Elizabeth Robertson discusses her own journey into the legal profession and her passion for the law being an accessible and feasible career for everyone.
Elizabeth is a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and a Board member of PRIME.
The Covid pandemic has had a devastating impact on the education and, inevitably, opportunities of young people. This has made me more determined than ever to ensure my actions and those of my firm continue to encourage as many young people as possible – from as many different backgrounds as possible – to contemplate a legal career. Reflecting on my own journey into the profession, I cannot help but wonder if I would face even greater challenges were I to be starting it today.
Against all odds
I am the eldest child of four. My mother was a hairdresser and left school with only the most basic of qualifications. My father combined an amateur rugby and coaching career and was Head of Games at a private boys school in Sussex where I grew up.
My brothers attended the school my father taught at, whereas I attended a local primary and then secondary school. The difference in aspirations and encouragement became very apparent from secondary school. I felt that we were not encouraged to be the best that we could be or to follow our dreams. In practical terms, this meant poor guidance around which subjects to take, especially at A level. I feel very strongly that this is a particular area that has still not improved, especially in some state schools. Students need to be given honest and realistic advice about what subjects they should take at A level if they want to pursue a career in law.
I remember wanting to be a lawyer from age 10 and that my secondary school made me feel that I was too big for my country girl boots to even try. My parents had no real idea how to guide me and certainly no idea how to help me.
By the time I arrived, as one of only two girls, at my father’s private school I was more determined than ever to be a lawyer. Here I was encouraged from the outset and by the end of the first term it was suggested that I apply to read English at Cambridge.
Not getting into Cambridge really knocked my confidence and I did less well in my A levels than expected. I ended up at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic on a 4-year degree course, working in a law firm in Brighton during my second year. I loved the course and working in a solicitors office really helped me to understand our profession and what I needed to do to succeed, including note taking on visits to Lewis Prison, learning to deal with people in crisis, small county court applications, being willing to work hard and walking the senior partner’s dog at lunchtime!
I graduated with a high upper second LLB and headed off to law school in Guildford. When I got there, I realised all my hard work was not going to be enough. Nearly everyone there had been to Russell Group universities or Oxbridge and had already secured a training contract on something called the “milk round” which I had never heard of.
Without doubt, that was one of the most miserable years of my life, but the penny had dropped. If I was to have any chance of securing a training contract I was going to have to finish very near the top of my class, which I did securing a Commendation. Graduating in 1992 was brutal with the recession caused by high interest rates and consideration of joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and effectively being forced to write to firms cold outside of the formal recruitment process. I must have made 130-150 handwritten applications and received rejection after rejection, whether it was from City firms, who made it clear that my “Polytechnic” background was the problem or from the human rights and white collar crime firms who were just not recruiting.
At this point I had two choices: go home to Sussex or work two waitressing shifts a day while living above a gear box shop in Crouch End and keep trying.
Then, as they say, I had a lucky break. I took a call from Penny Capps who ran a catering company and was looking for my flatmate. I joked “do you have any jobs for lawyers?” and she said no but that she would ask her husband. To this day I don’t know why she was so kind or why her husband David Capps and another partner from Stephenson Harwood agreed to interview me but later that week, on my 25th birthday, I was offered a job as a paralegal working in the Financial Services and Regulatory team.
It was an incredible experience working on some of the best cases around with some of the best lawyers. I could see that I was as good as the trainees I worked alongside and I am quite certain that this opportunity on top of my earlier experience of working at a solicitors office were the extra factors that helped me secure my training contract at Peters & Peters the following year.
It was my dream job as a trainee solicitor in the leading white-collar crime firm in London.
Diversity is key
My personal journey, and those of others, has convinced me that we must continue to be mindful as a profession that recruiting too narrowly means that we miss potential talent. I have both clients and colleagues who value my difference, in terms of gender diversity, background and education which means I see things differently, communicate differently and, to an extent, lawyer differently.
There is growing evidence backed by hard data that a diverse workforce means a better business including improved client reach and opportunities, all of which lead to improved profitability. These factors have encouraged me to speak up and be more open about the challenges I faced to access our profession, primarily because of where I went to university, and because I did not have anyone to mentor and guide me early on. I would encourage individuals to also share their story and be proud of their accomplishments. I hope that firms recognise the value of offering initiatives to open up our great profession and embrace diversity.
Many firms are beginning to understand that social diversity is probably the hardest nut to crack. It is vitally important that there are alternative, fair and structured routes into the profession. Becoming a paralegal gave me the opportunity to pursue my career, without which my journey might have been quite different. Opportunities such as the paralegal route, apprenticeships, and work experience offer young people a way into the profession they might otherwise not have.
I joined the Board of PRIME in 2019. Skadden had been a member of PRIME for some time and we collectively wanted to become more involved in the work of this important organisation that promotes social mobility in the legal profession.
Joining PRIME is a positive and collaborative way to widen students’ access to firms’ work experience schemes, reaching potential candidates who might not otherwise be reached. It is also a great way to showcase a firm’s commitment to social mobility. This has proved particularly effective for us at Skadden as we recruit our trainees from our vacation schemes and work experience is a fantastic gateway into that very tough process.
We are already seeing progress in that more students from non-Russell Group/Oxbridge are applying to and making it on to our vacation schemes. Oddly the pandemic, although dreadful in so many respects, has created a revolution in online work experience and vacation schemes that are much more accessible to those outside of London or who might not be able to meet all the costs of work experience.
There is sometimes a sense that students outside the traditional institutions and social groups might be less academically able or less able to cope with the pressures of working in a law firm, but PRIME helps us, and other firms, access the best talent from a wider pool not to recruit less able students. In this sense joining PRIME can be both altruistic and good for business.
Might I face a greater challenge if I were to be starting out today? Undoubtedly so, but if, as a profession, we enable access through multiple routes and use the tools available to us (like PRIME) to make this possible, we can support the next generation of talent to come through, regardless of their backgrounds.
Without them, we will be a poorer profession.
Elizabeth Robertson has advised on multi-jurisdictional business crime and regulatory matters for more than 25 years and has played a role in many of the most important criminal and regulatory investigations in the UK. She is regarded as being in the top tier of white-collar crime lawyers globally. Her decades of experience have given her significant understanding of the priorities of UK prosecuting authorities, including the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), HMRC and the Office of Sanctions Implementation (OFSI). Elizabeth has been recognised for supporting and promoting diversity throughout her career. She is founder of the London Chapter of the Women’s White Collar Defense Association, Trustee of the Alsama Project, and Board member of PRIME.
Published in association with The Law Society.