From solicitor to coach: reflections on my journey so far
I've always been driven by purpose and a commitment to help build a better world. I trained as a solicitor, seeing the law as a vehicle for social change and justice. But law and policy all too often felt disconnected from the people and communities I sought to help and disempowering. Something done to them. In contrast, coaching and facilitation tools and techniques enable me to work with people, help form inter-related connections and enable people and communities to drive their own change in a way that is sustainable and meaningful to them....
As of the end of this month I will no longer have a legal practicing certificate, my name will disappear off the Law Society's database and for the first time in twelve years I will not be able to call myself a solicitor.
This means little to most people but after aspiring to the role as a child, four years completing a law degree and legal practice course (and accruing £20,000 debt in the process), two years training and twelve years of practice - giving up the title and the right to practice is no small thing.
The biggest loss is the loss of identity and an easy answer to the question 'what do you do?' 'Public Law and human rights solicitor' and 'Legal Aid lawyer' rolled off the tongue so easily and gave people a sense of who I was and what I cared about.
I chose to be a lawyer as I saw it as a means of helping people. And I did use it to help people. Challenging -death penalty decisions in South Carolina, false criminal charges, unlawful detention, destitution.. the stakes were often high and the reward for success great - a person's life improved. After an initial spell in crime and asylum work I immersed myself in public law - as I explained to a full hall at a Law Society conference on 'Saving Legal Aid' in 2015 - access to legal advice and representation on issues regarding education, health, mental health, social care, can not only help turn a person's life around, but can bring savings and benefits to the public purse and to society in general. A successfully challenged school exclusion, can keep a young person in education and training and on the right side of the law; social care support for a family in crisis can keep a family together, saving a child from life in care and the lower outcomes care normally delivers.
I enjoyed thirteen fabulous years working alongside passionate colleagues, leaders in their field - championing people's rights, navigating labyrinthine public law, policy and practice and holding the state and decision makers to account.
So why leave it behind, and for what?
As a lawyer your attention is trained to look for solutions in the law to the problems presented to you. There is room to shape, influence and interpret the law to suit your aims but your focus is on winning the legal case...
But at the heart of the case are people and a system.
Cuts on cuts to legal aid (public funding for access to justice) meant the people I was acting for, my clients, were entitled to less and less of my time and support. And many others couldn't access any funding at all. At the same time, cuts upon cuts to public services, meant the systems were unable to function and the people who were meant to keep them in order or to work within them, were over stretched and under resourced.
In case after case, clients came to me in crisis having been let down by a well intentioned but overworked social worker, or subject to an uncompassionate assessment process. As a result communication, trust and relationships had broken down, gaping holes appeared in the safety net and confidence in the system was shattered for both those working within in it and for those it was meant to serve. It weighed heavy.
I sat with my clients in multi professional meetings that were dysfunctional and costly to all concerned. The basics of good conversation, trusting relationships, effective collaboration weren't in place. Lip service, if that, was given to 'person-centred', 'whole child' 'asset based' approaches and any reference to 'whole system' 'wrapping around the family' 'joined-up working' felt empty. It was frustrating to see people come together, with so many skills and good intent, but unable to work together to achieve positive outcomes.
I came to realise that I wanted to focus my energy on working with people and with the systems that are meant to support them, in the community, in the workplace and in public services.
Over the last few years I've subsequently given increasing time and attention to an array of 'empowering projects', at both macro and micro levels. From teaching people to cycle in my local park, to school governance, forest school volunteering, political activism, workplace training, Council Scrutiny, national campaigning. I've rediscovered my curiosity, expanded my learning, sought new ideas, experiences, connections. Most of all I've had time to rediscover my love of people, of places and to wrestle with the big issues that face us. My explorations have been broad, varied and winding. My purpose is unchanged but has developed into multi-colour with greater brightness and intensity.
So this month I say goodbye to my practicing certificate but I say hello to better conversations, to growing circles and collaboration, and to change. I'll keep the law in my pannier, but just one of an increasing number of tools I hope to use. Coaching is my new vehicle and, like my much loved bike, it feels light, adaptable, encompassing and empowering. I love its ability to explore unforgotten nooks, to open up new possibilities, and to deliver long-lasting and meaningful change.