Justine will be one of 16 Aspiring Solicitors Advisory Board members mentoring 16 AS members this year- apply to the AS mentoring program by clicking HERE
What diversity/inclusion challenges or barriers have you met so far and how have you overcome these barriers?
I have found my social background has presented challenges at various points in my career. I was a fairly bright child – I did well at school and I wanted to do well to please my parents. My parents didn’t own a house, or drive a car, we didn’t go on holidays and there were some weeks when my mum struggled to put food on the table. Growing up as part of a fairly poor family in a suburban area often made me feel like quite an outsider at school – I had a lot less in common with other people. I was less confident. I felt intimidated by confident kids and retreated into myself for a lot of my early teens. My parents didn’t drive, I had never been abroad, I grew up living above the shop where my parents worked – on a busy high street. What had felt quite “normal” as a young child made me feel outcast, and I’m ashamed to say, embarrassed, as I became a teenager. When I was 16, my mum passed away, my dad lost his job and we lost our home above the shop where I had grown up. My dad and me were rehomed in a council towerblock – he suffered from manic depression and was suicidal so as an already confused 16 year old, this was a fairly tricky time! It took a while for me to brave telling anyone where I lived because (wrongly, I know) I was ashamed. When I was 16 I got my first job in McDonalds – which at that point was the only job I felt I was good enough for. I worked around 20 hours a week alongside my A-Levels – some Saturdays, and some evenings after college. McDonalds taught me a great deal, and also helped me to build up a lot of confidence in dealing with people from all walks of life. I’m not quite sure how I secured it, but my first job in Professional Services was in a Big Four firm – as the office junior in their Graduate Recruitment team. I’m embarrassed to say now that I hadn’t even heard of the firm before being put forward for the role, but I do remember my dad (who was still unemployed and mentally unstable) being utterly bowled over and convinced I had “made the big time” (little did he know I spend most of my time photocopying).
In professional services, I have so very often felt like a little bit of an outsider. I think a mix of luck, enthusiasm and very hard work have helped me to develop and forge a career, but there have been times when my background has left me feeling a little exposed. Either that feeling that “I don’t actually belong here” creeps in – or I get trapped in lively conversations about travel, history or culture where I cannot contribute a thing. It took several years to conquer the fear of picking up the phone to speak to a partner without feeling utterly unworthy. There have also been times when my accent (a mix of Cockney and Essex) have led people to form assumptions or judgements that I have had to work hard to overcome. I have been very fortunate in that I have worked for some exceptional firms and with some open-minded and helpful people, who have helped to develop me and recognise the value I can add. And slowly but surely many of the challenges which I felt so acutely at the start of my career have ebbed away. In my view, if you are placed out of your comfort zone, you can either cower with fear (I have done that!) or you can rise to the challenge – and prove what you have to offer, even if that means proving a few people wrong along the way. That is, I would say, how I have overcome the barriers I have faced based on my background.
Do you think having a mentor is important and have you had one in your career?
Yes – having a mentor is important – someone you can turn to informally for support or advice. I have had lots of mentors along the way, usually people who I have turned to when I feel out of my depth or overwhelmed and it’s incredible how talking things through and hearing advice from someone who has “been there” can really make a difference.
What piece of advice would you give to any AS member looking to become a lawyer?
Come to events – network, meet people, have a meaningful dialogue and really opt in to the opportunities AS have to offer. What Chris has developed really is phenomenal, but you will only really reap the benefit if you opt in!
Do you think diversity in the legal profession is improving and why?
Yes, I do. I think firms are more aware that diversity is business critical. Diversity has a higher profile within organisations and across the City than ever before and I think we have a window of opportunity to make real and lasting change.
What message would you like to give to AS members?
Be positive, enthusiastic and have a can do attitude. If you become a lawyer, approach the mundane tasks with the same level of positivity as the complex/high profile tasks. Often it is nailing the basics (with a smile) that opens doors to more interesting work.
What is important to you/makes you happy?
Outside of work I have two young children. The entirely honest answer to this question is being a mum makes me happy – and having a meaningful relationship with my children.
If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
This will sound very crass, but I would like for there to be greater diversity of world leaders, particularly gender diversity. I am not suggesting that would solve the world’s problems, but I have a hunch that we may reach some different outcomes if this were the case.