Ex-City lawyer switches to human rights work
This week we spoke to Alice Hardy, who used to work in the technology, media and telecoms department of Lovells. At just under one year’s pqe, she decided to put the corporate world behind her and left the City to work as a human rights lawyer. We asked her how she found the transition and whether she has any advice for solicitors wanting to switch to this practice area post-qualification.
mtl: Tell us about your legal career before you left the city?
Alice: When I graduated, I joined a publishing house. I discovered when I was there that I was more interested in what the lawyers were doing, than the editors. I liked the way that words could be used to do something effective.
I left publishing to do the CPE and LPC and enjoyed the challenge and precision of law.
I decided that I would like to do media law and was told that Lovells would give me a good training and had a good media department, with the added bonus that they paid my law school fees. From my interview, it also seemed like a nice place to work.
When I was told to take equity and debt finance at law school, I began to realise what was in store and that I had no interest in banking and finance work. I was quite green though and I didn’t fully understand what law in the City would be like until I got there. However, I remained confident that I would be able to work in the media department on qualification.
I did qualify into the technology, media and telecoms department, which was actually largely technology and telecoms. Although there was some interesting public law and freedom of information work, I spent a lot of time dealing with technology licences, which was certainly not my calling in life. Also, as a specialist department in a large firm, I could be called on for due diligence by the corporate department at any time and frequently had to work to someone else’s deadlines at short notice. This pretty much killed any remaining interest that I had in the department.
As a trainee I was involved in pro bono work which I threw myself into, but as a qualified solicitor I had less time for this, which was hard. However, I began to become more involved in the Solicitors’ International Human Rights Group. I met some very interesting people and helped out on some interesting cases. At this point I started to actively look at getting into human rights and environmental work.
mtl: So how did you manage the change?
Alice: I left the city when I was nine months qualified. I don’t think I ever suited the comfortable City law firm life.
There were two options for me really. The conventional route was to take an LLM in human rights law or volunteer in an organisation to get the experience required to be offered a full-time paid job. Unfortunately, the sort of firms that do this kind of work often can’t afford to train lawyers as much of their work is legally aided or pro bono.
I went the unconventional way which was to move straight across. However, this was only possible because I had met my current boss, Phil Shiner, through helping the Solicitors’ International Human Rights Group on a pro bono basis. At the point when a vacancy came up at Public Interest Lawyers, we already knew each other quite well.
mtl: And how did you find the move?
Alice: The environment was obviously completely different as I went from 3000 people in a firm to five. The pro bono work that I had done already helped me as I knew some of the cases that we were working on quite well. I was already familiar with recent legal developments in the area so I felt comfortable when I started. However, I had to do a lot of my own work to get up to speed. I also had to learn about the legal aid system, which is incredibly bureaucratic, and about judicial review litigation.
Headline Book Publishing
CPE and LPC - College of Law
Training contract at Lovells
Qualified into TMT, Lovells
moved to Public Interest Lawyers
I manage my own smaller cases as well as some very high profile cases, which are heard all the way up to the House of Lords and Strasbourg. This meant I had to learn the different processes of several different systems. There is still a lot for me to learn, but I am happy with that.
"You will never earn much money doing human rights law, so if you worry about money then it is not the job for you. However, if you want to do it, it is worth it a million times over."
I constantly revert to my City training. I think that the rigid discipline you learn in a City training contract is like learning grammar, in that you learn a professional way to behave and you can take it from there. I am also grateful for all the courses I was sent on as a trainee.
I find the work very rewarding, particularly because the clients are so passionate about their causes. Whether I am dealing with people whose sons died in the Iraq war, or a torture victim, it means the world for the client to have their day in court and succeed. I enjoy binging cases and having direct contact with clients. I didn’t find work in the city rewarding except when I was doing pro bono work.
mtl: What sort of work are you doing at the moment?
Alice: I am managing a lot of cases, all at different stages of judicial review. Many are urgent and to keep costs to a minimum they often proceed very fast. I am dealing with issues such as nuclear weapons, planning (where there are environmental considerations), urban regeneration (where there are human rights implications), the Iraq war and arms dealing.
The work is exciting. Many of our cases attract huge press interest. Recently I went to the Court of Appeal with our clients who are parents of soldiers killed in Iraq. We were seeking an enquiry into their deaths on the grounds that they should be entitled under Article 2 ECHR (the right to life) if the Government had failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that the war was legal. It was in front of the three most senior judges in the Court of Appeal and the atmosphere was impressive. I felt proud to be part of this process.
The low points of the job are dealing with public funding bureaucracy and the frustration of feeling how high the stakes are piled against an individual attempting to challenge the State.
mtl: What tips do you have for people wanting to change direction post-qualification?
Alice: Be brave, creative and imaginative about it. You will never earn much money doing human rights law, so if you worry about money then it is not the job for you. However, if you want to do it, it is worth it a million times over.
To get into this area you will need to prove your enthusiasm through voluntary work and show that you would do it for free if you could afford to. There is so much need for good lawyers, but people are daunted by taking the step. It would probably be very hard to move back to the City, both for your own reasons and a City firm’s, so you have to be sure it’s for you. If you have courage and determination, you should be able to find a way in if you are persistent about it.
mtl: Thank you for your time Alice, and we wish you all the best with your career.
Click here to see the Public Interest Lawyers website.
Click here to read about the Solicitors' International Human Rights Group. The group promotes awareness of international human rights within the legal profession and mobilises solicitors into effective action in support of those rights. It also encourages human rights lawyers overseas and conducts related missions, research, campaigns and training. Working groups cover topics such as Guantanamo, human trafficking and the death penalty.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their legal careers or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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