Speaking another language
22 April 2005
If the careers service at Leeds Girls High School had been a bit better when the young Jane Richardson was a pupil in the 1960s, she might now be reflecting on a 30-year career as a speech and language therapist. Instead, at 54, Richardson has only just qualified, having spent a long and successful career as a civil service lawyer.
Richardson has always had a passion for languages and linguistics and studied English Literature, French and Russian at A-Level. What to do after that was the problem. I think if Id really understood that there was a profession of speech and language therapy I would have done that rather than law, she says. I dont think I ever specifically wanted to be a lawyer. I was doing languages and if you were a woman and did languages at university you would either become a secretary or a teacher and I didnt want to be either.
A process of deduction meant that Richardson ended up reading law at Bristol University. She then went on to sit the Law Society final examinations at what was then Liverpool Polytechnic and qualified at high street firm Messers Vinters in Cambridge in 1973.
The whole-hearted ambition to become a lawyer was still missing even then. I was thinking, Well, Ill qualify and then Ill see whether and I like it and then think what else there is to do if I dont, she says.
Upon qualification, she wrote to the Law Commission and was offered a research post. Her break into the mainstream Government Legal Service came after her boss, a former Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) solicitor, recommended Richardson for a permanent post in the DTI. Her first serious legal job, involved working on the Unfair Contract Terms Act, which put in place controls of exemption clauses in contracts.
That was the start of a legal career in civil service that would see her weave her way around the DTI, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department of Transport, before ending her legal career in the Competition Commission, where she was chief legal adviser.
One of her most high-profile duties was advising on the Railways Bill, which laid out the blueprint for the privatisation of British Rail.
That was without doubt the most interesting job I had, she says, brandishing a heavily thumbed-through copy of the legislation. It was the most fearsomely demanding job because the bill wasnt ready. It was introduced into parliament, but not all the policies had been included in it. We must have broken the record for the number of amendments. There was not a single clause in the bill that wasnt amended or inserted after introduction.
Looking back, Richardson says that there was not one job that she did not find interesting, and she still speaks passionately about the legislation she helped craft, but she began to feel burn-out because of the long hours and demanding nature of her position.
The image of civil servants having cups of tea and working nine to five may be true for some people, but it certainly isnt true for vast tracts of the civil service, she says.
When it came to actually making the move out of a career shed had for three decades, Richardson says she made a snap decision.
Id been moaning to a friend of mine, saying, Im fed up with this Im fed up with that. He said, Hang on Jane, shut up. What would you do if you werent a civil service lawyer? I was about to say nothing, but I thought Id do what I always had in the back of my mind speech and language therapy.
Richardson says that having articulated the desire, she had to put the plan into action to avoid spending the next 10 years being grumpy. There were two further catalysts; shed paid off her mortgage so could afford to be a student and the postgraduate entry degree had been halved to two years, making it a more viable option. So off she went to City University, some 30 years since she had last set foot in an academic institution.
When I had my first set of exams, she recalls with a chuckle, I said to someone, The last time I took a serious exam was the beginning of 1971, and she looked at me and said I wasnt born then.
The practical part of the course included working with pre-school children with language difficulties, stuttering adolescents, stroke patients and adults with learning disabilities. Richardson also worked for a time as an assistant in nursery schools.
Although she had no trouble with the exams, Richardson failed her practical test and had to resit. Reflecting on one of her rare failures, she confides: It was the difference between being a lawyer and dealing with civil servants and ministers and being a speech and language therapist and being with two-year-old children that I did find difficult.
But she passed the second time around and now mergers and acquisitions have been substituted for day-care centres and home visits.
A typical day at her new workplace in East London, where she works on a multidisciplinary health team for people with learning disabilities, comprises arranging appointments, client visits and writing notes.
She recounts a recent task: One of the things I enjoyed doing was a communication book for a client, which involved preparing symbols. The client could understand words, but could not speak. When I took it around to her house she was thrilled by it and started using it straight away. It was very rewarding.
Gone are the trappings that come with being the chief legal adviser of the Competition Commission. Richardson mentions how she once had a secretary to do photocopying or faxing but is getting used to doing it for herself now. She is one of the junior members of the team and is adjusting to being bottom of the pile when she was once top dog.
Richardson admits that she became over-assertive while working in the civil service as her knowledge base was high. Being able to do a lot on the hoof was a way of working to which she was accustomed. Now, however, its a different matter and you sense more than a hint of frustration with herself when she says: Im very conscious of the fact that Im new and dont know all the answers.
But regrets, she has none. I enjoy it very much. What I like is the variety of people that Im dealing with you see peoples everyday lives. When youre working in such a narrow area and dealing with legislation you have an idea about peoples best interest but you dont have much contact with people. There were all sorts of areas of life I wasnt seeing.
Im in contact with my colleagues who I used to work with and they tell me whats going on and I think, Thank God Im not doing that anymore.