AS A six-figure earner in one of the country's big name law firms Jill Andrew seemed to have it all. So when the high-profile employment partner quit the City earlier this year to move to a three-member niche practice, the legal world was left stunned.
The first woman director of the Chamber of Commerce and a Conservative Party councillor, 39-year-old Andrew had signed at Dibb Lupton Broomhead a little over a year ago amid a flurry of press and professional attention.
Andrew moved from her role as head of employment at Masons and was brought in to lead Dibbs' London team and "rainmake". Already well-known for her role in the UK's longest-running industrial tribunal – Payne and Others v Port of London Authority – Andrew was a star signing. A self-styled "rebel", she hoped to bring a "broader view" of employment law to Dibbs.
"I've always liked pushing at barriers," she says. "Lawyers are quite narrow in outlook and perspective even when it comes to their own subject areas."
Within months of moving to Dibbs, Andrew and the department had attracted new clients on both sides of employment disputes, and the team had solidified its reputation as a leader in the field.
But as quickly as she came she was gone, leaving professional colleagues and rivals speculating about the truth behind her departure. "The loss of a recognised employment law specialist is a big loss as far as winning clients and adding to the reputation of a department," says a former colleague. "It would be difficult to find someone with the expertise, experience and contacts Jill has."
Baker & McKenzie employment partner Fraser Younson, who has known Andrew for 15 years, describes her as "tenacious" and an "effective employment law operator". "She has a lot of experience and client contacts and a lot of good connections," he says. "For any law firm to lose someone of that level is going to be a loss."
Now, three months later, Andrew says she is happier, healthier, and working more successfully than she ever has. She has switched allegiance to City practice Langley & Co, set up in 1993 by ex-Ashurst Morris Crisp employment head Dale Langley, and built up her political involvement.
Her 50-hour working week continues, but much of it via teleworking from her Kent home. "I'm enjoying it tremendously," she says. "I feel better in myself and because I don't have the periphery that goes with big firms I can concentrate much more on my role as an employment lawyer."
Andrew's outside interests have long been known publicly. Her position as a councillor at the London Borough of Bromley is a step in the direction of her long term political ambitions, and high-profile roles on a number of committees have also been noted.
Some employment lawyers say her intention to continue with extra-curricular activities may have led to her exit from the City. Andrew concedes her future plans played a part in the decision to move, but says a desire for a more "flexible" working pattern also prompted the switch. She says a need to take up a more hands-on approach to legal work will now keep her away from multi-partner firms. "When I joined Dibbs I thought it would give me an opportunity to develop employment law in a more positive way than I had been able to previously.
"But also one of the issues for me was an ability to be flexible, which was something I discussed right at the outset. When I left it was because I wanted more control over my own work."
And control she has. She says it is unlikely the time will come when she will leave the law for good, but admits a career in the Conservative Party has been on the agenda since her days as a student of Exeter University. In 1992 she was elected a non-executive director of the Chamber, and retained her seat in a contested election. Last year she took her place at Bromley Council.
"Politics is an uncertain game," says Andrew. "It's difficult to predict where it's going to take you. I'm anxious to continue in practice because I enjoy employment law. But I don't see me returning to full-time, traditional legal practice."