In this interview, Hana Ingram interviews Dania Dibaje, who shares her legal journey, including her experience as a paralegal in different law firms and in-house counsel at HSBC and Entain. She also discusses her passion for intellectual property law, the skills she gained from her work experience, and the differences between working in a law firm and as in-house counsel.
Hi Dania! Could you please start by giving us a background on your legal journey so far in terms of your legal studies and work experience?
Yes of course! I completed my LLB at the University of Sussex and during my third year I developed a passion for Intellectual Property law through my IP related studies, which made me decide to then pursue an LLM in Information Technology and IP Law. Following my master’s, I took on a paralegal role at FLETCHER DAY, a law firm that focuses on immigration, litigation and employment law. I worked there for nine months before moving to Bird & Bird, where I worked as a Junior Trade Mark Administrator for almost two years. This role encompassed both administrative and paralegal work, after engaging in this work for over a year, I found myself applying again, and secured a Trade Mark Paralegal position at DLA Piper. This was a hybrid opportunity between DLA and HSBC, allowing me to split my time between the firm and the bank, working as a paralegal with both. Working at HSBC gave me great insight into what working as inhouse counsel entails, as I essentially took on a leadership role within their IP team, handling all of their IP queries, negotiating contracts and engaging in other very hands-on work. In contrast, my responsibilities at DLA were far more administrative in nature. Overall, this hybrid role was a great introduction to IP law, however as you can imagine it was also incredibly challenging balancing the responsibilities of both – two laptops open at all times! There was also no guarantee of a Training Contract with either, and I therefore made the decision to pursue a position at a firm or company which could provide me with this guarantee. This led me to securing my current IP paralegal role at Entain (an entertainment company), where I managed to negotiate for the company to pay for my SQE fees. They were more than happy to sponsor me in this way as they found my experience extremely relevant, and so far, they have been very accommodating – I’ve started studying and will hopefully be taking my SQE exams in July. My role at Entain feels like a step forward in my career; I’m given a lot of responsibilities, including managing the portfolios and creative content of over 25+ brands, advising them on all tech and IP legal matters.
While you were studying your LLM, you worked as an Assistant Immigration Caseworker at VOICES IN EXILE – what made you decide to undertake work experience in human rights law as opposed to Technology and IP or another field more closely related to your LLM studies?
Immigration law is a personal passion of mine, and I had the relevant skills for this role, as they needed someone who could speak Arabic and could translate documents and communicate with Arabic-speaking clients. I worked with VOICES for nine months, assisting in the cases of a lot of Syrian refugees, and thoroughly enjoyed this experience.
What transferable skills do you think you developed through this work experience?
Too many to count! This work required a lot of interviewing and reporting skills, however it also taught me how to handle vulnerable clients and how to utilise my existing research skills in a different context, because often clients were unaware of legal benefits they were entitled to (such as housing benefits) and I would have to conduct research into what rights applied to their specific situation and relay them back to the client. I also drafted a lot of immigration documents which required a high level of attention-to-detail, as one small mistake could have a detrimental impact on a client’s immigration status. These skills immediately translated to my work in trademark law – for example, at Bird & Bird they were extremely meticulous and detail-oriented with all IP matters. So, this immigration work was a great introduction to applying these skills, and also helped me develop my confidence with regards to speaking with clients and learning to listen to them (a skill that is rarely mentioned but is in fact a crucial skill to possess when working in the legal industry). My work with VOICES also led to my involvement in the setting up of a migration law advice clinic at the University of Sussex. My contribution to this initiative was largely research- based; I interviewed a number of refugees from VOICES within a focus group, asking them about the legal aid they had received, whether they felt it assisted them and what other legal support they required. Immigration law is something I continue to be incredibly passionate about, however I also really enjoy IP and Technology law as it enables me to work with the more creative side of the legal industry.
You’ve had a lot of experience working as a paralegal both at law firms and as part of inhouse counsel – how do these two different working environments compare and what do you think are the main differences between working at a firm as opposed to working with a company’s inhouse legal team?
I think working at a firm allowed me to engage in far more niche legal work, because at both Bird & Bird and DLA Piper my caseload did not really vary day-to-day, and I was able to perfect certain processes and develop practical expertise in IP through this form of repetition. In this sense, I’m grateful to have worked with these firms at the start of my legal career, as these experiences helped me build confidence professionally. In contrast, working as an inhouse paralegal felt a bit like being thrown in the deep end, as I was quickly allocated work for high-level projects, and although I was given a supervisor there was a lot less handholding and a lot more responsibility.
Currently, it seems as though a lot of law graduates are looking to secure a paralegal role as opposed to a direct training contract, as this is often an easier route to get into a firm. However, as you previously highlighted, there is a common misconception with regards to what paralegal work entails – could you give some examples of the main responsibilities and tasks you have been given throughout your different paralegal positions?
Working in my first paralegal role at FLETCHER DAY, I undertook quite a diverse number of tasks as it was a smaller firm. In this type of environment, you do tend to get more responsibilities; I personally worked with eight different lawyers across three different practice areas. A lot of the tasks I undertook involved drafting different documents such as settlement agreements, looking through disclosure and litigation material and assisting with witness statements. I was also able to attend an employment case in court which was incredibly insightful. Moreover, I was able to apply my previous immigration work experience at VOICES IN EXILE when drafting immigration applications for clients at the firm.
My responsibilities as a Trade Mark Paralegal at DLA Piper and HSBC were also hugely varied. My work at DLA included a lot of direct client communication, administrative tasks, researching trade mark legislation and checking for any changes and providing weekly updates on on-going matters to partners. At HSBC, the work I was given was more practical in nature – such as sitting in on contract negotiation meetings and undertaking risk assessments.
Lastly, what do you think are the main differences and similarities between working as a paralegal as opposed to being a trademark administrator?
Personally, working as a paralegal felt more like the step before working as a solicitor, as this role allowed me to have more involvement in cases, assisting solicitors from the beginning of a case until the end. In comparison, as a Trade Mark Administrator my main role was to maintain databanks. Although I would draft emails to clients, I would not necessarily send them out myself, and overall, my contact with clients was limited. As Administrator I was more responsible for the back-office side of client work, maintaining and updating records. While this work did cement my trade mark and IP law skillset, it did leave me with doubt over whether I would then be able to shift into working as a solicitor. In my past and current paralegal roles, I had a lot more client-facing work and direct contact with solicitors. However, I do still believe that my experience in trademark administration was essential to enhancing my knowledge, practical skills, and confidence within IP law. Through this work I really learned how to apply an extremely detail-oriented, meticulous approach to every task I was given – which is a vital ability to possess in IP law, as a practice area which necessitates this type of approach.