Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Part of the Furniture

I have now been working for LawCare for over eleven years. That’s longer than my desk, since the original LawCare desk fell apart last week, so I now have a nice new one. Whilst no one can expect a job for life in the current economic climate, I am hopeful that I will be with LawCare as long as LawCare exists. I can't think of anything I would rather do - unless I can figure out a way of getting paid for being a housewife and mother.

Before I elaborate on what it means to be part of the furniture, perhaps I should go back and explain how I came to take this job. Barry Pritchard, a North Wales lawyer who also happened to be a long-term recovering alcoholic, got the job as LawCare’s first Co-ordinator in 1997, and was given an old Law Society computer which he set up in the corner of his kitchen on the now-deceased desk. During that first year he manned the telephone 24 hours a day – remember that mobile phone technology was in its infancy then – and received sixty calls from alcoholic solicitors. With very few volunteers, Barry mentored each person himself, researching, writing and sending them information and trying to arrange for them to receive the appropriate treatment.

After a year he realised he needed help, and advertised for a secretary. At the time I had been working for an alcoholic lawyer for several weeks having given up a good job as an estate agent in what I thought would be a step up. Seeing the letters arriving from Leamington Spa (where the Law Society’s disciplinary arm is based) and knowing that my Sole Practitioner boss was in the pub more often than he was in the office, I insisted on being paid in cash. I also found myself at the Job Centre during my lunch break.

I was invited for interview, and arrived at Barry’s beautiful old renovated cottage to be greeted by three very lively and large spaniels. I am allergic to dogs, but with the job of my dreams riding on this interview I made a big fuss of them all and put the sneezing down to a cold.

Starting a new job is always daunting. For several weeks you’re never quite certain of
what you’re doing, and I made my fair share of mistakes, including accidentally deleting the entire volunteers database. Luckily I had a print-out, so unbeknown to Barry I typed the whole thing back in again. We had about 30 volunteers then – we now have 150. (But we always need more! Call me if you are a lawyer and can help!)

Like many, my job was a precarious balancing act between doing tasks I knew I was supposed to do – typing up case notes – and taking some initiative to develop my role. Or, as others might have called it, getting too big for my boots. I was lucky – Barry was very amenable to suggestions and ideas, and so now, eleven years later, I have a job that I pretty much designed myself, and could do standing on my head with my eyes closed.

I am aware that I am very, very lucky. Many people within the legal profession are stuck in stressful jobs, bullying environments and offices where their ideas and input are not welcome. And many of them wonder about moving on, but doubt their ability to find anything suitable, or are too afraid of those first uncertain weeks of settling in. Among helpline callers there seems to be a “better the devil you know” ethos, whereby however bad things are, the big wide unknown world of the jobs market is even worse. One caller, who was being abysmally treated by her firm, and had been for several years, had never even considered the option of leaving because she’d been there ever since she qualified fifteen years ago, and … well … leave? After years of criticism, bullying and being expected to put in twelve-hour days her self-esteem was as low as her salary.

My advice if you find yourself in a similar situation: just do it. Get your CV up to date, research the market, and stroke the dogs. You too might end up with the job of your dreams.

LawCare’s free and confidential helpline is available 9-7.30 Monday-Friday, 10-4 weekends, on:
0800 279 6888 (Solicitors, Law Students and Legal Executives in England and Wales)
0800 279 6869 (Solicitors, Advocates and Law Students in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man)
0800 018 4299 (Barristers, Clerks and Judges in England and Wales)
1800 991801 (Solicitors in the Republic of Ireland)

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