From nurse to Freshfields corporate partner: Jennifer Bethlehem
18 February 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
12 August 2013
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12 August 2013
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Freshfields corporate partner and former nurse Jennifer Bethlehem did not take the most orthodox route into law, but this has only enhanced her career
When Kenya-born Jennifer Bethlehem was in her last year at her South African boarding school her father developed a terminal brain tumour. Her intentions to enrol on a BA with a view to pursuing a legal career suddenly changed.
Bethlehem says: “When my father died I knew my mother had three children to put through education so I decided I’d do something where your education was paid for.”
She had two options - nursing or teaching - and coming from a family of nurses, with an aunt who was head of the South African Nursing Association, the former was the obvious choice.
“Before I knew it they had pulled all sorts of strings to get me an interview and I started doing my nursing training,” she says. “I was terrified of blood and fainted the first time I was shown round the hospital.
“But when I started doing it I really loved it. I loved working with the other nurses, meeting patients and feeling as if I’d really achieved something every day.”
Bethlehem insists her decision to embark on a nursing career was borne of economic necessity alone.
“I don’t think my father’s illness affected my decision, as in I wanted to save the world or people or anything like that, but it definitely made me a better nurse.”
Bethlehem started her training in 1983 and did not stop being a nurse until 15 years later, when she became a trainee at Nabarro in 1998. After marrying at the age of 22 she emigrated to London, living first in Golders Green and then settling in Marylebone - “long before it was fashionable” - where she still lives.
She completed a part-time degree in politics, history and philosophy and continued nursing, working at UCH, St George’s and the
Princess Grace Hospital. Then the reality of life in London on a nurse’s salary kicked in.
For all nursing’s challenges, Bethlehem was not fully satisfied in an intellectual sense.
“I’m not saying you don’t have to think when you’re a nurse, but it’s a practical way of thinking and I did enjoy that kind of intellectual problem-solving,” she says. “But I just got tired of being treated as if I were an idiot when I was a nurse - unfortunately many people have preconceptions about what nurses are like. The fact you can speak about the philosophy of Kant was not what they thought you were all about.”
Bethlehem knew that if she was going to change career she had to be quick about it, so after graduating with a first from her part-time
degree at Birkbeck College, University of London, she enrolled on a law degree at King’s College London.
Her LLB was completed alongside a full-time nursing job caring for women with breast cancer.
She terms this “the most rewarding time”, and adds: “I worked with a surgeon called Jerry Gilmore, the leading breast cancer surgeon, and a lot with women with breast cancer for five years, really getting to know the people and their families.”
Despite doing two 13-hour shifts at weekends and weeks spent combining the LLB with two more seven-hour shifts, she received a first.
The training contracts did not come as easily as the academic success, though.
“I found it difficult to get a training contract,” she admits. “As soon as people knew how old I was they were sceptical about me. I was 31, but a career change wasn’t something the legal industry seemed ready to embrace.”
The problem was two-fold. First, Bethlehem did not fit neatly into the formulaic assessments then faced by graduates.
She remembers: “You get forms that ask you to describe one difficulty you have overcome in your life and you look at your life and think: ‘Is it difficult to tell somebody they’re not going to live? Is it more difficult to scrape somebody off the tarmac or even more so to go to people who have jumped in front of a train?’ Where do you start?”
“I found it very difficult to convey the kind of person I was and when I went to interviews people were sceptical about how I would fit in.”
The other issue was her desire to practise corporate law at the highest level. This was sparked by the dramatic events of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Bethlehem says: “It was the time of the Guinness trial [when four businessmen were convicted of manipulating shares in an attempt to assist a takeover bid] and the Forte hotels takeover. All these kind of things were very much in the news at the time. I was fascinated by them and wanted to see what it would be like to be a corporate lawyer.
“That’s the bit I found difficult. The Clifford Chances, the Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringers and the Linklaters - I didn’t get interviews with that type of firm. Then I got an interview at Nabarro and I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me a chance. It was a great firm and I enjoyed my time there, but I really wanted to do the cutting-edge corporate law and knew I’d have to go to another firm.”
On qualification in September 2000, she applied to Freshfields and joined the following February.
“When I came to Freshfields I thought - this firm is the crème de la crème, I’m going to be running to catch up,” she says. “But the moment I started working here I just loved it. I loved coming to work.”
She made partner in May 2009 and became team leader in September 2009, looking after the team’s HR needs. She is now relationship partner for Goldman Sachs, Rolls-Royce and healthcare company Novartis.
It is common to hear of people making the move from stressful, marriage-breaking careers to professions perceived to be less likely to encroach upon home life. It is not so common to hear of people making the opposite move or, in Bethlehem’s case, moving from stressful career to stressful career.
“People often ask me if I feel less fulfilled in my work now, but I don’t,” she says. “In any job you can try to be a person who contributes, cares and gives more than they take out. I don’t feel like I was once an angel and now I’m selfish.”
She compares the stereotypical image of lawyers to the way bankers are now lambasted in the press.
“Regrettably, the City can sometimes be painted as all uncaring, immoral, selfish money-grabbing types,” she says. “My experience of the City has not been that at all.”
So do her two seemingly very different careers have any similarities? Bethlehem thinks so.
“Nursing is about problem-solving, about making impossible things happen with people and encouraging them. Law is also about problem-solving and people, although in nursing you have connections that are just not possible in law.
“When you’re there at 3am and somebody’s feeling lonely and frightened and telling you they’re scared of dying, that kind of connection is not possible in any other profession. Sure, I’m glad I’m a person who has seen that in others, but I don’t hanker after it.”
Bethlehem’s determination is tempered by her obvious warmth. Her take on helping the atypical graduate into traineeships goes beyond the lip service paid by some partners at City firms.
She speaks of moving around Africa from Kenya to Lesotho via Malawi and then says: “I’m the most small-town person you could ever meet. I’m completely without any of the trappings of British public school education or Oxbridge.
“We are facing an enormous challenge in the legal profession to be more diverse and encourage social inclusion in the UK, and that’s a worthwhile thing to concentrate on, but I think it’s probably more open than people think if you just try.”
1990: BA Politics, Philosophy and History, Birkbeck College, University of London
1993: LLB, King’s College London
1998: Trainee solicitor, Nabarro
2001: Solicitor, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
2009: Partner, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer