If Nicola Walker can be held as an example, all lawyers should take a year away from their desks.
Recently taken on to spearhead the move by Hogan & Hartson’s London office into offering English law, she left her last post at SJ Berwin a year ago “to think” about what she wanted to do next.
Now Walker has decided that she wants to return to private practice, but this time to a smaller office where she is part of a team building for the future.
It seems to have been the right decision, because Walker is brimming with enthusiasm about employment law, her new firm, her colleagues and even the stunning views from the 16th floor offices.
At the end of the interview she invites in her new managing partner Dan Maccoby and a member of the US firm’s executive committee Raymond Batla, to show why she joined the firm. You can see why Walker clicked with them both, as they share her open charm.
After 21 years of being a lawyer, Walker spent her year out doing a mixture of things: a sculpture course, during which she made “lots of strange objects”; travelling with her husband; working for the charity Concern at Work; and promoting the “whistleblower legislation” Public Interest Disclosure Act. Her charity work reminded her that she was still interested in the issues involved in employment law.
Walker admits that some of the time was spent practising her homely skills in an attempt to become a better cook. However, after working on her beurre blancs and soufflés for a bit, she realised that her failure to become a domestic goddess à la Nigella Lawson was because she did not enjoy spending time in the kitchen.
During her thinking time, Walker decided that if she was going to go back to law, she was going to do something a bit different, fun and interesting. The idea of working for a US firm appealed to her, and she got to hear about Hogan & Hartson at about the same time that Maccoby got to hear about her.
The pair clicked after their meeting, and Maccoby says that he realised the firm had to take Walker on quickly or lose her to another firm.
“They are very people-orientated,” says Walker, explaining why she fell for Hogan & Hartson. “They’re warm and clever people. They’re not trying to fulfil some idea that they need to have 100 people on board by the end of the year. They’re looking for people who think like they do. The firm has a very cooperative, open style of management.”
Hogan & Hartson’s unique selling point for Walker is that it is a large firm, now with 750 lawyers, but the London office is still relatively small despite having been around for a decade.
The firm, she says, also has some “staggeringly good” clients, although Walker remains tight-lipped as to which of her former client list she is hoping to tempt over to her new firm.
“I’ve always believed you should practise employment law discreetly, offering a service that is confidential,” she explains.
After spending a decade in London offering mostly corporate work, Hogan & Hartson is now keen to offer employment law to answer the many queries from clients, particularly US ones, who, Walker says, find our employment laws difficult to adapt to.
This is mostly due to US employment lawyers spending a lot of their time arguing that there was never any contract between the company and its worker, she says.
“When I talk to US clients about the employment issues here, they can’t believe that we can’t just get rid of people,” Walker smiles.
She originally practised both employment law and commercial litigation, but while she was at SJ Berwin decided that following both areas was pulling her in different directions, so she dropped the court work.
“[When I was starting out] there were a lot of women doing employment, and I was tending to receive employment cases. Then I did quite a large piece of employment work, and more work came to me after that.”
She admits that dropping the litigation side of her work can be frustrating when she sees colleagues handling “£111,000 unfair dismissal cases”, but she is fascinated by the psychology involved in what she does.
“In a lot of the work I do, I have the opportunity to help people communicate and, try as you like, you can never take the psychology out of people issues.”
Now, Walker says, there are a lot more men moving into the area, which is traditionally a female ghetto, as the volume and complexity of legislation increases, but she remembers one particular male lawyer having difficulties with the requisite softly-softly approach.
“There was one very rough and tough litigation partner doing an employment issue that had been given to him through a personal contact, and he asked me how I did it. There’s a lot of listening required.
“In litigation you spend a lot of your time looking for the perfect piece of evidence that usually doesn’t exist. In employment law you’re creating evidence for the future, you’re working with the employer to create the scheme that will ultimately be the [defence].”
With the Human Rights Act just coming into force, Walker is expecting to handle a few cases where people test out the act’s limitations. But the big test as to what happens next in the arena, she says, is what type of government gets voted in at the next election.
“If we get a Tory government, then I don’t expect much will happen. But if we get a Labour government, then it will be very interesting to see if it goes further. When the Tories were in power I didn’t do much union work, and now everybody is waiting for that to change; although now unions are talking about partnerships and have a very, very different attitude to before.”
Whatever the future is, Walker is running towards it.
Hogan & Hartson