Barbara Hamilton-Bruce, Director of Legal Operations, Accident Advice Helpline Direct Limited
How long have you been working for your current company?
I joined in April 2003 so I have just passed my 9 year anniversary.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I had no idea that I was starting a career in law when I joined a law firm fresh out of school as a Junior Secretary. I attended night school to bolster my ‘O’ levels and was encouraged by my employers to obtain the Legal Executive qualification. Once I started on this route I moved into various fee earning roles finally electing personal injury litigation as my specialist field. With experience came management responsibility and the opportunity to broaden my experience into clinical negligence and cost litigation. Partnership was not an option for Legal Executives and I was looking for other opportunities which would allow development of business and management skills. In 2003 I was offered the opportunity to move into an in-house role primarily providing management support to external law firms who supplied legal services to customers of the business. Over the years my role has developed and expanded into other areas and now, as the only lawyer in a business employing over 200 people I am best described as a ‘jack of all trades’ working on projects ranging from compliance and regulation to employment and HR management.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
There have been so many moments I could draw on because the pride I felt was always relative to the space I occupied at that time. As I am being asked to name one I choose the day I received the embossed Certificate that confirmed I was finally a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. From the moment I started my studies I combined full time employment with at least 20 hours per week study in my ‘spare’ time. My office hours were long as my caseload and responsibilities were high and I spent a lot of time at court and travelling around the country on appointments. I had to be organised and develop a high degree of resilience remaining self-motivated and focused on achievements both in and out of work. That period of my life had the most profound effect on my personal development although I think it is only as I’ve got older that I have come to understand and appreciate the full range of additional benefits I obtained from this route into the law.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
There are very few things in the law that stay static but the world of personal injury litigation has, over the last 10 or so years seen so much change and, at times, disruption. The business, along with our partners and legal service providers face significant changes to the operating environment through changes in primary legislation (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders) and more recent indications of political will such as a review of the small claims limit. My challenge is the imminent future, being able to adapt and respond, developing and creating a strategy in response to a number of unknowns. Uncertainty can create fear and I understand that stakeholders may be looking to me for an answer to the future. I respond by working with what I know, being clear on the opportunities but realistic about the threats.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
I work flexibly, two days in the office in London and three days at home. As far as possible I arrange my work around the pattern; people in the office, paperwork at home. When I first started working from home I did find that work spilled into home life and vice versa and this created personal conflict as I struggled to switch between the two. Creating a distinct environment that meant I was physically going into my work space helped. For a long time I struggled to find the right balance between home and life. In some respects this was because I was applying the same pre-children rationale to post-children life. It has taken adjustments to my mind set and positive steps towards an acceptance of what can be achieved within available time. Overall I think the balance that my family and I have is a good one, childcare in our home is very much a team effort and I have support from my wider family which makes responding to those occasional challenges easier.
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?
It was the first law firm’s practice manager, Keven Mulley, who first suggested the CILEx route into law and it was his support and guidance that helped point me in the right direction 24 years ago. Of all the professional moves I have made probably the hardest one was leaving the secretarial role to become a fee earner within the same firm. The politics were challenging and I wasn’t well equipped to deal it. Keven was a steadfast supporter and helped me overcome so many obstacles place by others but also helped me recognise the ones that I created for myself.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
Diversity initiatives can be useful as a way of highlighting under-representation as long as the reasons for under representation are also identified and addressed. There is little benefit to a business in setting say a target that X% of the board must be composed of women if women will not be attracted to the roles or will be retained but then lost due to underlying cultural or organisational issues.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
During my early careers I think I simply accepted disadvantages as being my lot in life. I had chosen to make the move from secretarial to fee earning. If people were still asking me to make tea and coffee or type up some urgent court documents well, they were just making the best of the skills available to them. I moaned about it but I didn’t have the confidence to stand up for myself and demand to be treated like my male peers. Learning how to break out of the mould that had been created was one of those life lessons that I had to learn and, for me, it meant moving on to another firm where I didn’t the secretarial history. The advantage of my (at that time) typically female background meant that I had a typing speed of 120wpm. Although my wrist joints may not now agree, my typing and secretarial skills put me streets ahead of my male peers when it came to effectiveness under pressure. I had secretarial support but I was always capable of going it alone.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
Historically a culture of presenteeism meant that time spent at your desk and hours billed were the only representations of your commitment to your role and your future. This culture is being challenged and this challenge is enabled by technological developments and the expansion of the rights (for men as well as women) to work flexibly. Accommodating the needs of an individual who needs to work flexibly can often deliver rewards far exceeding simple performance of their employment contracts.