Unconventional routes into the legal profession: from theatre set designer to planning lawyer

Ahead of next week’s training contract application deadline, Burges Salmon partner Liz Dunn tells Legal Cheek Careers about her unlikely journey to the top of corporate law

Liz-Dunn

Before Liz Dunn, a partner at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon, started her training contract she had never worked in an office and didn’t own a suit.

She had spent the preceding six years as a theatre designer making sets for touring productions, which had been a lot of fun, but it was also a tough all-consuming business with long, unpredictable hours and lousy pay. She recalls:

In my best year, when I was effectively working two jobs and doing about 15 hours a day, I made £15,000. With two young children I got to the point where I decided that I needed to get a proper job and a pension.

Around the same time, there was a rift at the theatre company where Dunn (pictured above) was a director. She ended up mediating — an experience which she enjoyed. Curious about the possibility of becoming a lawyer, she did a few days shadowing in solicitors’ firms arranged through friends of friends, and then enrolled on a part-time distance learning version of the Graduate Diploma in Law.

Having got the best mark in her year, she put in a number of training contract applications and to her amazement found herself offered a place at Burges Salmon and Legal Practice Course sponsorship.

While most students would greet such news with unalloyed joy, Dunn “found it all a bit of a shock” and seriously considered turning down the opportunity in favour of a paralegal job she had been offered at another firm. “I wasn’t sure if I was ready,” she remembers. But after talking the opportunity through with family members she decided to go for it.

Settling into the world of commercial law was helped by the fact that Dunn’s cohort of trainees included other career changers; among them a former policeman, an ex-farmer and someone who had recently left the army. The fact that she was suddenly earning more than she had ever done before was also nice. And then in her final seat everything fell into place:

We were instructed on a large onshore wind farm — and I was hooked.

The project would dominate the next four years of Dunn’s professional life. Having qualified into Burges Salmon’s Planning team, she and her supervising partner would see it through all the way until their client was granted consent to proceed after a public inquiry in 2005.

I was given a huge amount of responsibility, but within a safe environment,” she remembers, “and so I was able to experience a very steep learning curve working on a project that was not only fascinating from a legal and policy perspective but also involved something that I found to be hugely worthwhile.

With a foothold in renewables, Dunn went on to make a name for herself at a boom time for the sector. Drawing on the life experience gleaned during her previous career, she made partner in 2012 — just eight years after qualifying as a solicitor.

Looking back, Dunn cites “just being that bit older and probably more willing to take responsibility as a result” as important factors in her rise.

When a trainee takes ownership of a piece of work and delivers on time, you begin to trust them,” she continues. “And once you trust them, you start to give them the interesting work. It’s about putting yourself in a position that enables you to take the opportunities as they arise.

However, fully committing to a career in a way that unlocks your full potential is not always easy. For Dunn, one of the secrets to success is for young lawyers to feel able to be themselves — which can take courage. Looking back, she admits initially thinking “that to be a lawyer I had to be someone different to who I was.”

This anxiety played out during the initial phase of her training contract, as her attempts to conform to some kind of solicitor stereotype fluctuated with bids to assert her individuality. A key moment was the time she came into work with her hair dyed bright red three weeks into her training contract. She recollects:

I’m not sure whether it was an accident or somehow intentional, but my hair was bright red … and no one batted an eyelid.

These days, Dunn’s two tone hair remains on the daring side for a lawyer, but she doesn’t look out of place amid the sharp suits in Burges Salmon’s staff canteen. “It’s about feeling comfortable and gradually working out which boundaries you want to push,” she says.

This philosophy is something that she seeks to impart in her role at the helm of Burges Salmon’s Diversity and Inclusion Group, where, as a comprehensive school-educated career changer who doesn’t fit the corporate lawyer mould, she works hard to ensure that all lawyers at Burges Salmon are able to express who they are.

The other key quality that Dunn has come to value as she has climbed the career ladder is adaptability. She explains:

The market changes. For example, in the last year the government has cut subsidies for onshore wind farms. At the same time, the decision to leave the EU is throwing up unprecedented levels of uncertainty. But good lawyers adapt, and in that sense I am helped by being at a firm where strategy is not formulated by distant management committees.

Dunn’s decision to switch careers means that she is more equipped than most to handle such shifts. This is one of the reasons she recommends that students “get some experience of doing something entirely different before going into law.”

While that previous experience is often useful simply as a reminder of “what an amazing job this is”, occasionally the practical skills come in handy. Although her involvement in the theatre these days is limited to regular visits and a vice chair role on the board of trustees at a local circus school, Dunn found her designer background called upon during Burges Salmon’s recent brand refresh.

We felt that the old brand, and particularly the visual image of the firm and logo, didn’t quite express who we were as a progressive, open firm that delivers the best mix of advice, service and value,” she explains. “It was very nice to play a part in helping to adapt the firm’s visual brand to reflect that.

Applications for training contracts at Burges Salmon close on 31 July. You can apply here.

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