Take your career off autopilot … take control of where you want to be

Calling all women with at least six years’ PQE – do you want to gain clarity about your career purpose and vision? Do you want to better understand your personal values, behavioural style and how to read others? Where do you want to head next, and how can you get there?

The start of a new year is a time to reflect on where you have been and to make resolutions for the future. We tend to stick to some of our good intentions, but inevitably others have been forgotten by about this time of the year. However, your career is an ongoing journey and deserves more than just momentary attention or a one-off resolution if you are serious about taking it forward.

And for women in particular, the demands of juggling work and life, perceived barriers to advancement, or not knowing how best to position or promote oneself can all form part of thinking about how to reach the desired destination.

Top barrister, mediator and arbitrator, Miriam Dean QC, understands some of these struggles and is passionate about helping women lawyers fulfil their potential and see their career dreams become reality. Along with leadership expert Andrea Thompson of Catapult Leadership Training, she is facilitating a practical, interactive one-day workshop for ADLS in April this year, which will arm women with the resources to take responsibility for the future of their careers.

“After 35 years in the law I have a firm view that there is a mix of barriers why more women are not partners in law firms, senior silks etc.,” says Ms Dean QC. “One of those reasons lies within ourselves – the need to really think about our vision and purpose, our brand – why should a client use me rather than a male peer? – to be more self-confident and to put the self-doubts aside, take risks and generally more consciously plan our careers.”

Despite her undoubted success as a frontrunner for women in the profession (she was the first woman to be made a partner at Russell McVeagh in 1987 and took silk in 2004), Ms Dean QC says that she came to focus on some of these questions “fairly late in the piece”.

“I participated in a very similar workshop myself with Andrea and some colleagues six or seven years ago. It came home to me then how much that workshop would have helped me if I had done it years earlier. So it gave me the idea of teaming up with Andrea to tailor a very practical and interactive workshop for women in the law which also gives me an opportunity to do what inspires me – to help talented women achieve success.”

While the workshop is normally only available as an in-house programme for law firms, it is being opened up for the first time to women across the legal profession. To find out what it has to offer, LawNews spoke to a number of women who have recently participated in the in-house version of the workshop with Ms Dean QC and Ms Thompson.

Senior Associate Mere King of Buddle Findlay says that she has been fortunate in the moves she has made during her career. After completing her LLB (Hons) and Bachelor of Social Sciences degrees at the University of Waikato, she spent five years at Tompkins Wake in Hamilton, progressing from summer clerk to senior solicitor during that time. The firm afforded her all manner of litigation experience as a junior lawyer, from protection orders and relationship property files to employment work. Her interest in employment law prompted her to move to boutique firm Kiely Thompson Caisley as a senior solicitor (later becoming an associate and then a senior associate there), before moving to Buddle Findlay about 18 months ago as a senior associate.

Ms King says that she was particularly excited at the opportunity to attend this particular course. It did mean taking a whole day out of her busy practice but Ms King says it was a worthwhile investment in business development and her career. “It was very appealing to be able to get advice from someone I respect as much as Miriam Dean QC – someone who has been through the trenches doing commercial litigation, who’s been a partner and is now a QC, someone who’s on boards – what she has achieved is inspiring.”

“I found it encouraging to hear Miriam speak about the challenges and doubts she’s faced, the obstacles she’s overcome, and that it is achievable to walk the path that she has taken. When she talked about her nervousness at her first court appearance, I related to that. It was reassuring to know that she knows what it’s like to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.”

Bell Gully solicitors Camille Warnaar and Grace Stacey-Jacobs took part in a version of the workshop which was more tailored for intermediate lawyers. Respectively in Bell Gully’s commercial property team and employment law team, both describe their career trajectory as having followed a fairly standard path and attest to the timeliness of the workshop for their current stage of the journey.

Bell Gully Learning & Development Manager Lisa Boltman was responsible for bringing the workshop to Bell Gully. “Progression in a legal career tends to be very linear. We see a lot of intermediate lawyers who have got caught up in the wave of going to university, getting a placement as a law clerk, getting a job at a firm, etc.,” she comments. “A few years down the track, they suddenly ask themselves, ‘How did I even get here?’ and ‘What should I do next?’ They can feel like a square peg in a round hole, they may be where they want to be but are wondering how to move forward. By offering this workshop, we wanted to help women make more informed decisions about their futures.”

Ms Warnaar agrees that it can be easy to “go into autopilot”, and says that the workshop was a fantastic “refresh” and an opportunity to get the perspectives of two women who have “been there and done it all and then some”. “It was a chance to refocus, to stop and think about where I wanted to go. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t want to continue on that linear ladder, but that you make deliberate choices about it,” she says.

Workshop participants create self-profiles, discuss career barriers and opportunities, draft personal brand statements, and think about how better to “market” themselves. Understanding one’s own values and interests are an important part of this – how do they shape who you are and what you want for your career, and what role do economics, lifestyle aims, key areas of ability and passions play?

Attendees are also encouraged to think about the challenges women face in the current working environment, not just in a particular firm but in the law in general and about how they then choose to deal with them.

“A key message from Miriam Dean QC was that delegates should have a conversation about these challenges and what they want to achieve by talking to their firms,” says Lisa Boltman. “Thinking about how we see ourselves as women in the workplace struck a chord with me and I felt it was something I needed to be reminded about,” agrees Camille Warnaar. “There was a real sense of collegiality in being able to talk and share stories with other women.”

All those to whom LawNews spoke agreed that the workshop was beneficial and transformative and that it had something to offer to all women at any stage in practice.

“This workshop can take you somewhere else in your career, or it can help you progress into the next stage of what you are already doing. I would actually want to do it again in a few years’ time,” says Ms Warnaar. “It was a very worthwhile investment of time and dramatically changed how I saw my career.”

Mere King says she took away lots of practical advice and not only did it make her think about her own career progression, but it has also prompted her to pay more attention to assisting her juniors in doing the same, for example by encouraging their presence at client meetings.

“Miriam emphasised the importance of having a ‘sisterhood’ of supportive women in the profession who can look out for each other. We’ve started doing this at our firm – organising get-togethers, thinking more about business development and generally backing ourselves,” she says.

“I am more certain about what I want and that I don’t have to be apologetic or timid about being seen and heard. It directed my thoughts on my future and has made me more determined and assertive in my approach to getting there. I’ve always thought about the future as something that is still a few years away. Now I think, ‘Why can’t I do those things now, and what do I need to do to make them happen?’”

Grace Stacey-Jacobs concurs that the practical advice and action plans that arose from the workshop were key. “It provided a framework to think through ‘what do I want to do next?’ – a mix of reflection and application.”

“We felt empowered to own the ‘why we’re here’ and ‘what we’re doing’ – and to be more proactive and courageous about getting to be where we want to be. It’s an opportunity you don’t get very often to take a day out and listen to two such experienced women.”