Ex-partner branches out from law
Sue Stapely started her career as a trainee script-editor with BBC TV, before re-training as a lawyer and being made an equity-partner. She retains her practising certificate, but has now made a career as a communications consultant, specialising in reputation, crisis and issues management. She has also written a book called “Media Relations for Lawyers”, aimed at anyone in the legal profession who is likely to come in contact with the media.
mtl: Hi Sue. How did you get into law?
Sue: I always had a love of writing, and over time decided I wanted to write for television. When I graduated I became a trainee script-editor at the BBC and spent eight years there progressing up the ranks. It was huge fun and I worked on “Dr Who”, “Z Cars” and “The Brothers”, among other programmes. Towards the end of my time there I worked on “The Long Chase” which involved a great deal of location filming. This was a major challenge as I was married and wanted to start a family. I realised that due to the hours and time spent on location, I couldn’t work in television and have a healthy pregnancy and baby.
I left the BBC when pregnant for the first time and took an A-level in sociology to keep my brain ticking over. I became interested in social welfare issues and was advised by a tutor that I might be suited to the advice sector. I therefore volunteered in a Citizens Advice Bureau and was invited to train to become a manager, supervising a mixed team of salaried and volunteer staff and dealing with an average of 70 clients a day.
While there I trained as a tribunal representative and found that I was good at it. My cases had to be passed on to a solicitor if there was an appeal though, and this made me decide to qualify as a lawyer. I had two children by this point and decided to study law with a view to qualifying and being in practice by the time they both started school.
At the same time I became politically active. I helped set up the SDP in the home counties and stood in a general election. I also became the first national chair of the 300 Group, which campaigned to get more women into parliament. I was often a spokesperson in the media on these issues and found myself in front of microphones and cameras, which taught me many new skills.
mtl: So tell us about your legal career.
Sue: It was fascinating. In order to make fast progress as a late qualifier I specialised in litigation and family law and was made a partner quite soon after qualifying. I trebled the profits in the family law department and with an MP partner set up the first public affairs department in a UK law firm. I enjoyed the work, it was well paid and hugely rewarding.
At the same time I was juggling other interests and continued to write, lecture and broadcast about law-related topics. At the time the Courts and Legal Services Bill was being discussed to restructure the profession and I was vocal about my concern that the profession wasn’t being properly represented by the Law Society. The Law Society held a meeting on this issue and I was invited to speak. As a result I was invited to join the Law Society and create and head a new press and parliamentary unit. My role included lobbying for the profession on the Courts and Legal Services Bill and supporting plans for rights of audience for solicitors, which the Bar was resisting at the time.
I hadn’t envisaged leaving private practice as I really enjoyed it, but it was a fascinating opportunity to be offered. I was in a unique position in that I had an understanding of the media, politics and the legal profession, which was a rare combination. I stayed for six years in that role, during which I created a department, hired and developed staff, was the spokesperson for the Law Society, launched some massive campaigns like “Make A Will Week”, “Accident Line” and the “Save Legal Aid” lobby and advised on around 70 Bills. It was a very interesting job. I resigned from it after a public falling-out with Martin Mears, who was the President of the Law Society at the time.
I was immediately offered several jobs by communications consultancies. I chose Fishburn Hedges, which is an award-winning design and communications agency, and went straight on to their board. I spent six years there and again it was a fascinating experience. My role was to build their work within the legal sector and I worked on the Osborne Clarke re-branding, handled the communications of the Cameron McKenna, Eversheds and Berwin Leighton Paisner mergers and advised a wide range of other clients from government departments and agencies to charities. Diversifying beyond law was a major challenge, but I found my training as a lawyer to be very transferable.
In my private life I have also always been involved in arts organisations and serve on the boards of several theatre and drama companies including LAMDA, and I work on the “Dignity in Dying” campaign. I was also asked to represent Sally Clark on a pro bono basis. She needed a high profile publicity campaign to heighten awareness of the issues in her case, having been wrongfully convicted of the murder of her two babies.
I have always found pro bono work very rewarding and in relation to Sally Clark was able to help as a lawyer and campaigner as well as a media adviser. Initially I did this outside of office hours, but it became too onerous to combine with full-time work. Four years ago I resigned from Fishburn Hedges to set up my own niche consultancy. This allowed me to spend about one day a week working for Sally and for other causes and for four days a week I worked with Quiller Consultants, which is a strategic reputation management consultancy. Fortunately Sally Clarke’s second appeal was successful. I am still her media spokesperson and I protect her from media scrutiny.
I now spend three days a week with Quiller and two days on my own account, helping with other miscarriages of justice and campaigns. I am still a supporter of the arts and on several boards. Most of the campaigns I work on are law-related. It is reassuring to my clients that I am still a practising solicitor, and it is one of the reasons I keep my certificate in force.
Graduated from Cambridge - English
Worked at the BBC
Managed 2 x CAB
Law Society finals
Assistant and then partner at Heald Nickinson
Moved to Law Society
Moved to Fishburn Hedges
Established Sue Stapely Consulting and worked with Quiller Consultants
I am lucky that I have such variety in my working life. For example I am currently working for the regulatory bodies of architects, teachers and dentists, I advise the City of London Law Society, a high profile charity facing long-running vexatious litigation, an international billionaire appealing one of the highest ever divorce awards ever made, and two companies facing employment law claims from departing senior executives. I also coach senior executives and run media training courses. I’m fortunate that technology allows me to work flexibly both from my house in Pimlico and from my cottage in the Cotswolds.
mtl: Do you miss life as a lawyer?
"I believe that law firms need to be infinitely more flexible about being present at work by allowing people to work from home more".
Sue: I still see myself as a practising lawyer to some extent as I am sometimes part of the client’s legal team. I frequently deal with legal issues, and on a day to day basis I still manage clients and charge my time, so the discipline is the same. One of my current briefs is related to the Legal Services Bill and its impact on the governance of the profession, which to me is pure law. I look at the communications and lobbying strategy of the issue, but with a legal hat on, and this is intellectually fascinating.
What I don’t miss about law-firms is the dysfunctional partnership structure, which I really don’t think is a good model. Directorships are far cleaner. Self employment is even better. Law firms can be very badly managed as too many people own the business and therefore want a say in it. I think that law firms need professional managers as it is frustrating to observe the management inadequacies without being able to do anything about it.
There is also enormous greed in law firms, with far too many men (and far too few women!) making too much money. I think they often force younger and more able lawyers to contribute to their wealth in an unacceptable way; the hours and macho culture are ridiculous. There are ways to manage your clients and firms need to be more willing to recognise that people aren’t skiving by working from home. My own son, a relatively recently qualified solicitor has my total respect for declining offers to work in City firms, preferring a more modest national firm, which respects the fact that their staff want and are entitled to proper family lives. He will earn less as a result of this decision, but is bound to be happier.
I think that another major flaw in law firms is too much focus on the nirvana of partnership. If a junior lawyer recognises or is told that they won’t “make it” then they see themselves as unsuccessful from the beginning of their career. There should be other, useful roles available with no requirement to be at the top of the tree, which would allow greater freedoms for the individual.
Another criticism is that when you reach a certain age, you cease to be useful in the eyes of your law firm and you have to retire. There is a huge amount of good lawyering based on experience at the senior end, and it is such a waste to send them all off to play golf for another 20 years. Of course the role and rewards have to be re-engineered, but in the USA they still have sound Counsel in their 70’s and it will be interesting to see how the new anti-ageism legislation will impact on partnerships.
"To people who are unsure about law, I would say that if it doesn’t feel right and you aren’t having fun then get out. Don’t be ground down. If you are depressed and unhappy then you cease to be a good prospect for other employers and you contaminate those around you – unhappiness is toxic".
There are of course also still woeful failures to accommodate the real needs of women in the law. Men pay lip service to equality and diversity, but far too many women are doing exhausting wife, mother and lawyer roles simultaneously. They pay huge amounts to other people to manage their lives so that they can continue to work to hit high billing targets. Firms need to recognise a means of working that works well for women with children, and allows men a more meaningful role in parenting and family life too.
I believe that law firms need to be infinitely more flexible about being present at work by allowing people to work from home more. Most work can be done at home, but isn’t because of the attitude of colleagues rather than clients. You can still be accessible while working from home and can have direct client contact. There seems to me to be such a culture of secretaries, assistants and long, tortuous processes to justify the fees charged. At Quiller we do all our own typing, photocopying and diary management as well as advising. We charge the top rates, but the clients get the top service.
mtl: What sort of person would a role like yours suit?
Sue: I think someone a bit older, with some miles on the clock. It requires a lot of common sense, but also the experience gained from seeing a lot of business and personal changes. You have to be pragmatic, calm and unflappable, as you need to be the rock to your client and their source of strength. You have to be curious about people because you need to question and listen to do the job well. You also need to be very flexible as you deal with a range of sectors, and have the ability to get up to speed very quickly.
Being able to speed-read is very important and to seize and understand the details of a case very quickly. I would also say a huge sense of humour is necessary so that you can maintain your own balance by seeing the funny side and sometimes you have to convey to the client that it is not all as dreadful as they first think it is. Finally, the ability to turn off and do something quite different at the end of the day is necessary, so that you don’t stew on work. Lawyers, and indeed anyone else, will become dysfunctional if they can’t switch off.
mtl: What advice would you give lawyers wanting to change their career?
Sue: Don’t burn your boats. Keep your practising certificate in force and your CPD up to date, try several different things until you are committed to something, rather than leaping into a new area that you don’t know well. Change your job every five years or so to energise yourself. Even if you feel totally fulfilled at work, challenge yourself to make sure. And don’t be greedy about the money.
To people who are unsure about law, I would say that if it doesn’t feel right and you aren’t having fun then get out. Don’t be ground down. If you are depressed and unhappy then you cease to be a good prospect for other employers and you contaminate those around you – unhappiness is toxic.
mtl: If you could have your time again, would you do anything differently in relation to your career?
Sue: I would like to have won a general election as it is the only thing that I tried and didn’t succeed at. Having said that, I have no regrets about not being an MP!
mtl: Many thanks for talking to us Sue.
Click here to see Sue's website.
Click here to read about Sue's book.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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