Solicitor, author and committee member of the Women Lawyers Division, Dawn talks about her new book and the challenges she faced within the legal profession.
This book is a fictionalised version of the author’s life, told through the eyes of the many PAs (personal assistants) who have worked with her over the years. It highlights the professional journey of a Black solicitor from childhood to the age of 49 and the trials and tribulations she faced, including the forced closure of her own firm due to fraud committed by her business partner. It is a truly breathtaking account of a remarkable professional facing numerous challenges.
We caught up about these issues and more…
What inspired you to write a book about the profession?
What the PA knew is a story about my life told through the eyes of someone else – a PA. Some people get this method of telling my story and some do not. A biography would be too self serving I thought. I qualified in 1990 and when there were fewer minorities within the Law then but still many opportunities available if you were good enough. The landscape has changed since 1990 and I did not have a ‘me/Dawn’ in those days. I was the first in my family to go to university let alone become a Lawyer. My reason for writing the book was that I had so much knowledge in my head that I wanted to share my knowledge and experience but, not in a form of a text book as I felt that had been done to death. I needed to record what I had learnt as it worked for me and may work for others. I felt a novel was more suited to getting the message across in a non confrontational way. I did not want to preach. I had written a chapter on partnership for a Law Society publication in 2013 and felt that format a little restrictive as I wanted my book to be full of fun and humour. I have always wanted to write a book and after the closure of my practice in 2013 and in such catastrophic circumstances due to my business partner’s fraud, I had time on my hands.
The decision to use tell the story through the view of the PA added an interesting layer, what brought you to that decision?
It was a nod to all the PA’s I have employed and worked with since qualification in 1990. My first PA was from the military police and she told me ‘if I am to do your work put the Dictaphone in front of your mouth, loose the sandwich and her is the phonetic alphabet, leant it’. I learnt very quickly a PA could make a lawyer look good or bad regardless of whether you are a good lawyer or not. They also know everything and have access to your emails and letters. A badly typed letter creates an impression in the mind of a client and lawyers must be seen to be 100 per cent, 100 per cent of the time and maintain a standard. PA are pivotal to this happening. Today spell check on your computer has made us lazy as document reading can make you snow blind.
In the book you speak about the difficulties for women in the profession, from both the point of view of a PA and solicitor. How do you feel these reflect the current state of the profession?
Much has changed for women in the profession in that we are entering the profession in increasing numbers and with the current entrance rate way above that of men. However, we still face inequality. Women are seen as the primary careers and until Paternity rights are deemed “normal” and taken up by men in increasing numbers, women will always be at a disadvantage. Women are still making the choice to have children later in their careers and when they are in a more senior role. At this point in their careers they are in a better position to negotiate terms and return to work, rather than having children at the beginning of their careers and when they are much younger and, when they may be viewed possibly as expendable. ‘Newly qualified’s’ are easily replaced but a 10 year PQE Specialist – not so easy. As the profession is working more remotely and practicing in very different ways (part time, job sharing), I am confident this will change for the good.
Women are still underrepresented at the top of the profession especially when one considers the numbers at entry level. However, we must consider this point with the obvious observations that, women may just not want to be at the top and to work in that environment and run the business of law (it has moved from a profession and is definitely a business and a global one in many cases) and women should not be forced to do so either just to make up the numbers. Secondly, the lack of women at the top is a societal problem and more to do with the perceived role of women by the masses. I think it was Harriett Harman who said we would not have had the economic crash if, ‘Lehman Brothers was Lehman Sisters!’ Women are risk aware and not risk averse as we are sometimes perceived.
The book contains lot’s of advice, what would be the best bit of advice you could give a budding lawyer?
Chapter nine. We all need to work at our dominant need and those around us. Once you know this, it really does make life easier. Don’t go into law if you want a stress free life. The biggest lesson is that the practice of Law is a real business now and if you are not business aware you may find yourself in hot water.
How do you think your experiences within the profession shaped you?
My experience as a trainee and becoming a partner in a predominantly white male firm early in my career as well as opening my firm has taught me two things. (1) patience is a virtue I had to acquire (2) compromise is not a loss but a win.
What are you most proud of in your professional career?
Visiting Buckingham Palace as a guest of HHR for my contribution to the growth of the nation, for my work with women Lawyers. David Attenborough was there and I nearly had heart failure when the Queen walked in. Secondly, hearing about my former trainees who have become successful and what they are doing as I know I played a small part in their development - even if they may not have enjoyed my involvement at the time. I can be a hard taskmaster but have mellowed in old age.
After a busy day, how do you relax, ready for the next day?
I do not do one thing but I have a range of things I like to do to unwind depending on my mood. I take my pet Labrador Bella for a walk – or she takes me as she is still excitable at four. I love my music, any music, reggae, pop, soul, RnB, world music, Calypso, the list goes on or, I like to watch TV which doesn’t involve you engaging your brain like Jeremy Kyle or Cartoons. Cartoon are very good and you need to be an adult to understand them