charles Russell, started at Halebury and freelance journalism
The turning point for me was getting pregnant. Looking back though, it wasn’t having a child that made me want to change things, so much as being out of the office and realising there was so much else out there, that made me see myself differently. Maternity leave crystallized something that was already there: that some part of me had never been comfortable with the set-up of a law firm and the structure and pressures of a big office. However, I was very lucky as I had a great time working at Charles Russell and wouldn’t be able to do what I do now if it wasn’t for my experience there. I just realised that it wasn’t right for me anymore...
mtl: And what do you do now?
Polly: A variety of things! After a lot of agonizing, I took the decision to leave Charles Russell. I did not really know what would happen next, but I knew that it was the honest thing to do – I mean honest to myself and to them. I hooked up with two lawyers that had also been at Charles Russell and who had set up on their own, a firm called Halebury, and they offered me a flexible legal consultant position, which I took.
But I had also started writing. It all kicked off when I was pregnant because I was not going out so much, and not drinking, which meant that I had more time on my hands at home! I then worked for free at the Hackney Gazette, which is a local, but vibrant and well-read paper, and which fulfills an important role in the community. Having a young child makes you become more rooted in your community and you spend more time in the locality, so it made sense to work for the local paper.
After a few months I started to write about the law and the legal profession too, after pitching to the Law Society Gazette. Now I am thinking about ways to write about law - and its many complexities - to the more general reader.
Working at the Hackney Gazette was extremely good training in how to write news stories quickly, how to get to the essence of a story and how not to be embarrassed to ask questions. It’s great experience, either if you want to be freelance or a full-time news reporter. Freelancers need lots of ideas, and lots of patience. If you want to be a news reporter on a national paper then nowadays it is strongly recommended that you get the NCTJ qualification for journalists first. )
mtl: what does working for Halebury involve?
Polly: My work as a legal consultant for Halebury, is similar work to private practice. Halebury provides both a law firm’s infrastructure and the resources for keeping up to date technically, but I am self-employed and work from home.
The idea for the client is that Halebury offers City-experienced lawyers at a fraction of the price. We have hardly any overheads, no flash office, no orchids in reception, no sculptures in the atrium, so we can deliver the same quality at lower cost. I have to say it is also fantastic to be working with entrepreneurial women, especially ones who are of the same generation as me.
mtl: Are there any disadvantages to what you do now?
Polly: The downside of being self-employed and freelance, and out of the big City firm structure, of course, is that the pay is lower, but the price is worth paying. I have a greater sense of the value of the work that I do and I can do it at my own pace. My daughter has changed my perceptions about work – not about how hard I work, as I think I actually work harder now – but about finding a work method that works for me.
I feel now I am in the right place. But my career has evolved to get me here and I am sure it will evolve more.
mtl: Did you consider any other career options?
Polly: I did consider the Government Legal Service. It is a fantastic opportunity for people to do law in a different way and work in the public interest at the same time. While doing something worthwhile, you also have flexible hours and days and there is variety because you move around departments every two years. If working for Halebury doesn’t work out or I couldn’t think what to write anymore, then I would definitely consider it again, as the work is of high quality and the hours are good. I also briefly considered doing an MA and going into teaching. But the pay and the stress put me off that idea.
Also, if you need a break from work, but want to do something which uses your legal skills, then there are now many options for working in international development, the kind of work I was doing in Cambodia. A good organization for this is A4ID.
mtl: And how do you balance what you do?
Polly: An ex-client of mine, who is a mother of three, told me that the most important thing when having kids and working is to be able to control your own time. It is such a relief not having my time dictated externally. I choose when I work and I fit it around my own and my daughter’s needs. If she is ill, I can take the time out to look after her, and pick the work up again later.
I spend about half of my working time practising law and half the time writing about it. I feel I work hard (my husband might disagree!) but my hourly patterns vary. Generally, I work three or four full days and then three or four evenings. Also, as I don’t have to commute and don’t have internal meetings, my hours aren’t wasted!
mtl: Any tips for working for yourself?
Polly: Make sure that you take yourself seriously. Working mums have the propensity to think that what they are doing is secondary to the family’s needs and, therefore, not important. You have to remember to talk yourself up and focus on the fact that you are still doing legitimate work.
It is important to plan in advance: what work you have coming in and when. I think I need to be about three or four months ahead. You have to be very organised as there is so much filing, paperwork, and invoicing to do. You need an accountant and a powerful computer.
mtl: Any tips for mums looking for part-time work in the legal sector?
Polly: From what I’ve seen among my friends and colleagues, there are many ways of doing it. I know several people who work in unusual ways, whether through part-time arrangements, job shares, PSL roles or other interesting roles. Put a business case together and ask for what it is that you want. It often depends on your firm and how flexible they are. However, it seems to me that many firms are now realising that they are losing out by not giving women choices.
Also, be honest with yourself when you decide how to work and make sure that you are happy with your decision.
mtl: Thanks for your time Polly.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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