The employed spectrum (2)

Counsel talks to Gifty Edila who forged an award-winning career in local government despite encountering early prejudices at the Bar

Q What drew you to the Bar initially, and what was your experience of applying for pupillage and early years of practice?

A My journey towards a legal career started at the age of 12; motivated, in part, by the TV series Crown Court which inspired me to become a barrister. I received discouraging comments from teachers and career advisers who just couldn’t perceive a young black girl becoming a barrister. Ambition and single mindedness enabled me to ignore all the negative views, though, and with the encouragement of my mother and grandmother, I applied for and gained admission to university to study law. I was Called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1979.

During my search for pupillage, I was fortunate to meet barrister Marguerite Russell who helped me through the process. I was invited for interview by the first chambers I applied to, but on arrival the clerk informed me that he had a say in who was taken on as pupil and that there were ‘no women in chambers’. Needless to say I was not offered pupillage. At the second chambers, the interviewing barrister was only interested in the fact that my CV showed I had attended the same school as an Asian barrister’s daughter. The third chambers I went to was Barbara Calvert QC’s chambers at ground floor, 4 Brick Court. Calvert was a woman of firsts – the first to found a chambers, first head of chambers and first to become Bencher of the Middle Temple. There I met Angelica Mitchell (who became a judge). She offered me pupillage and became a life-long friend.

My earlier experiences applying for pupillage, and other uninspiring stories, made me think twice about staying at the self-employed Bar. Furthermore, I was keen on helping the disadvantaged and I didn’t feel I was seeing much of that at the Bar. I was not sure where I would find the type of legal practice I was looking for but I knew it wouldn’t be at the self-employed Bar.

Q You then worked as an in-house barrister in a law centre. How did this rate for job satisfaction and what were the challenges?

A In 1980 on completion of pupillage I went to the London School of Economics to do my Master’s degree. Towards the end of my studies, a job came up at North Kensington Law Centre and I was successful in securing the role of in-house barrister; an experimental role they had created for an advocate in family, domestic violence, childcare, wardship and criminal cases. Working within the community and serving disadvantaged people in North Kensington was very rewarding.

Marriage then took me abroad for two years. On my return to the UK I secured a role at Camden Law Centre, again as an employed barrister, doing similar work to that at North Kensington. The salary at law centres is low and there was no pension when I worked there, but the job satisfaction was huge. The challenge for law centres is, of course, the lack of funding so we were constantly looking for funding and ensuring that we billed our cases promptly to recover legal aid income. Holding evening advice sessions and attending evening management committee meetings were novel to me. It also meant sometimes working hours longer than at the self-employed Bar.

Q You then moved into local government. What was the allure and what was your experience (or not) of discrimination in this environment?

A In 1988 I accidentally ‘stumbled’ into local government: I applied for two posts simply as a means of practising interview skills. However, Newham Council offered me both jobs and I found myself having to make a difficult decision. That was the beginning of a long and rewarding career in local government where I felt I had arrived at ‘home’.

On entering local government and working in a hierarchy, I feared I might face the discrimination I had been warned about. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although discrimination may occur in the sector, local government is unionised and well advanced in developing equalities policies. It is an environment where many women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and those others who might be vulnerable to discrimination find equal treatment, and fair working practices. The system is not perfect but a great deal better than in some places.

Q How did your career grow within the local government structure and what kind of skills do you need to succeed there?

A I had two promotions in Newham within four years, working up from Senior Solicitor to Head of Legal Services. I then moved to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as Director of Law and Administration. My final promotion was my move to Hackney Council to become Corporate Director of Legal, HR and Regulatory Services. In these roles, I had a wider span of management that went beyond legal work: managing services covering contract and procurement, the rent office, register office for births, deaths and marriages, elections, advice centre, mayor’s office, human resources and planning and regulatory services. I also occasionally deputised for the Chief Executive.

In terms of variety, I have had the privilege of working on projects such as the development of Docklands, Excel Exhibition Centre, Holland Park School, Chelsea Academy, Notting Hill Carnival, 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, 3,000 units housing development at Woodbery Down and the regeneration of Newham and Hackney – to name a few. I have worked with politicians and a broad spectrum of professional clients.

The wide and essential spread of skills needed for these roles include expertise in public law, as well as planning, education, adults and children care, property, litigation, employment, contract and procurement, constitutional and code of conduct matters. People and financial management are extremely important. The ability to work as part of a team in a hierarchy is crucial, as is the ability to guard your own and the council’s reputation. There is a lot of business planning and project-working. Good communication skills are also key.

You need to be able to develop political awareness to work with politicians; honing one’s ability to give instant advice at committee meetings with political figures and members of the public present; managing budget reductions; motivating your staff; and delivering quality services. Professional colleagues are experts in their field so managing their expectations as your client also requires particular skills. Members of the public have even higher expectations and if dissatisfied, will frequently resort to media reporting or pursue protracted complaints or even litigation. Your reputation is constantly at risk of damage.

Q A final word of advice…

A The advice I gave to my staff and mentees is to work hard and remain professional at all times, give honest legal advice and maintain integrity – and this will enable you to enjoy a rewarding career with your reputation intact.

This is what has helped me over 38 years of practice, 27 of which were spent in a highly sensitive political environment prior to retirement. The rewards made it all worthwhile. Interesting work, working with inspirational politicians who are committed to their residents, highly experienced and supportive professional colleagues and staff, excellent working terms and conditions such as maternity, paternity, adoption, annual and sick leave, and reasonable pay and pension provision.

You also get good training and development opportunities. Temporary and permanent work is generally available (though in the current climate it is reducing) and many people tell stories of joining as a temp only to find themselves in the organisation 10 years later as permanent staff.

My teams won many awards in all the three authorities I worked in. I won personal awards too, including a recent honorary doctorate degree from Loughborough University for outstanding services to the legal profession and support to the university. These made it all worthwhile.

So there are good alternatives to legal practice at the self-employed Bar; not simply as a solicitor in private practice but the many opportunities in law centres, local and central government, industry and similar organisations. Seize them.

THE EMPLOYED BAR: GROWING COMMUNITY

Employed barristers now represent a community which is just under 20% of the Bar as a whole. In the 2016 Snapshot Report: The Experiences of Employed Barristers at the Bar (bit.ly/2ggU9n2) many thought that opportunities at the employed Bar were not sufficiently publicised to those entering the profession, despite the high levels of satisfaction and enjoyment to be found there. In this second of a series of articles, Counsel looks at the array of opportunities and pathways open to those considering a move to the employed Bar, as well as the skills required.

 

EMPLOYED BAR AWARDS: WINNERS 2017

The crown jewels of the employed Bar were recognised at the Bar Council’s inaugural Employed Bar Awards on 2 July at the Tower of London:

  • Camilla de Silva, Employed Barrister of the Year
  • Matthew Johnston, Young Employed Barrister of the Year
  • Matthew Gowen, Employed Advocate of the Year
  • Hannah Laming, Outstanding Achievement by a Barrister in a Corporate Organisation or Solicitors’ Firm
  • David Browitt, Outstanding Achievement by a Public Service Barrister
  • Commander Carolyn Kenyon, Outstanding Performance by a HM Forces Barrister
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