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Millicent Grant is a pioneer. Earlier this year, she became the first chartered legal executive to be appointed an Honorary Queen’s Counsel in the UK.
She’s also the first person from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background to lead a legal professional membership body—between 2017 and 2018, she served as president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx).
We met Grant to discuss her career—from her leadership of a professional body to overcoming redundancy, not once but twice, to running her own company, Novavista.
Why and how did you become a CILEx lawyer?
I left school wanting to become a lawyer. The legal executive route was the only one open to me—given the qualifications I had when I left school, I wasn’t able to consider qualifying as a solicitor or barrister.
It was a requirement of ILEx study to be working and studying at the same time so I took a secretarial course during my last year at school and left school with three offers of secretarial work, all with assurances to support my studies and provide appropriate opportunities.
I started work with a small firm in King’s Bench Walk Temple in the City of London as a legal secretary and enrolled for evening classes for the ILEx course.
Outline a typical day at work.
I started my own company following a redundancy and now work independently. During any one month, my weeks vary.
I do legal work for an organisation outside London—I do most of that work remotely but visit from time to time. I am chair of directors of a youth work charity, as well as being a director of CILEx Professional.
I am also a member of the Council of Justice, a law reform and human rights organisation, and a member of a working party looking into an aspect of the youth justice system with a view to producing a report in due course.
From time to time, I am invited to attend events as a delegate or participant. Over the past three months, in addition to my legal work, I’ve attended board meetings and associated working party meetings and readings.
In addition to all that I’ve attended a careers fair, a formal evening dinner and awards event in Central London organised by young people, and attended meetings related to the organisations I’ve been involved with. I also attended the unveiling at the Supreme Court of the artwork “Legacy”, commissioned by The First 100 Years Project to celebrate the first 100 years of women in law.
What’s the best part about your work?
The best part of the way I work at the moment is the variety. To be able to use and develop my legal skills and knowledge in many ways, for the benefit of client and for members of the legal profession, is fantastic.
During my career, I have worked on a paid and voluntary basis in the private and public sectors, designed and delivered training, taught modules of the CILEx level 3 diploma in law and practice at evening classes, coached senior managers, conducted investigations, and practised different areas of law.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Since working independently, learning new skills, keeping up with trends and changes in relevant areas of law, having to wear different business owner hats and ensuring that I do not become isolated are the biggest challenges I face.
Have you faced any barriers or challenges in your career?
At the start of my career, the first challenge I had was based on my gender. I had been offered a secretarial job in a large firm in the City of London with a promise of support to qualify as a legal executive.
After I accepted the role, but before I was due to start, the offer to support me was withdrawn on the basis that the woman the firm had been supporting at the time of my interview had since married. They considered that supporting me would not be a good investment for them. This would not happen now as legislation is in place to prevent it.
Fortunately, I had received three offers of work and support to qualify before I left school, so I turned down the offer of secretarial work only and accepted another offer.
I often faced a lack of opportunity to gain the experience I needed. This was sometimes due to the fact that the person I worked for didn’t want to lose my secretarial skills, or work policies changed, or the perceptions of what a person in a secretarial role was capable of were different from what I was capable of.
“Those in senior positions have a statutory, regulatory and moral responsibility to treat staff fairly and equally.”
I secured work elsewhere when necessary to gain the experience and support I wanted. Many women still face the challenge at work of being prevented by managers from progressing, even if the employer’s stated policy supports equality and progression.
I have twice worked in roles that have been made redundant. These were big challenges for me at the time, but in both cases turned out to be blessings in disguise.
The first led to my moving from a private sector law firm in Surrey, near London. It was a good firm with excellent working arrangements, support and good working relationships between many members of staff. The firm lost work due to a change of ownership of its largest commercial client and consequently, after a few rounds of redundancy, the firm closed down.
I had to make a lot of adjustments and learn new administrative systems, and software. Eventually this led to my working in the public sector.
This was a big challenge for me initially as the culture at the time was completely different at almost every level. I worked as a locum and eventually went to work for a local authority—a six-week assignment that lasted 12 years!
During that time, I gained experience in different areas of law (in particular in employment and corporate governance), obtained additional qualifications, and was promoted. It was a completely new world for me.
However, the work at that organisation came to an end when, as a result of a restructure, I was offered the opportunity to accept redundancy.
I had often considered working for myself, so I decided to accept the offer of redundancy and do just that. I trained as a personal performance and executive coach as I recognised from my work as an employment lawyer that managers and members of staff would benefit from support which was not freely available.
I started a company offering a range of services based on the skills and knowledge I had acquired, (mainly related to HR, equality, diversity and inclusion, and corporate governance) but not doing case work. It was a steep learning curve, so I had to acquire the business skills and knowledge to enable me to work in this way. I have been doing this since 2007.
What’s your biggest achievement?
Becoming CILEx president and an Honorary Queen’s Counsel are very significant and obvious achievements but on a day-to-day/year-to-year basis I also consider the following to be significant achievements.
On both occasions that I was made redundant, I thought about leaving the legal profession altogether. The fact that I stayed within it and found a way forward is one of my biggest achievements.
In addition, I have successfully conducted very complex commercial litigation cases and employment law cases. They were challenging and demanding at the time, but I saw them through to the end.
Finally, I’m particularly proud of building up my own company and offering services based on my legal experience, coaching and training qualifications, and skills and knowledge.
What advice would you give to those looking to become a CILEx lawyer?
This is a very flexible route so find out how it will suit your career and lifestyle aspirations, as well as your responsibilities and financial resources. Choose your employer carefully and take responsibility for your own professional development.
Acquire experience and qualifications in addition to your day job and case work—gaining additional legal and other qualifications will help your professional, personal and wider development. This will open doors of opportunity to you in time.
Who or what inspires you?
I was initially inspired by a photograph of my uncle in his barrister’s wig and gown. He came to England during World War 2 and joined the Royal Air Force. After the war ended, he qualified as a barrister and then migrated to Nigeria where he practised law until his retirement.
My mother always supported and encouraged me in my desire to qualify as a legal executive. I often remember and repeat to others some of the inspirational words she would encourage me with when I was worried about exams, disappointed about results or facing challenges at work.
Two legal executives encouraged me and set good examples during the early years of my career. They were both older men who had been, before proudly qualifying as legal executives, what was known as managing clerks.
They were fonts of knowledge and good practice and were often the first point of call when other lawyers had questions about law, practice and court procedure. I worked closely with both.
The example they set for me and the drive I have to do interesting work, and more recently to support others, is what has inspired me to move forward throughout my career so far.
What was your most unusual job before becoming a CILEx lawyer?
Before I started full-time work, I had a Saturday job in a department store in the West End of London. Before I started my studies to qualify, I was always involved in voluntary work as a youth worker, supporting and being involved with community organisations.
Women in law
What are the major issues facing women in law?
Some of the most significant issues for women in the legal profession are equality of pay and opportunities to develop and progress to senior levels of the profession. Women are very well represented in junior roles but some practices and structures within organisations result in women being paid less than men that do substantially similar work.
Is the legal profession doing enough to improve gender diversity?
Many of the structures and pay scales within organisations lead to women being disadvantaged, either because of the role they are in or the qualifications they have. In addition, women tend to be disadvantaged more than men as a result of taking leave for maternity and other caring responsibilities or life events that affect women more often.
The main legal professions in the UK (legal executives, solicitors, and barristers) have associated regulatory bodies which set equality requirements and objectives for their members. There are also statutory requirements that should be adhered to.
Employers could and should review their workforce statistics and consult with staff so they can the effectiveness of their equality, diversity and inclusion policies and develop strategies to remedy any inequality that is highlighted.
Those in senior positions have a statutory, regulatory and moral responsibility to treat staff fairly and equally. Men can be great allies in supporting women who want to progress within the profession.
How are you involved in promoting diversity?
I was involved in developing and assessing the materials for the Preapplication Judicial Development Programme that was launched in April 2019. The programme supports talented lawyers from underrepresented groups to “feel more equipped, confident and prepared when considering applying for a future judicial role”.
CILEx also has a judicial development programme to help fully qualified CILEx lawyers who are eligible to apply for judicial roles. It includes a judicial mentoring scheme. I was president of CILEx when this was launched and I promote this whenever I have the opportunity.
I have often been invited to speak at events promoting gender, race and social mobility and accept these opportunities when they are offered.
BAME, CILEx, Novavista, diversity, charity, human rights, gender equality, software, Honorary Queen's Counsel, equal pay, qualifications, judicial roles