By Simone Currie, Second year law student on the University of Sussex/ Wilfrid Laurier programme LLB+BA Program Details | Wilfrid Laurier University (wlu.ca)
The field of law encompasses so much more than the stereotypical, male-dominated, corporate world that is so often portrayed. The hard work of Jeanette (Employability lead for the Law School), Monica (finalist), Jasmine (finalist), Ellie (LPS Careers Connector) and Ella (LPS Race Equity Advocate) resulted in an inspiring range of speakers who demonstrated that change is occurring within the field of law and are encouraging students to continue the movement. These inspiring speakers shared personal insights into their own legal careers and alternative routes in the field that are generating substantial positive change. The showcase highlighted the importance of genuine diversity and inclusion within the legal profession and encouraged the passionate, the motivated and the trailblazers to take up space in the field and pursue what is important: making a difference.
Women and Allies in Law
On Monday night, ‘Women in Law’ kick-started the Showcase, with several inspiring women, all of whom shared their stories of balancing life and personal commitments including children and other responsibilities, whilst making a substantial difference in their field. Our first speaker, Bridget Edminson, General Counsel here at the University of Sussex, has found through her experiences and career progression that there is no such thing as having it all. It’s not for society to dictate what ‘having it all’ looks like, you need to build a life that fulfills you. Bridget’s overarching message was, “that there is no perfect way of juggling the competing priorities that we all have in life – and that evolve and change at different times in our lives. What I think is important is that people do not add to this burden by thinking that there really is some perfect “all” that is a goal to be achieved, and if you are not achieving it you are failing. It isn’t for others to dictate: we must each decide what is best for ourselves and those we care about, so we will each have our own version of our “all”, and that really is all that matters. It will be messy and sometimes things will go very well and at other times really not well at all, but that’s just life.”
Amanda Clarke, family law barrister Home – Westgate Chambers (westgate-chambers.co.uk)and Bar training course lecturer at City University followed Bridget by highlighting the importance of seizing opportunities that come your way. The more you say yes to, the more you will benefit and ultimately you will end up creating your own luck. Jenny Munday, a lawyer at the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk), with their visit to Sussex last year featuring here Investing in Diversity and Inclusion – Civil Service (blog.gov.uk),expressed a similar view. She advised the group that finding a career opportunity that you love doesn’t necessarily come from what you think your future will look like, but from just taking the next step, even if it is not the step you thought you’d take. For those that are particularly interested in legal positions with the government, or any civil service positions, which can provide a rewarding career, Jenny highlighted the Civil Service job board.
Our fourth speaker was Faye Gelb, a Canadian lawyer and founder of Her Legal Global podcast which is all about empowering and empowered women in law. Faye has learned that you are your biggest ally. It is entirely up to you as to what success looks like, no one else should be given the power to dictate what success looks like in your life. Last but certainly not least, our final speaker of the evening, Jessica Hackett, who has considerable experience of in-house and private client roles in the sphere of trusts and wealth management, alongside charitable roles providing risk management support, summed up the cumulative message of the evening. Follow your journey, seize opportunities – opportunities that you may not have foreseen can lead you down a path that you were not expecting but may very much enjoy. Keep your own values in mind and also think about how positions are serving you, not just professionally but in providing you with opportunities to experience the things that are important to you in life.
Disruptors in Law & Beyond
The knowledge, expertise and advice were carried strongly into the next evening at the Disruptors in Law & Beyond event, where four speakers shared their experiences and what they have learned by not following the conventional, stereotypical legal route. Our first speaker was Jo O’Sullivan, a family lawyer/sole practitioner osullivanfamilylaw.com and an out and proud lesbian. Her message resonated with many – don’t suppress who you are to fit a mould, being your authentic self will take you places you’ve never even imagined. Deeba Syed, a sexual harassment lawyer and co-founder of Rights of Women and Paul Powlesland, a barrister in environmental law and the founder of Lawyers for Nature shared a similar message. Follow what really drives you, not what the stereotypical image of a lawyer necessarily looks like. The evening was brought to a close with Michael Herford, Sussex alumnus and founder of Legal lifelines Services and a specialist in Criminal law who left us with the message that there is no ‘set path’ to follow; despite the qualifications required to be a practising solicitor or barrister, there is in fact no foolproof, conventional route to get where you want to go. The best way to end up in a career you’re passionate about is to blaze a path that genuinely interests you.
Activism and Change-Making
Thursday night brought us the Activism and Change-Making event with five more impressive speakers. Penelope Gibbs, director at a national charity working towards a fairer and humane justice system Transform Justice , recommended volunteering for a criminal justice charity to gain valuable experience. The second speaker of the evening was Steven Shyaka of Home – Detention Action, an organisation supporting people in immigration detention and campaigning for detention reform. His message to students was that you won’t always be able to do exactly what you want to do, you have to be willing to take on other opportunities without losing sight of your passion or why you got started. This overlapped with the thoughts of many of the other speakers, as ‘having it all’ is not necessarily attainable, and rolling with the punches will lead you places you’d never anticipated. Caroline Voaden, CEO of Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services, shared this idea –think outside the box when it comes to skills you’ve acquired and developed through various experiences – whether those experiences fit the image of the position you’re applying for doesn’t matter as much as applying the skills that you’ve gained from them.
Another speaker from the evening was Nazir Ahmad, Sussex alumnus and strategy consultant via Givingworks.com, and who provides strategic advice for a number of high-profile organisations. His advice, eloquently put I might add, is to not, “get overly fixed. You start and have a sense of moral outrage, but also combined with sober analysis that informs your actions. Secondly, when you belong to organisations in your careers, never be an insider, but understand the interior, how it works – what motivates you?’ Essentially, let the passion drive you but also keep a level head when it comes to making decisions about your career path. And last but not least was the impressive Paola Fudakowska, who is currently a legal advisor for Foreign & Commonwealth Office – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). Again, the theme was a familiar one – follow your passions and the rest will fall into place.
Human Rights and NGOs
To no one’s surprise, after a week of thought-provoking events, the final event of the Showcase was of the same calibre. Elvan Aksoy, who works for the DRC | Danish Refugee Council in Libya, opened the evening with this to think about, your day-to-day work can be just as impactful as a substantial project, even if it’s on a different scale. Looking at your work from the perspective of a smaller scale can sometimes prove to be more rewarding. In keeping with the theme of the Showcase, our next speaker, Ruby Axelson, a legal consultant at Global Rights Compliance, highlighted that to her, making a difference means dismantling structures of oppression that affect us and others. She also noted that given the passion many lawyers bring to their profession, it is important to establish a healthy work/life balance. Burnout will not be effectively helpful in combatting oppression.
Similar to the reflections of other speakers during the week, Thomas Ebbs, currently a PhD candidate and previously Deputy Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya Home (libyanjustice.org), provided the attendees with some invaluable advice, stating that there is no traditional route into human rights law. For those that are worried they don’t have the boxes ticked in terms of experiences and qualifications, this is your assurance that there are no boxes to tick to begin with. Many human rights lawyers find their way into the profession in a number of different ways. The final two speakers Abigail Field and Tom Southerden, left us safe in the knowledge that things are likely to not go the way we’ve planned. Tom, a researcher at Amnesty International UK, emphasized that these set-backs are not the end of the world and there is always a path forward. Similarly, Abigail, who completed her LLM here at Sussex in International Human Rights Law LLM : University of Sussex and is now working in the field of family reunification in Lesvos, Greece for fenixaid.org recognised that set-backs are inevitable, so it is vital that you maintain a healthy buffer between your passion and your personal involvement, career-wise things may not go to plan but you should not let this take a toll on you as a person.
Hearing from the Students & Organisers
It would only be right to end this piece by including a few words to thank the team who organised this engaging virtual event. The concept of the event originated from conversations Jasmine, Monica, Jeanette and Jo o’Sullivan, one of guests on the Disruptor panel, which can be seen in this vlog series Frank conversations about the law – YouTube and led to this truly diverse showcase. Teamwork was key and everyone involved reflected that they have enhanced their skills as organisers and moderators, alongside improving their confidence in a professional setting.
Thanks also to everyone who attended and who asked such great questions. Recordings and further information from the event available on this Canvas site.