You could call my journey into law an accident.
When I was young, my father’s best friend was an optician, and I grew up absolutely sure that optics was the career for me. Sadly, rebellious teenage years and life had other plans, and university wasn’t the path that I took.
When I announced to my parents at 16 that I didn’t want to give up the taste of money cultivated during a summer job doing data entry at British Gas and had decided I would not return to school to take A Levels nor consider attending university, my decision was met with horror. After some tense words (and my being as stubborn a teenager as they come) it was decided that if I could not be persuaded it was important that I got a job, right away.
So down to the Job Centre I went.
Office work was what I knew, so office work was my goal. After looking through the computer I came across a local firm of solicitors looking for an office junior. For a young girl living at home with no car, earning around £500 a month after tax sounded like wealth, and I successfully started my job as an office junior for Osborne Jones and Co, a firm based in Bridgend, Wales.
The job involved everything from tea making to reception work and, perhaps most importantly to the senior partner, popping down the market to make sure he was stocked up with cigarettes. He chain-smoked from 9 am to 5 pm so I went to the market nearly as often as I took our post to the Post Office.
After a while it was decided I should learn some of the ropes of being a Legal Secretary, in case the usual lady was away or ill. It was my namesake, Rachel, who introduced me to the Chartered Institution of Legal Executors (just ILEx back in those days) and the fact that there was an alternative way to the law. Apparently, study was right for me, I just needed to do it a little bit later, and I enrolled into the local college who did the base level classes during the evenings.
Some of you might think this is the end of the story, but things are never quite that simple, are they?
After a while, Rachel left. The firm decided that she would be replaced, and I ended up training her replacement, whilst still being the office junior. Younger me decided this was unacceptable and so I started looking for legal secretarial work. I found what I thought was the perfect job, more money and within walking distance of home. This job would soon teach me that money wasn’t everything and the world of work was not as joyous as I thought it might be. I survived 12 months of stress and pushing myself almost to breaking point before I decided I just couldn’t take it anymore. I handed in my notice.
For a month I hid the fact I had quit my promising career from my parents. This was easier than you would think, because right across the road from the firm where I worked was a tattoo studio, run by a friend of mine. I told him I needed somewhere to be during working hours, and he needed somebody to make the tea and sweep the floors, greet customers whilst he was working and generally be the face of the studio. So my time as a tattoo studio apprentice was born.
For 12 months I worked in the studio, tattooing friends and family members as part of my training, until things took a turn, and the studio wasn’t as busy as it used to be. I was told I was at a point where I was ready to become a fully-fledged artist, but that there was no room for me at that particular studio. I was devastated.
So home I went to my father (who at this point knew I was working at the studio – he is a difficult man to keep secrets from), and told him everything. How I was getting my portfolio together and would be starting to go around studios in the area and try to convince them to take a shot at a new artist. My father listened, in that quiet way that he does, was supportive about my choices but decided to add in one extra point – “what a shame that you walked out of that legal job because you’ll probably never work in law again”.
Two weeks later, I was working as a Legal Secretary for a law firm in Cardiff. Never let it be said that fathers do not know how to handle their teenage daughters.
The real work begins
From that point the real work began, and I threw myself back into work and the CILEx qualifications, finishing my studies at Level 3 and the Level 6 qualifications in Land Law and Conveyancing Practice. Around the same time, I met somebody and ended up moving to Manchester to take on a position working as a fee earner for one of the bigger volume firms. Moving from Wales to Manchester was a culture shock in itself, but nothing prepared me for the reality of working for a mass conveyancing firm, with targets of 2 weeks to turn around re-mortgages and outsourcing title checks to India. I was reprimanded several times for re-doing the title checks, and the fact that I found errors/omissions on several occasions did not save me.
After a while, the culture wore me down and I didn’t think that fee earning was for me. I decided that I would return to being a secretary and take stock for a while. This decision took me out of private practice altogether and saw me move to a job in the Legal Department of the Methodist Church, together with all the perks of working for a charity. I spent 3 glorious years working for them when my relationship broke down and I realised that I could not afford to live in Manchester alone.
Remembering how tiring it was travelling between Wales and Manchester for interviews, I called my dad.
I was coming home.
It didn’t take long for me to find another job. Legal secretaries were always in demand, particularly when you had significant experience. This time though, the role was in commercial property and after that employment. Nothing fitted and I still wasn’t convinced that the law was for me. Fast forward several years, after a move to Hertfordshire, I found myself working for a local firm in Hitchin. With broad experience in several departments, I started as a float secretary, working wherever I was needed, but this soon led to a permanent spot in the Wills, Trusts and Probate Department due to an expansion.
Shortly after, the new head of department found out I had CILEx qualifications and called me in to ask me why I was still doing secretarial work. He told me he thought I was the right kind of person for Wills and Probate and wanted to know whether I would consider taking further exams to move into that area. He was willing to support me throughout and hoped that the firm would be able to cover the payments and provide the job role as and when the time came for qualification.
I decided why not, I had felt directionless for some time, and somebody believed in me. That sort of belief was encouraging. He asked me to put together a memo to the training partner setting out costs and the procedure for dealing with new CILEx qualifications in Wills and Succession and Probate Practice. He approved it on a Friday morning and by the Friday lunchtime it was back on my desk – “do it”, the training partner said.
So I did it.
18 months of study and 2 exams. The firm not only supported me and let me do my qualifying employment with them, but they also gave me a job as an NQ Chartered Legal Executive and let me run my own caseload. On 30th January 2017, I was admitted as a Chartered Legal Executive, and have never looked back.
So here we are, 6 years on as a qualified Chartered Legal Executive and still feeling very privileged to do what I do. All because I took an office junior job in a law firm over 20 years ago and fell into the law.