updated on 10 March 2020
When I was 16 there was never any doubt that I would leave school, get a job and start earning a living. I’m from a working-class background, grew up in council housing and went to state school. It was a given that rather than go into further education, I would get a job. Nobody from my family had gone to university, but I had always been capable academically and I was keen to continue my education somehow.
My objective was to find a job where I could study and work at the same time.
I saw a vacancy on my school’s careers board to be a trainee legal assistant at my local council in planning, conveyancing or litigation. The role offered a combination of work and study to become a legal executive. I looked into it and the idea of going to court seemed very exciting. I went to the interview – I had to borrow some smart clothes from my mum – and despite stressing how keen I was to get into court and be a litigator, I was offered the planning job! Despite my disappointment, I knew it was an opportunity that was too good to miss.
I was enrolled on the chartered legal executive course in the evenings while working during the day. The CILEx course was great as it allowed somebody like me, who didn’t have the chance to go to university, to get a legal qualification. I am one of its biggest advocates.
At the council I was so keen that I would offer to help the solicitors in any way that I could. When the person doing litigation left, I jumped in and took over all of their mortgage repossession work and all sorts of other general litigation. I did a couple of hearings at court when I was just 17. It was such a fantastic opportunity.
I became a qualified member of the Institute when I was 20 and housing law was something I was passionate about. Although my studies were officially over, I decided to do a further diploma in landlord and tenant law as I decided that I wanted to specialise. I thought about how I could do something with more of a social agenda, so I moved into legal aid work representing the most vulnerable tenants. From there I wanted to look at the bigger picture of how you could make a difference working for the greater benefit. That’s when I jumped to the other side and started working for social landlords, and joined Devonshires in 1999.
I had my son in 2001 and daughter in 2004 and worked part time for 10 years, first for two days and then three days a week. I managed to feel that I didn’t have to make massive sacrifices in my career while still having time with family. I carried on as I was and in 2011, I was asked if I would like to join the partnership. Legal executives were first allowed to become partners in 2009, so I was Devonshires’ first.
I now feel a responsibility, both as a woman and a person from a more socially disadvantaged background, to go out and tell people about CILEx. I am a great believer that CILEx provides a great platform for driving diversity in the legal profession. People shouldn’t let their social background get in the way of what you want to do. If people hear me with my Essex accent, they can realise that law is a career path they can pursue, no matter how they speak. I regularly talk in schools about CILEx to spread the word. The fact is that it is an incredible route that allows people to make a career change at any point in their life or help women returning to work. It is open to young people, as it was to me when I was 16, and is a more cost-effective way of getting a legal qualification than getting seeking to qualify as a solicitor or barrister. It is a qualification anybody can pick up at any point in their life.
As I have achieved the position of partner, I have fulfilled my personal ambitions and I now want to help give people opportunities and help their careers to progress. I want to share my 30 years of experience and help inspire the next generation of lawyers, no matter what their background.
Donna McCarthy is a partner at Devonshires Solicitors.