My career story: “I took a career break”

The Lawyer’s new feature, My Career Stories, will explore the personality and rationale behind impressive careers every week. This week, Top Right general counsel Nilema Bhakta-Jones charts her journey from pupillage to in-house via the Government Legal Service and the City.

Nilema Bhakti-Jones, GC at Top Right

You began your legal career as a pupil at 2 Field Court but only stayed for your pupillage. Why? 

I wanted to be a court advocate. I was an idealist. I grew up hearing the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi who, for us in the Hindu community, was always celebrated and he was an Inner Temple barrister. I was inspired by him, the first Indian prime minister Jewaharlal Nehru and civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall. I thought that the bar was the only place which would allow me to right wrongs.

But at the time I had had to take out an enormous loan to fund my bar school year and pupillage. My folks live in Africa and could not support me so when my loans kicked in I was a struggle to pay my rent, loans or buy food from court appearances which averaged three days a week. At the time, fees could take three to six months to be settled.

Where did you go from there? 

I made a very quick decision to take paid employment, which is when I decided to go into Government Legal Services, which allowed me to continue being an advocate. It was not a conscious career choice; it was a necessity. But I learned a shedload. I spent the first two years prosecuting drug importers. After that a secondment came up at Simmons & Simmons and I grasped it with both hands. It was an opportunity to go back to civil and commercial litigation, which is where my natural interest lay and what my pupillage had focused on. I was invited back and ended up working there for six years.

How did you spend those six years? 

I did not have a traditional trajectory so I did not have the specialisms the others did. But that meant that when something unusual came in, it often came to me. That ended up being my niche: you could chuck anything at me and I would find a way to make it work. I ended up doing Simmons’ first ever extradition case and eventually was offered the chance to submit a business proposal for a white-collar crime practice there. But I had made the decision that it was the right time for me to take some time out. My husband and I decided that it was a good time to travel round the world for a year.

Was that not a risky thing to do in your mid-thirties? 

I felt that I was taking a massive risk. Law firms provide a wonderful safety net for you. You can save and invest with the money they pay. And they usually provide you with a clear career path. I remember feeling very nervous about it and wondering if I would be able to find a job when I came back. But it was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: I couldn’t do it at university because I self-funded and I couldn’t do it once I had children. You need to grasp those opportunities with both hands. I don’t regret it for a moment – it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

What happened when you returned? 

I had had a lot of time to reflect and that’s how I arrived at the decision to go in-house. When I came back a former client sought me out and offered me a job in-house. It was their first in-house counsel role. I went in-house but stayed for only a year. They didn’t know what to do with me, they did not have the structure to support a legal function. Companies do not always need an in-house function, and this one did not. They expected me to be able to manage California. Australia, UK and EMEA. It seemed set up for failure, rather than success.

Do you feel you could have avoided that situation? 

I did not ask the questions I should have done. There are questions you have to ask and it only comes with time, working out what those questions are. You need to truly understand a business and align your objectives with it. Knowing that there is infrastructure, knowing there is someone who supports that role, understands that function, what you will deliver.

With any new role you need to ask yourself what you are going to do with your first 100 days but you cannot do that in isolation. There needs to be dialogue on how you can support them, what your objectives are and what support you need.

The more you manage expectations and the more you set clear, realistic goals and milestones, the more likely it is that the role will work for both the business and for you. I didn’t work that out in my initial conversations with them but there was also a mismatch in the business: there were positive advocates who wanted an in-house counsel but they did not have the structure to support it.

What would you advise others going to interviews to do? 

You have to be bold and ask those questions, in any interview situation. How is this going to work, what are your expectation, what their strategy is, how they communicate it, how you fit in. Ask to meet more people in the business – any interview has to be a two way street, though that is hard until you are more senior.

My predecessor at Emap said to me: “I’ve made my decision, but fundamentally you need to work with my team so I would like them to meet you. I met them for coffee and we got on really well. It is a really good idea – your qualifications and experience are usually a given. It is the cultural and personal fit that is really important to whether you fly or whether you… don’t. It is difficult but that is where seeking out a mentor helps –someone more senior to have that conversation with and bounce ideas off.

Did you ever feel that partnership was the right option for you? 

I absolutely that partnership thought that was the right thing for me and I absolutely enjoyed the work I did. And when I was more junior I used to ruminate: where do those who don’t become partners go? Where is the graveyard for senior associates?

But I had another yearning. I knew I wanted to do something else; there was a little spark. The exposure to the in-house counsel I had met at Simmons and their grasp of their business inspired me to make that move.

I also hoped to get a balance and create the right environment for me to have a family too. I thought early stages of partnerships, where you are working very hard to build your practice and maintain your reputation, did not lend itself to partnership.

I do not think that is unusual. It is incredibly hard, most female partners would say that. But I think that this will change in the generations to come. There has been a phenomenal change in the last ten years with regard to in-house counsel dictating diversity. Law firms need to change their structure – or they will loose their talent to in-house, alternative business structures and boutiques – if firms don’t evolve they will start to die.

Why did you choose to start work at Emap in 2007?

I was star struck by Emap, which sounds a bit sad. They have launched iconic brands over the last 60 years, Face magazine, Q, Kerrang, Magic and lots of others. I chose it, even though the vacancy was only six months maternity cover, over a role as a litigator at a bank, which I was also vying for at the time. It was the best decision I ever made. I rely on instinct in contentious situations. My gut has never let me down.

I just took a risk that this would be really interesting and different and exciting. Within the first two or three months I had worked with Channel 4 on our joint launch of 4 Music and suddenly delved into the world of defamation. A lot of my work came as a result of publications like Heat and Closer.

What’s the worst decision you have ever made? 

I think even bad decisions add to the lens with which you look at that. A diverse experience, good or bad, is vital. There have been bad days. Days where you have had two hours sleep and you wonder why you are doing it. But there is always a high too.

And if you have not failed, you do not know how to get back up or manage businesses that are failing, or pick projects up that are going the wrong way and set them right. Personal resilience is so important. It is a marathon and you need to be tuned in for the long term.

What is the best advice you have been given? 

Don’t specialise too early. A silk at bar school told me that and that is why I was able to do those interesting cases at Simmons.

And be authentic. Be true to yourself. Pretending to be someone else will be found out. People will gravitate towards authenticity and there is nothing worse than finding out someone is not authentic. But you need to find what piece of advice best suits you.