Lady of luck

Janet Gaymer is known for many things. She is senior partner at Simmons & Simmons, one of the most respected employment practitioners in the City, founder of the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) – and now a CBE. While Gaymer says this year’s Queen’s Honour came as an incredible surprise, it would be difficult to find a more deserving recipient in the world of employment law.

Gaymer says that she never planned a career in the law. “I was basically running away from being a history teacher,” she says. “History was my first love, I just didn’t want to teach it.” So other ideas followed: Gaymer taught herself O-level biology with a view to becoming a doctor, then changed her mind and took up psychology. Next it was philosophy.

“Finally I happened upon this subject called jurisprudence, which looked to me broadly philosophical because it was all about natural justice and liberty. But I didn’t really do it as a degree with any set pre-intention of becoming a practising lawyer,” she says.

It was not until she started work experience in her home town at a local firm that she discovered the firm had actually been home to a number of her ancestors. “I discovered that I came from a family of lawyers from a long way back,” she says. “So much so that they appear in the novels of George Eliot.”

Similarly, her route into employment law seems more like fate than good planning. “In the dying days of my articles [at Simmons], I sat with a litigation partner who had one of the first unfair dismissal cases, which came into the firm under the Industrial Relations Act in 1971,” Gaymer says. “He didn’t know anything about it. And so he said to me, ‘You must know about this because you’re one of those new article clerks. You do it.’”

She won that first case and the workload developed at a rapid rate, as did employment law itself. Following the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, a whole raft of legislation came in. “That’s when I realised I had to go back to academia to get my employment law knowledge up to scratch. So I did a part-time Master of Laws at the LSE [London School of Economics],” she says.

At the same time, Gaymer’s personal life was also developing at a rapid rate: within the next few years she was made up to partner and had started her family.

“I went on the notepaper on 1 January [1977] and at the end of January discovered I was pregnant with my first child, which I think my new partners thought was most inconsiderate at the time,” she reveals. “It was an interesting period trying to breastfeed and attend seminars. ’77 was quite a challenging year.” Her second daughter was born two years later in 1979.

In those days there was not the maternity rights that exist today. “I was making it up as we went along,” she says. “The senior partner at the time used to turn to me and say, ‘Janet, what are your rights? You’re the employment lawyer, what do we have to do?’ It was like writing your own rulebook.”

Having children did little to slow Gaymer’s career path. She gave birth to her first daughter Helen in the lead-up to an International Criminal Court arbitration, and then attended the hearing in Paris with the baby sleeping in a carrycot by the door.

It is not surprising that Helen is carrying on the family tradition of employment law at Allen & Overy, although second daughter Natalie has chosen not to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “She’s made it quite clear three lawyers in the family are enough,” says Gaymer, whose husband is a partner with Bracher Rawlins.

It is not just her daughters that Gaymer has nurtured and raised from infancy. There is also that other love of hers: the ELA. “It’s a bit like a favourite child – it’s been like watching it grow up,” Gaymer admits. Beginning with fellow employment gurus Fraser Younson and Jane Mann in the early 1990s, the ELA now has a flourishing membership of around 1,700.

“I’m very proud of it,” says Gaymer. “It plays a very important role in the life of employment lawyers and the life of the country, because it does an awful lot of commentary on prospective legislation to the Government.”

Gaymer is also involved in moulding the system and legislation through her role as chair of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Employment Tribunal Systems Taskforce, the body involved in a radical overhaul of the way in which the tribunal works. In fact, it was this role in particular that was responsible for getting her the CBE.

When she was offered the role of taskforce chair it took Gaymer by surprise and came just a month after she had won the position of senior partner at Simmons. “I thought long and hard before I agreed to do it. I was concerned it might detract from the job [of senior partner], but I’ve always been up for a challenge,” she says. Her acceptance has resulted in a lot of Sunday mornings shut in her office, but she has no regrets. “It’s been intensive but thoroughly enjoyable,” she adds. “I’ve learnt so much from doing it.”

Her thoughts on her role of senior partner are similar, and once again fate played a part. “It wasn’t on my radar,” she says. “I had no intention of becoming senior partner.” But her fellow partners had other ideas: her name was put forward and eventually she was voted in.

If there is one pattern obviously emerging from our interview, it is that Gaymer always seems to be doing a million and one things at any given time. So when she says that at the end of her five-year term as senior partner, she plans to spend more time in Cornwall with her husband, pursuing her hobby of painting, it seems hard to believe. “It would be nice to spend some time together,” she laughs. “Although I wonder if that will really happen.”

Anyway, she still has another couple of years in the job before then – and she has that date with the Queen to look forward to. “My husband’s desperate to go on the day when the English rugby team is there,” she says. She may only be joking, but don’t bet against it. She might call it fate, but the rest of us know that she is just very good at making things happen.