To celebrate 100 years of women in law, we're curating a series of interviews with women operating within the profession to understand what this anniversary means to them. This week, we’re talking to Rachelle Sellek, Partner at Acuity Law. Over to you Rachelle…
Can you please introduce yourself, your job role and your company?
My name is Rachelle Sellek. I work for Acuity Law and I’ve been here for 20 years and a Partner for about 18 years. Until this year I was managing partner, but we’ve recently changed our operational set up, meaning I’m now taking a slightly less managerial role so I can focus on my specialties. I’ve been a corporate commercial lawyer since I started my career, which is why I’m a Partner in the corporate team.
How did you begin your career in the legal industry? Can you talk us through your journey?
I had the idea of becoming a solicitor about the age of 13 when my school organised a series of career talks. One of the people who came to talk to us was a female family lawyer. I was intrigued and listened to what she had to say, and I thought, I could do that job. From then on, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
I went straight from school to do a law degree, but I didn’t come from a background that had much knowledge of the legal industry. I knew solicitors that did family work, but commercial and corporate work wasn’t on my radar. This is why I initially assumed I’d be a family lawyer, but it didn’t take me long to realise that this specialty wasn’t going to be for me. Instead, the subjects that I enjoyed the most during my degree were the more commercial subjects and I ran with that, carrying on with trade and commercial law. After University, I trained with Pitmans in Reading and stayed on for a year after qualifying before moving to Eversheds in Cardiff. I was there for about four years but eventually I left Eversheds to help set up Acuity Law with a couple of partners from Eversheds. And here I am.
What has been your most significant career moment to date? And why?
It isn't a single moment but I am proudest of the contribution I have made to setting up and developing Acuity Law. It’s been extraordinarily fulfilling, particularly as the firm turns 20 years old this year, employing just under 100 people. It’s been fantastic to see the growth of the firm and having had a hand in that. During this time, we’ve also seen the growth of our team, including our first trainee who came through, stayed with the firm and became partner. It has been a real collective effort and I have been fortunate to work with some extremely talented people. I maintain I was lucky and in the right place at the right time – when the firm began I wasn’t yet 30 and didn’t think I had a lot to lose by joining a start-up. Instead, I saw setting up a firm as an opportunity and if nothing else, I would learn things and do things I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Plus, knowing the people I was going to work with and their determination, experience and drive - there was really only one decision I was ever going to make!
Do you think the legal industry has evolved since your career origins, and if so how?
Yes, I think so. For example, when I started my training contract, computers had just been put on lawyers’ desks but not everyone fully understood how to utilise them. I remember Partners needing help to open an email – there was a real lack of understanding. Of course things have come a long way in this respect.
But I also think that the role of the solicitor has changed due to technological advances. When I started my career, we dictated everything – I had a legal secretary involved in everything that I did, helping me with the typing and correspondence. Now, we do all of that ourselves. As a result, the role of legal secretary in a commercial firm has changed beyond recognition and so has the role of the lawyer. Technology is ever present and has changed how we operate. However, the core value of client service remains intact.
I’ve also seen a shift in corporate culture too particularly in the commercial world where I operate; the sector has become much more global and complex. This means that businesses now need more routine advice than they would have traditionally.
As a woman in the legal industry, have you ever faced barriers or discrimination? If so, please elaborate.
Absolutely and I can give you an example that has really stuck with me. As I’d taken the corporate law route when I had qualified, this was still a very male dominated environment. In one particular instance, I was liaising with an old-school male lawyer that wasn’t used to dealing with female lawyers. In this case, I was acting on behalf of a client that was buying a company from his client and I couldn’t get any response from this particular solicitor, despite calling, emailing, faxing, you name it. The only response I got was: “I’ve got better things to do with my time young lady than deal with your calls and faxes.” I received the message that he has a problem dealing with women. Instead, a colleague came in to help me manage this and although I carried on doing a lot of the correspondence and attended the completion meeting, if I hadn’t had changed the approach, we wouldn’t have been able to resolve this for our client.
Do you think the role of women has changed in the legal industry during the course of your career? If so, how?
I came into the profession at the beginning of the 1990s, at the point where there was an influx of women taking this route. As I was applying for training contracts at that stage, I never felt as though there were any barriers. However, once I had landed my first job and started working, it became clear that many older male lawyers were not used to dealing with women.
Unfortunately, what was lacking at the time was female role models. I was lucky that when I did my training contract, my training principle was a female partner – but there weren’t many of them at the time. Thankfully in my case, I could look to my role model and see that there was a career path with a clear progression route, and that I could get to where I wanted to be at the top of my profession. I can see that more women are coming through the industry today, but there are still issues with the proportion of women who reach senior positions. However, we have noticeably more female role models than ever, which can only be a positive thing.
How do you think organisations like Kaplan Altior can help encourage diversity within the legal industry?
I think for training providers it’s about making sure that diversity is integral in every aspect. The training is important but it’s not just organisations like Kaplan Altior who should be held accountable; schools and universities also have a huge role to play in this. I also believe that having role models is so important. An organisation like Kaplan Altior has the opportunity to provide this, using external trainers to pull in expertise from both men and women – showcasing experts irrespective of their gender.
How do you think the legal industry as a whole can encourage wider diversity within the profession, particularly in more senior roles?
I think it’s happening, and I can see that it’s happening, but it’s just incredibly slow. The statistics show that we are way off having 50/50 representation at a senior level. I’m based in Cardiff and I don’t know whether Cardiff is unusual but if you look at the firms here, they have senior women in key positions. Think Eversheds Sutherland, Blake Morgan, Capital Law – there are a lot of firms in Cardiff being led by women and that is fantastic.
I also believe that City law firms are making a lot of progress. But having seen that progress, I believe this was influenced by the credit crunch and recession in the UK as suddenly it was difficult to recruit experienced lawyers. After all, everyone was looking to recruit them when budgets returned. Firms, and the men in those firms, started to recognise that there was an incredible amount of female talent in those firms so if they didn’t take steps to retain this, women would be walking out of the door. Inevitably, they took a pragmatic response to what was happening in the industry and you can see this with the introduction of flexible working and the introduction of more family-friendly policies.
From my own experience, whenever you’re interviewing for graduate recruitment and general recruitment across the board, candidates always ask about flexible working. That’s because they want to be able to do typical parenting tasks like pick their children up from school, for example. Technology also helps because previously, solicitors would need to be wedded to their desk but now, you’ve got a laptop and mobile phone, allowing you to do so much on the go. You have the ability to leave and pick work up later, shifting your working hours to suit you, should your firm allow this. This all helps.
But I also think this comes back to role models because unless you see people doing that ahead of you, it’s hard to be the one that breaks the mould.
If you could give a woman entering the industry one piece of advice, what would you say?
I speak to a lot of women both within my firm and across other firms at all different levels and one thing that crops up time and time again is confidence. Women don’t feel that they have the same confidence as their male peers, and they recognise that. One piece of advice that I’d give is to develop that confidence – put it on in the morning like a suit of armour and go out into the world with that aura of confidence.
What does the 100 years of women in law celebrations mean to you?
Honestly, I think it’s amazing. I think its impact truly came home to me when I saw a post on Twitter. It said that 100 years ago today, you wouldn’t be here and doing this job in the legal industry. In our firm, over 50% of our team are women so to think that 100 years ago, none of them would have been able to do these roles and make an impact is incredible. It’s a fantastic way to celebrate the achievements of women.
If you're a woman in law and would like to feature in this interview series, contact us today on firstname.lastname@example.org