My career story: I quit law to be Olswang’s head of corporate responsibility

Linda Zell quit being a commercial litigation lawyer to become head of Olswang’s Corporate Responsibility (CR) team. She talked to us about how the role came about, the decision to quit being a lawyer and what being a CR head in a law firm entails…

Linda Zell, Olswang

What’s your background – did you always have an interest in corporate responsibility?

I started becoming interested in law at the age of 15 or 16, watching This Life. I wound up getting a couple of mini-pupillages and thought I wanted to be a barrister. Genuinely one of the main things that put me off was that you have to wear black and white – when you’re 16 or 17 that’s a big issue!

I went to Cambridge and studied law, feeling quite strongly that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, but very interested in what I was studying. I chose a lot of topics that weren’t your typical corporate and banking— I wanted to medical negligence, feminism modules, things like that. I tried to see it as an academic subject and ended up do a really wide variety of topics and didn’t bother about looking for a training contract.

Why was that?

There’s this obsession, when you’re at university, with what you’re going to do later on. It’s just ridiculous: you should just enjoy yourself and use your brain, because if you’re going to be a banking lawyer you’re going to spend an awful lot of time later on doing banking law. I ended up doing a dissertation on how the criminal justice system treats women. I really enjoyed that, and made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to worry about what I was going to do after university.

There is a real conveyor belt at somewhere like Cambridge, where on your first day you get handed a Herbert Smith pen. It works for some people, but it wasn’t for me.

How did you end up at Olswang then?

I got my 2:1 and still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I formed this idea that I might quite like to work in comms, so I worked for a while at a small crisis PR agency which I found really interesting. Sitting in meetings talking to clients I realized you could approach their problems from a PR perspective, but the legal aspects to their problems were also very interesting. From a very practical perspective I was thirsty to get a training in something, so I decided to go to law school – which involved a lot of backtracking because I had been very vocal that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

I was really lucky because the market was so much better then. I’d missed the application window but quite a lot of firms were recruiting for extra trainees. I applied to four or five. I really liked Olswang, so was absolutely delighted to get the offer.

You qualified as a lawyer – what made you move away from that life in the end?

The training contract is tough, and anyone who says it isn’t is lying, but I had a great time. I went on secondment to the BBC for six months.

I qualified into litigation. [Olswang does a lot of media litigation and] it was a time when the Sunday papers were still running big stories. You would usually get wind of them on the Friday, and suddenly your plans for the weekend looked so different. I found that quite challenging. It was the beginning of understanding what it means to be at the top of your game, in terms of the client being in your life. In my heart of hearts I felt I probably didn’t want to be doing it forever – but I enjoyed it while I was doing it.

I also realised I really liked chatting and talking to clients but that I didn’t like drafting witness statements or reading loads of files of disclosure. I liked the communication side of law – I just didn’t like the law bit of it that much.

How did the corporate responsibility role come about?

One of the partners joked that they asked me to write a paragraph on CR and I set up a whole department instead – and that is a little bit what happened.

I was a junior associate, and I was in a pitch for ITV and one of the questions was about our CR policy. I had no idea what that was, but I was the most junior associate on the team and as was tasked with answering that question. I’d never even heard the term before.

I spoke to HR, and looked at what ITV were doing as well as other companies – and indeed what the magic circle were doing, because I do think they have led the way on this and have been doing it for years – and I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing!’ There was all this great stuff going on and it immediately clicked with me. So you get to make the world a better place but it’s also good for your business? It’s just win-win. I still find it confusing that people don’t get that. Because I don’t think that’s just my interpretation: it is just is a fact. If you do it badly that doesn’t happen, but if you do it well, everybody wins.

So I got terribly over-excited, which can happen sometimes, and went to my partner and said how amazing it all was. He said: ‘I just want that paragraph.’ But to be honest, even though Olswang didn’t have the label of CR, it is a genuinely quite a values-driven organization. We had an environmental program, a charity partner of the year – all the things that you would classically think of as CR were there, they just weren’t labelled as such.

People think of CR as something new, but actually companies have been doing this for decades – centuries actually, if you look back to the industrial revolution. The idea that you treat your people well, you don’t pollute the environment: these are not newfangled ideas.

So I prepared my little paragraph, I got excited, but it never occurred to me that anything more would happen. But then ITV came back to us with a list of questions about our pitch.

Clients normally come back on things like price, but one of ITV’s notes was ‘It’s great that you have this CR policy, but we’re looking for advisors we can partner with on CR projects, so please say how you can add value to our CR commitment.’ At that point I think something clicked, particularly with the relationship partners for ITV. There was an appreciation that this wasn’t just a lip-service thing and they really wanted a genuine conversation and partnership.

Our CEO at the time was quite conscious we hadn’t really formalised what we were doing, and that particularly around the pro bono side we could be doing more. So he empowered me, along with one of the partners, to start something. One thing about Olswang’s culture is that if you have an idea and want to do something, no one will do it for you, but you’ll be supported if you want to get it done.

You juggled the CR stuff with your work as a lawyer for a while…

I was lucky to have quite an influential partner involved. We put together a committee and started to look at what we could put together. It quite soon dawned on me that it would be a lot of work setting it up. I was taking on more and more work, but at the same time I was still a litigator and worried about my numbers. Our CEO said, ‘Don’t worry about your numbers, just make this a success and it will just become part of what we do.’

It was quite a bold move at the time, not because I couldn’t trust what the CEO said, but because it required a shift in my thinking. I was saying no to partners because I was doing this pro bono thing. In my head something switched around: I was really passionate about it and really wanted it to happen. So there was a year when I was working incredibly hard because I was doing both jobs, and there came a point where I had to mentally decide where my priorities lay.

So you took the CR job on full time…

My day suddenly changed. It went from spending a lot of time at my desk – which is just what you do as a junior lawyer – to having back-to-back meetings. It was really exhausting but I enjoyed it way more than sitting at my desk drafting documents. I noticed that shift really early on and found it energising.

What’s your actual remit?

I lead, manage develop Olswang’s CR strategy, working with every part of the business to make sure we are responsible and ethical, and that work is never done. That involves managing the impact internally on our people – so working with HR. There’s managing the impact on the environment in terms of our buildings, working with facilities. There’s working with our clients, and also the wider community.

We spend a lot of time thinking about what that involves. You might think being a law firm, CR just involves giving out free legal advice. Actually there is more to it than that. Half the people in the office are not lawyers and they have different skills. We have a beautiful building in the centre of London that we can utilise. There is so much else we could do. Often people come to us not just for legal advice but because we are trusted advisors to them. Obviously Olswang has this strong tradition of real estate, media and tech work – we understand and are good at connecting people within those worlds.

That has really become a major theme for us: connecting our community, our clients and our people in a way that creates a positive impact. My job is to make sure CR is on the agenda across the entire business. A lot of people want to do the right thing: they just have to be kicked, or have it made very easy for them. Everyone in this building is very busy and it’s my job to make CR easy.

ITV sparked the idea, but you work with other clients too now…

From the beginning I’ve always thought we should be working with our clients. Good CR is about being genuine to the business you are and engaging with every part of it.

Our business is working with clients, so we should be doing CR with clients too.

Making the process client-facing from the beginning was very helpful, because it’s taken for granted that you to have that attention to detail and 100 per cent excellence that you would have on any fee-earning matter.

How does your current role differ from life as an associate?

Working in CR is having like 50 open matters – you have to juggle so many different things. Your day is so much more varied: you’ve got to love that.

It can range from meeting the headmaster of a school, to running the trainee charity committee, to coming back and doing something with the bees [Olswang has hives on its roof] to having a look at our carbon figures for the year, then having a conference call with an overseas office about how to get more engagement in fundraising, to dealing with your inbox, to managing your team. You need to like talking to people!

What’s your advice for lawyers who might like to make the switch to a CR role?

The most important thing is to get involved and sign up for things. But you have to be honest with yourself: there’s only a certain amount of time you have in a day, so don’t over-commit. My partners are my most reliable volunteers because, actually, they are the only people who in control of their own time.

If you are looking for a career in CR get as involved as you can and know that every experience you have will help you. It doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer, or you work in HR or communications: whatever you were doing, you can use that in a CR role, because it is essentially a lot of jumbled-up skills from different places.

You do have to be quite good at influencing people. There is a lot of communication and persuading and influencing, and you have to feel comfortable with that: indeed, you probably have to do that to get the job in the first place.

What would you say to people agonizing about that final decision to quit being a lawyer?

Once a lawyer, always a lawyer. It gets ingrained into your brain. If you’ve had a certain training, no-one can take that away from you.

When I was thinking about quitting, everyone told me not to do it because I was throwing away this career. I remember telling a partner – his face dropped and he said, ‘This is a really big decision.’ But when you are genuinely passionate about something – that doesn’t happen all the time. It’s a personal decision and if you feel passionate enough, then go for it.

It is a big decision, but you can always go back to law. You see that all the time: people take time off, and the world is becoming much more comfortable with the idea that you don’t have to one thing for ever. I’m convinced that most lawyers would be better lawyers if they’d spent some time out of the legal world.

Lawyers have so many transferable skills, and they can do so much, but they have the fear – I’ve seen senior partners who lead billion-dollar deals panicking about explaining the basics of contract law to five kids. Well, use your communication skills! You have to remember that legal training prepares you for a lot. It’s super-transferable and there is loads of stuff that you can do.

And lawyers like working with other lawyers, which makes my job easier. If people are thinking maybe being a lawyer isn’t right for them, then there are lots of other roles in law firms where they can add a huge amount of value.