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Women against adversity: “I was knocked back time and time again”

29 March 2019
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DWF real estate partner Catherine Haslam has three pieces of advice for young women who are struggling to start their legal career.

This article was first published on The Lawyer, you can view it here: www.thelawyer.com

Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a lawyer. But I grew up in a less well-off part of Lancashire and didn't have the kind of education that would stand out on a CV. My school didn't have prefects or a head boy and girl and we weren't encouraged to do our Duke of Edinburgh Award. My working class background made it more difficult to get that first foot in the door, but I was determined to make my dreams a reality.

My parents separated when I was 14. My Mum had very little money and four kids to raise. We lived a pretty much hand to mouth existence and relied on free clothing vouchers for our school uniforms. From a young age I became aware that life was a struggle.

Following their divorce, my Mum had what I would probably recognise now as a nervous breakdown. She was trying to hold down three jobs to pay for everything, alongside fighting my Dad for custody of my younger brother and sister. There was so much emotional turmoil in my life and it was difficult to remain focused and positive, especially when I was taking my GCSEs. However, my drive and determination alongside the fact I wanted to make my parents proud of me never faltered. I ended up leaving school with 11 GCSEs.

I often went without as a child. Therefore I wanted to make sure that I could afford some of the nicer things in life and to make sure my children had a comfortable life. Unfortunately, I didn't get the grades I needed for the universities that I'd applied for. My parents' relationship became really messy so we ended up moving home midway through my A Levels. As this meant a change of school and A Level courses, it resulted in me dropping a grade in one of my subjects. I had to go through clearing and luckily managed to secure a place at a Polytechnic University in Manchester where I studied Law with French.

To support myself, I took up a part-time job in telesales five-nights a week just to make ends meet. At the same time I somehow had to find time to study for my exams. Following University, I couldn't afford to do unpaid legal work experience and so I had to juggle a number of jobs including telesales and nightclub promotions – a far cry away from life in law.

It took me three years to land an interview for a training contract, despite applying to around 50 places each year. I didn't feel at the time that my gender was a barrier to my progress, but looking back it probably was. I was more aware then of a lack of social mobility in the sector and how my working class background and Polytechnic education didn't quite fit. I either received rejection letters or heard nothing at all. In the end, I secured a training contract as a wonderful lecturer on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) provided a recommendation to Cobbetts after seeing how hard I worked.

Finally I was being taken seriously - it was the most amazing feeling in the world! All I wished was for someone to give me a chance. I was eternally grateful that finally somebody had. Once I joined Cobbetts I was fortunate in that I was 'sponsored' from a very early stage by a senior partner after he spotted promise in me. He looked out for me by giving me opportunities, speaking positively about me and providing guidance. It made the world of difference and I owe a lot to him.

The support and guidance I received through my career has made me want to do the same for others at DWF. As a result, I am involved with DWF's Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Group which supports the implementation of the business's diversity and inclusion strategy. I sit on both the Flexible & Agile working and Gender strands which aim to identify any barriers that impact the progression of women at DWF and to help women navigate a career in line with their aspirations and ability. I also volunteer for DWF's award winning 5 STAR Futures programme, which was created to enable aspirational young people to unlock their potential by developing their confidence and employability skills.

I love watching someone with real promise grow and become successful. I have a track record of developing paralegals who come into my team with very little experience but leave regarded as excellent lawyers. I try my best to assist them with their journey.

I have three pieces of advice for young women who are struggling to start their legal career:

  1. Keep as many options open as possible;
  2. Persevere, even if you encounter lots of rejections initially; and
  3. Work hard, because people will notice and will be more likely to sponsor and assist you.

I am thankful to look at my career now and know that I have achieved most of what I had set out to do. Now, my focus has turned towards doing what I can to help others – including my own daughter, Raili, who is applying for training contracts herself at the moment. My life has come full circle!