In this article, Enakshi Khasriya interviews Jessica Hampson of CEL Solicitors, Liverpool. Jessica talks about her journey into law, how and why she decided to set up her own firm, and the challenges that she has faced. Jessica also shares her advice on how to deal with rejection.
Question 1- Tell me about yourself and how did you get into the legal profession?
I’ve got over 10 years’ experience now working in law. I always wanted to get into the law from a young age, I was always the arbitrator in the school yard – my name in school was Jessy Springer, so I always knew that was my strength. A lot of families from my generation wanted their children to have a better life than they did, so I was the first in my family to go to university. So for me, it was pretty much between being a lawyer or a doctor, and I don’t like blood so I went down the law route. I do think that my story resonates with a lot of people because I don’t think that law is always anyone’s first choice, or they do the degree to please their families and I feel that sometimes you can be compromised because it’s not your dream. So for a lot of my career, and I am quite an artistic person, at one point I had my own fashion brand involving designing and selling swimwear.
Law is a hard subject to study, and your heart has to be in it, and you have to be committed, and if you’re not then will be an extra challenge to what is an already hard subject to study. For me, I had conflicting interests as I was good at law, and there was aspects that I did enjoy but it definitely was something that I fell into, or more so was pushed into. I probably would have chosen art school, but obviously now doing a 360, I am really glad that I did go down the law route. Now I do something that isn’t typically fee earning work, I do a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect a lawyer to do but falls under the umbrella of law, such as managing people, working in social media, getting business in, and developing apps to do with law. What I’m trying to tell everybody is that even if your heart isn’t in law, a law degree opens so many door and you can go into so many different avenue, so please don’t think you just have to be a lawyer.
Question 2- What was the biggest hurdle that you faced as a law student, and how did you overcome this?
For me, and I always try to be brutally honest, was that first element of freedom, so I went from Liverpool to the University of Surrey, which is a good few hours away. I didn’t have anyone telling me when I have to do homework and I realised you didn’t have to turn up to the lectures. It is really important to have that self- discipline so I struggled with that independence. As we know, and don’t follow in my footsteps, I came out with a 2:2 because I couldn’t manage the work life balance. What I really want to convey is that it’s nice to strike a balance. I had friends who used to work and were burnt out, so they didn’t enjoy university at all. I was on the other side and enjoyed university too much, but it’s all about getting that balance. You don’t have to be so serious in life, you can go out and have fun whilst still working hard. It is that independence that is a really good life skill. So for me it was all about finding that balance, which you don’t get taught in school, and I found it really challenging but looking back I had a really good time. Once I got out I had to make up for my grades, and I had to work a little bit harder but I had three years of a fabulous experience. You can realise your dreams in any case. This is something that I don’t think people talk to students about, and there is a focus on the course but time management is very important to learn.
Question 3- What was your overall experience of doing a law degree?
Generally, I found that the degree wasn’t very practical, particularly in the areas that I’ve always practiced so I have strong civil litigation background and I found that all the case law that you do, especially when talking with a client, you won’t quote that case law. Even when you’re writing you don’t quote the case law but what I think is really good about the degree is that the background reading is useful, and being able to analyse the case law is brilliant. I found the degree quite difficult, and when I started working I found that the degree didn’t resonate as much as the LPC did. The LPC was a lot more practical, and I could use more of it in the working world. However, from an employer’s view, if I see that someone has done a law degree, I know straight away what kind of candidate they are. I know that they can do their reading and they can analyse a solution, so there’s a lot of skills from a law degree that are immensely significant towards the working world. So overall, I do think the degree gives good foundation skills but in terms of practicality, students should know that practicing law is not like a degree as you will need more practical skills in a firm.
Question 4- Law is a very competitive sector, do you think there was anything that set you apart from others?
I think it’s very competitive, and I feel that sometimes graduates play down skills that employers will look for. For example, if I see that someone has worked at McDonalds, I will think that they can deal with difficult people at 3 o’clock in the morning or they can deal with vulnerable customers, so I see this as transferable skills. Personally, I started my own business as I had the swimwear company which wasn’t very successful but employers saw that and thought that I had those business skills, and it was different than other candidates. It is important that where you have non-legal experience you show in your CV or Cover Letter, those transferable skills and how those skills will benefit the job at hand. For anything that is not legal experience, don’t be afraid to shout about that, as from an employer’s view, all other candidates can be good but you can have something that sets you apart. It’s good to have the legal experience, but it’s nice to have the life experience too.
Question 5- What would you say is the most challenging part about being in the legal industry?
There are two things. Firstly, it’s very fast paced so things change all the time, which some people don’t like. You have to be a champion of change when it comes to the law because laws can get repealed, and things change frequently. You have to keep up to date, and be ahead of the curb, and you have got to predict what’s going to come in, and predict the market. It is those life skills of how you deal with challenges and how adaptable you are in the market that will need to be shown. The best thing you can do is for any sector that you do into, is to be an all good round lawyer. If you are an all good rounder lawyer, than you will have those transferable skills, so even if you specialise it’s important to keep up with the law.
Secondly, from a directors point of view, my biggest challenge is assertiveness. So I see today when talking with a lot of aspiring lawyers that they struggle with assertiveness and in particular is seems to be more women. In my job, I have to make decisions every moment of the day as we all do. We all make decisions every day that we are not conscious of. When you get up to a director’s level you tend to get everyone coming up to you asking what decisions should be taken, such as who to hire or should we pay this invoice? My whole day is made up of decisions, so I have to be assertive. I feel that this isn’t something that is taught to you in law school but it is very important that you should be mindful of.
Question 6- What made you decide to set up your own firm, and what difficulties have you faced?
The decision to set up the firm was really easy. Our firm is a people before profit firm which you don’t see a lot of in the law. In my previous experience in law firms were great, but I saw a lot of shortcomings that paralegals faced and I saw that there tended to be a hierarchy. If you were a paralegal you were not necessarily listened to, your ideas weren’t shared and overall there was a lot of red tape in those firms. What I took away from my paralegal experience is there must be a better way for a law firm to run. I also saw from a female point of view that there were more female lawyers in the firm as a whole but it was mainly men who were at the top of the hierarchy. A lot of the women who were at the top had chosen their career over having a family. For me, I thought there must be a way where you can climb the ladder and you don’t have to sacrifice having a family. In my first year of setting up the firm, I became pregnant and our current Board of Directors are made up of three men and three women, who all have families. Now with Covid-19, it has shed a light on home working and flexible working that enables a balance of work-home life. You can have your career and still go home and kiss your children goodnight or go and enjoy your hobbies. I looked at a lot of other industries that are more advanced, such as the tech industry – my heroes were the Google’s of the world, Elon Musk and even how John Lewis treats their staff. I brought a lot of soft skills into my firms and that was not to replace any traditional skills, I personally think that there is room for soft and hard skills in a law firm – one shouldn’t trump another. No particular trait should be silenced, a company should listen to both the good and the bad.
The biggest challenge that the firm faced has to be the national coronavirus lockdown. For us, we actually hired 15 new people during lockdown, we’ve continued to grow, and we had two record months in the first two months of lockdown. We were really respectful of our staff and no one was furloughed. All our staff were trusted to work from home, and we didn’t micromanage anyone. From this we saw that working from home can work, so although the coronavirus has been atrocious, it has also held up mirror to the working from home model showing that it does work. Also, it has held up a mirror to other corporations for more corporate responsibility. I see a lot of good coming out of lockdown to teach us about corporate responsibility.
Questions 7- What advice would you give to students who have faced rejection?
I love rejection. I embrace rejection and failure. It’s all about mindset – you have to change your mindset from a victim mindset to a victor mindset. People who are victors understand rejection is a good thing as long as you learn from it. The sooner you change your perspective on rejection the better it will be. It can be hard as we have been conditioned from the beginning such as with exams that failure is a bad thing. However, failure is one step closer to success – as lawyers we have to have a thick skin. Rejection is all about character building. We should be thinking more about what we want, it’s not lawyers that have all the power, you are the next generation so you should be applying to firms that you’re passionate about. Students should be looking at what kind of firms they are, the firm’s values and how it fits into what you want to practice. You should be doing researching into that firm, and making your applications personal to that firm. You can’ t be upset if that firm rejects you if you haven’t worked for that position. You get out what you put in. You have to take rejection on the chin and learn from it. It’s important to question why you are applying, so are you applying because this is 100% the firm for you, if so then learn from the rejection and reapply. Don’t take no for an answer because you can do anything that you want to do, as long as you work for it. I’m grateful that I didn’t qualify straight away, because I wouldn’t have learnt the skills I did without my failures and 10 years of rejection – I wouldn’t be in the place that I am in today.
Question 8- How has Covid-19 impacted your firm, and what impact do you think it will have on the legal sector as a whole?
We are in an unprecedented time where according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, 1/3 of law firms will shut due to the pandemic. This should be a wake- up call that we are a very archaic industry that needs to catch up with the rest of the world. The work that lawyers do is so important and we should be at the forefront of things. Sometimes for many reasons, the law is dusty, so I hope this pandemic has given firms the initiative to become embrace technology, to allow flexible working, and to allow working from home. In terms of a business, firms can reflect upon their corporate responsibility. Sometimes in a law firm boardroom where there are multiple partners it can become quite conflicting. I think firms should then take a step back and consider all their other staff, their clients and take a holistic approach. It has definitely taught us lessons going forward and we have to be champions of change. A huge part of that is embracing technology.
Question 9- Finally, what piece of advice would you give to aspiring lawyers?
I want to tell inspiring lawyers to never give up on your dreams. You should earn to back yourself and have conviction in yourself. If you stop worrying about what others are doing or anyone else is think then you will be free. I’ve had a lot of rejection, and had a lot of people tell me I’m not good enough to become a solicitor. What I’ve learnt is that it doesn’t matter if you’re female, the first in your family to go university, or whether you got a 2:2, if you are committed then nothing will stand in your way. I felt all my life I had to change, but you don’t have to. You should embrace your strengths and individualism.
Article by Enakshi Khasriya