Heather Durston-Hillyer, Partner, DAC Beachcroft LLP
How long have you been working for your current company?
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I trained at Cole and Cole (now Morgan Cole) in Oxford and Reading before qualifying into their defendant personal injury litigation team. After a year I moved to a similar position at a legacy firm of DAC Beachcroft, Wansbroughs Willey Hargraves, in their Birmingham office. A year later I transferred to their Winchester office into the Defendant Clinical Negligence team where I have remained ever since. I was made an associate in 1998 and partner in 2007. Since 1997, I have specialised solely in clinical negligence claims involving health clients. As well as NHS Litigation Authority work on behalf of NHS Trusts, I undertake work for the Medical Defence Union involving both GPs and medical treatment provided privately.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Becoming partner and being ranked in Chambers. Both were validation of my personal profile and what I had achieved both internally within the firm and externally within my chosen field.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
Balancing the demands of clients and the changing manner in which those demands have to be met in an increasingly competitive environment, especially in these recessionary times.
Also having enough hours in the day and days in the week to meet all my professional, family and other commitments. I often wish there was an eighth day in every week just to catch up.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
DAC Beachcroft has always been an incredibly flexible employer which I believe is key in retaining dedicated and talented lawyers who still wish to achieve a work life balance even though they have children or for other reasons. As a mother of 2 young children, I have taken advantage of that at various times throughout my career, whether that has been to work from home or to work part time.
I once heard a high profile woman working in journalism say that you can have a career and children, or a career and a social life, or children and a social life but you can’t have all three at the same time. It is still the case that we cannot have it all and something has to give. For me, because it is my choice to have a career and a family, I accept time for myself comes last on the list and when I am at work, that is my priority and vice versa when I am at home with my family. I am quite focused on switching off from work as I am driving away from the office to then put my family hat on. To do otherwise, I find, means accomplishing neither role very well. I am also well supported by a husband who views my career as of equal importance to his own.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
I have had a couple of excellent dedicated mentors who are other female partners within my firm but I would also have to say that throughout my career at DAC Beachcroft over the years, I have watched and learned from a large proportion of the female partners. They have been examples of strong successful women lawyers and have helped me learn how to manage a career and balance the competing demands of the job within a large partnership.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I have to confess to a healthy scepticism of specific initiatives to increase the number of women at any level by ‘artificial’ means. The risk is that achievement on merit by women becomes devalued. Promoting and recognising the benefits of flexible working at all levels, including at partnership level within the legal profession, is, I believe, one of the key ways to ensure talent is retained and recognised.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I encountered one episode very early on in my career where I discovered a male solicitor of equal experience and doing the same job, was being paid more than I was (something that was then quickly rectified) but apart from that, I can honestly say I have never felt disadvantaged because of my gender. Equally I do not believe being female has created any advantages either.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
A combination of an ever-increasing proportion of women entering the profession coupled with a growing realisation by many firms that talented lawyers will be lost without efforts being made to accommodate a desire by many to work flexibly at some point in their career. Advances in technology have also facilitated different ways of flexible working.
Heather is a ranked lawyer in the UK Chambers Guide.