Rona Bar-Isaac, co-head of Addleshaw Goddard’s retail & consumer sector in London, reflects on her student days, how they led her to a career in law, and offers some advice to young lawyers embarking on their careers.
I am in some ways an unlikely lawyer. At university, I studied maths and philosophy, hoping to become an academic, though eventually I decided that some contact with the real world would be a good thing.
Law seemed, at the time, a somewhat intimidating place where women were only just starting to achieve any positions of power (still few and far between), with a culture that seemed almost impenetrable. I do remember an early conversation warning me off a career at the bar unless I was prepared to be very extrovert and the centre of attention.
Even so, some way into my university course, I made the decision to enrol in a legal conversion course and start applying for training contracts, setting me on the often turbulent but hugely gratifying path to my job today as a partner in a law firm, practicing competition law.
Looking back at that time, I remember being very unsure of myself: how to act, what to wear, what to prioritise and which skills to build. I wasn’t from a family of lawyers so everything was completely new to me.
I certainly did some things right. I always took my studies seriously and had a genuine curiosity for why things are the way they are. I would read the newspaper most days, gathering different perspectives and, without being political with a big “P”, I was interested in politics and economics. I grew up in a house where we talked and argued about what was going on in the world in the big sense, but also worried about how they would impact my parents’ small business. To this day, I am interested in hearing different views and experiences, taking them seriously as valid but am not scared when people disagree. The key thing is to see how you can then make things work through bridging those different points of view – a crucial skill for a lawyer.
When I interview people today, I look to see whether the person shares an interest in the world, of things beyond just a particular legal practice or whether they care about why things are the way they are and can deal both with the practical and the big picture context. I like people to be curious about everything— politics, economics, history, society, consumer trends, how a particular business competes and succeeds all are relevant—and the joy of the job is the scope to keep learning new things.
It took me a little while, but I also realised that a big part of this is how you work with others, and it is more than about getting the right answer, but also how you project confidence and show commitment. One or two key mentors really made a difference to me.
As a young lawyer, I was conscious of my difference –female, not exactly white (I always struggle with what the right answer is to the ethnicity question on every form) and from a family of small business people rather than professionals. As a result, I tended to hold back, in case I misjudged a situation. It was a real revelation when I worked for an unconventional female lawyer who showed how you could be yourself but be effective, leading complex cases for high profile, difficult clients – having the courage of your convictions, your own style, yet also charming and cajoling others to get the right outcome. She was also someone who was keen to test her thinking and hear the voices of those around her and having my opinions taken seriously helped me find my own voice at work.
What I got wrong early in my career was not understanding how to advocate for myself. A lot of that was down to being young and not wanting to seem impolite or to impose on others. I could see others be much more confident in doing this – setting out their stall, building networks, swapping favours, but I just couldn’t figure out how it all worked, much less bring myself to do it!
I thought at the time that presenting myself as clever and knowledgeable was enough, that I would work on building my networks once I entered the workplace, but that put me on the back foot. I am always impressed if I meet a young lawyer today who, particularly if it does not come easily to them, has had the courage to reach out and make themselves known in some way. It is only human to feel warmly to someone who has shown an interest in what you do and taken the time to engage and it really isn’t an imposition if you do that.
What I would say to any young lawyer, is to work out a way of doing those things in a way that feels comfortable for you. For me, thinking about interactions with clients and colleagues today, the key is always to frame these exchanges in terms of what can I offer the person I am talking to that they would appreciate, which then gives the opening to how we can work together – that might be my interest and engagement, practical help in a tricky moment, insight on something that shows I thought of them and build from there. It means I can “sell myself” and get things done without feeling like I am selling!
Sometimes, you will get it wrong and that is OK too. It takes a while to pitch your drafting right – taking into account your audience, context for your writing and what you are trying to achieve with it. The one I still cringe at to this day is the draft submission I worked up and polished for a client, only to be told bluntly that my prose was a bit “Daily Mail”! Lesson learned – there is a time and place for drier, factual prose. Actually the feedback was well received and I went on to work closely with that (famously difficult) client for many years.
For those reading this article who are just starting on a career in law, you are in for a unique, varied and exciting journey. Be flexible, curious and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. I don’t think the legal industry is in by any means perfect in this respect, but now more than ever before there are opportunities for anyone to make something of themselves and find their own ways to do it, so whatever your background know that there is an important role waiting for you here.