The Law Society – Interview: Karen Jackson
Karen Jackson, CEO, Roberts Jackson Solicitors, winner of the Legal Business Woman of the Year 2014, gives us an overview on winning,and talks about her career.
Karen, first of all, many congratulations on winning the Legal Business Woman of the Year award. What was your first reaction when you were notified you had won?
Shocked. I haven’t won anything as an individual in my life (excluding the awards we have at RJ). The calibre of the other entrants was fantastic so I thought I had no chance.
In your opinion, how much weight do awards add to professional credibility? Do clients take notice?
It depends upon the awards. An award such as this from the National Law Society means a great deal.
What do you see as the main challenge women face when entering the legal profession?
Women face challenges in all professions. We have come a long way in the last 100 years but we still have a long way to go. I think some employers (not all) worry that women who have or desire children are less committed.. I have two children and it’s hard to balance work and home life. As s a group we just need to believe in ourselves more.
I do, however, welcome the Law Society Diversity and Inclusion charter. RJ are signatories and it is evidence of how far we have come as a profession and is a good thing. My challenge was coming from a working class background and having a strong Lancashire accent. Twenty years ago when I was a junior and seeking articles, it was a big deal. Times have change, thank goodness. I have kept it, however, and it’s now one of the things that people most remember me by.
Do women make better leaders and managers?
I think it is very much down to the individual.
Considering the constraints of obtaining a training contract, do you have any specific advice for young, female students?
Apply to RJ!
We have a graduate training programme which leads to training contracts for those who can demonstrate the necessary skills, commitment and work ethic.There are thousands of students across the UK with no training contracts who have been encouraged to go to law school with little advice or guidance on the number of training contracts available, and that is a real shame.
I couldn’t get a training contract and got my first job as a junior in a firm in Manchester and worked my way up. The right practices create opportunities for those people that work hard. I do think, however, that some people have a concept that being a lawyer is a nine-to-five job and unfortunately those days are gone. It is no longer enough to simply be a good lawyer, you need to be commercial and have a strong work ethic and not give up when you have bad days. Commitment is key. Lawyers now have recruiters who will contact them on social media as soon as they have any experience. Hard work, drive and commitment are half the battle.
Would you advise any lawyers or students to consider expanding their education to an MBA? In your experience, would this make them more employable?
I think every person is different and I look at the CVs we receive in the round. Education and skills are considered as well as work experience (legal and non-legal). It amazes me when people don’t put on their CVs what jobs they had as students. I had a multiple of summer jobs including working on a lettuce farm, in a pizza place and in a pub serving pints. They have all contributed to the person that I am now.
How did you deal with your first major client?
It was a mesothelioma case and I was in my 20s. It was incredibly stressful but I handled her with sensitively and understanding.
Did you have a mentor in your career? What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
My family all mentored each other as we grew up (if you can call it mentoring!).
My mother is a very determined and practical person and had three children when she was young. My father worked his way up and became the local bank manager. Our family motto was failure is not an option. My sister is now the head of the National Library of Australia and my brother successful in IT so I guess my parents must have done quite a few things right.
On occasions throughout my career I would come home in tears moaning about this or that, and my parents and Oliver (I met him at law school 20 years ago) would say, stop moaning, get back in there and focus on where you are going – ignore everyone else. A great piece of advice.
What are you most proud of in your professional career?
Having the nerves to start RJ in 2009 whilst on maternity leave with my first child. Oliver and I said ‘let`s just do it’. We had no clients, just a belief that we wanted to create a great industrial disease litigation practice where every client received the same level of service. We knew the Jackson Reforms were on the horizon and we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. I cannot believe that was only five years ago. This week we have been placed in the Sunday Times Fast track 100 for 204 as the 27th fastest growing company in the UK. It is all a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest.
What are the key management challenges facing firms?
Competition from non-lawyer owned companies and competition from abroad as well as a need to gear up IT systems and improve efficiencies and productivity at a time when we are now living in a post LASPO era. I don’t think there will ever be a more challenging time for firms affected by LASPO and there will unfortunately be causalities for years to come. Consolidation is on the way. Firms need to review their own models and strategies and look forward. Easier said than done for the smaller firms battling the day to day issues.
How did you develop strategies for dealing with this?
We are fortunate that my husband Oliver is head of Strategy. He keeps one eye on the changing legal landscape and provides me with daily updates so that we can decide what challenges and opportunities are ahead and strategize accordingly.
What has been your greatest success in your firm?
Developing our people. All my associate directors (salaried partner equivalent) joined with little (less than one year) or no experience. We have an award-winning development and training programme and when I see people winning trials and shining in their roles, it makes me so proud and I realise that all the effort that we put into developing and training them is worth it. They then have to train those underneath them of course. RJ people ‘give back’ but it is a great feeling training and developing people and it will be something I can look back on in 20 years’ time and feel most proud of.
After a busy day, how do you relax?
I get home later at the moment as we are in a post Private Equity Investment world transformation period (following a £15m injection from NorthEdge Capital plc in August).
Lots of changes are occurring now that we have come out of due diligence so that we can continue with sustainable growth. These include the hiring of a chief operating officer and chief technical officer. I am also in the process of finalising my Vision and Values plan for 2014. I now have a chairman in the form of Paul Hewitt who has been fantastic in assisting me in my new role so any time I do get is very precious.
Oliver and I are taking the children to Lapland for a few days soon which will be great fun as they are still young enough to believe in Santa so the smiles on their faces will be worth waiting for. I also love movies and we try and go as often as we can.
I am lucky that I have some fantastic girlfriends whom I have known 20 years so we have girlie holidays and nights out although we can`t dance on podiums like we used to.
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