OK Fiona, here goes. I’ve thought long and hard about what advice I’d like to give to you as my younger self and surprisingly concluded there’s nothing at all that I’d like to you have said/not said/not done or done differently.
Choosing a career
Choosing to be a corporate and commercial City lawyer, and then moving in-house to use my French legal skills and to travel, was probably not the most family-friendly choice, but – and this is a big but – I don’t regret it for a minute. I followed my dream and did what I wanted to do without restricting myself to a compromised career path.
Drive and vision
Now I’m older, wiser and more knowledgeable in a whole variety of areas, I can only admire you (my younger self) for your drive and vision. For the lack of doubt in your own capabilities. For your determination to succeed. Also, and probably most importantly, for your complete lack of anxiety as to whether you’d succeed or not and what would happen if you were to fail. Now, I think back and wonder where’s this resilience gone? It’s too easy to avoid following a path / making a decision out of fear that it may not work. Too much time can be spent analysing the pros and cons of a situation.
Indeed, it’s truly eye-opening when I observe how children respond to the world around them. If you praise a child for doing something well, they may say: “Yes I did”. If you tell them you love them, they might say: “I know”. When do adults, even young adults, ever come out and say such things (or even think them)? Why does this confidence in the outside world part with us at such an early age?
Onwards and upwards
I thank you for your ability to move forward on an onwards and upwards trajectory. I’ve always liked the French word “foncer” which literally means to “tear along”. When I was an au pair in Paris I used to look after a little girl who liked to charge ahead shouting “fonce” and I think there are times when we all need to “fonce” a little. The world is a challenge sometimes and we need to square up to it.
I remember taking everything in my stride and being afraid of absolutely nothing. I hadn’t considered a career in law until a careers adviser called Claire at Harrow Civic Centre (I’m not sure that local authorities still provide free careers advice, but that’s the subject for another article), told me about some new law with languages courses that had just been introduced. I was tempted by a year abroad studying French law and, the adviser explained, this would be paid for by an EU Erasmus grant. I arrived alone in the centre of Strasbourg at 5am one September morning (after a 20-hour coach trip – the coach being the cheapest way to get there) with a map and a huge bag containing all the things I would need for the year, which I’d dragged along the streets for half an hour to my halls of residence. I of course arrived early at the student office and had to hang around for three hours because I couldn’t really go anywhere else with my enormously heavy bag.
Having a goal and seeking opportunities
I was motivated to work really hard for my A Levels and achieved top grades – teaching me that you need a goal and that this inspires you to achieve. My college offered a work experience scheme at a local magistrates court and following on from that I wrote to all the local firms of solicitors and courts seeking further work experience. This I got (unpaid of course) at a county court and a general practitioner’s firm. With grades like mine I was encouraged to explore commercial law firms so completed vacation placements in the City.
Looking back, I now realise I had no real understanding of how the City worked and knew no one who worked there – but – and this is another big but – I didn’t let this put me off. Result: a training contract offered after my year at a French university and my law school fees paid for. If I’d thought about the potential difficulties and obstacles then maybe I wouldn’t have done it. When working in the City, I met many people who had attended public school and the only question that ever floored me was being asked what school I went to. I was never sure how to answer this one as they were clearly expecting me to name one they’d heard of. However, I decided there was no reason for me to be embarrassed because I wasn’t able to provide the answer they were expecting.
What you taught me
Some really important life skills:
- taking people as you find them and expecting others to do the same for you – and finding that when you expect to be judged on your own merits you usually are;
- negotiation tactics – seeing the bigger picture and playing devil’s advocate is really useful when trying to understand where the other side is coming from;
- planning skills – how to project manage various moving elements of a deal and to prepare for all possibilities – ie things not always going to plan; and (this is possibly the most important)
- how to write clearly, persuasively and effectively – concise points with bullets or numbers worked wonders with clients and grabbed the attention of in-house senior management. It’s also pretty useful in any life situation where you need to query or challenge something. This skill is certainly not universal and so we should celebrate what we’re good at.
I too admire your sense of humour, which had maybe got lost along the way but is thankfully making a reappearance now. Despite what people may say, some lawyers can be funny. I have many good memories of times inside and outside the office. Often, it has to be said, in times of high stress and unbelievably complicated deals, when a sense of humour has made everything seem ok. IT systems and photocopiers seem to have a sense of humour too and always seem to go wrong at the worst possible time. Also important is seeing the funniness in small things too – a time-recording system that monitors every minute of a working day (and I was there when the first ones were introduced!) called, without any sense of irony whatsoever, “Seize the Day”.
So, the message from my younger self to me today would be to be as resilient as my younger self, to have as much faith in myself as I used to have and to remember all of my previous qualities . Then add these to my increased wisdom and knowledge and “fonce” ahead and seize the day.
Fiona Ryan-Watson who is a former City Lawyer and in-house Counsel who is now seeking to follow her own advice!