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Shannett Thompson, Partner at Kingsley Napley and Chair of the BAME & Allies Network, explains her career path and gives some tips for others
I knew very early on that I wanted to be a solicitor. I was an avid fan of LA Law, and was particularly keen on Blair Underwood’s character – Jonathan Rollins. People are often shocked when I tell them that from the age of 7 I was pretty determined on achieving my aspirations, and did as much as I could to improve my chances on fulfilling my dream.
I was born in Hackney to Jamaican parents. At that time, Hackney was a far cry from the developed borough that it is now. Neither parent had been to university (though my mother later returned to education and became a teacher), I did not know any solicitors and had no one to ask those burning questions I wanted to ask.
My first taste of ‘solicitor life’ came when I was 15. I independently sourced, applied to and conducted a work experience placement at a small criminal legal aid firm in Clapton. To say that it was a revelation would be an understatement. I learnt so much about file management, client care, resilience and quite frankly the sheer difficulties of high street legal aid practice. The most important thing that this experience taught me was that I had made the right career choice. I lapped up every moment of my time, including the mundane tasks such as paginating bundles and photocopying.
Throughout secondary school and further education I kept my eye on the ball, always striving for top grades and engaging in extra-curricular activities such as music and drama. I got my first job at 16 in the local Marks and Spencer and before long I was promoted to supervisor. This role taught me an abundance of transferable skills and was pivotal for me to draw upon in making applications. I worked throughout all of my studies including the Legal Practice Course; I needed to fund my studies as relying on my family was not an option. To my surprise, though it was tough, I learnt a lot about myself including my ability to prioritise and manage conflicting commitments. I also did extra jobs during breaks such as assisting at my mother’s school.
My next placement was with the Government Legal Service in the second year of university. I relished the opportunity to get some experience of in-house practice and ask questions of the lawyers about their day-to-day work, how to develop my profile and what not to say at an interview.
Following my time on placement, I struggled with training contract applications and decided to change track. I took a position at the United Bristol Healthcare Trust (as it then was) as a Legal Advisor. It was an unqualified position, but proved to be the best career decision I ever made. Within weeks of working at the Trust, the Head of Legal called me into his office. He told me that whilst he did not advertise, the department was registered to have trainees, and if I wanted it, the opportunity was mine. Needless to say I jumped at the chance; and it was here that my career in healthcare and regulation was born. This was also when I truly realised the importance of working hard and putting my best foot forward no matter where I am or what work I am doing. Had I not proved myself, I would never have been given the chance I received.
From there, my journey has led me to where I am today as I write this, a Partner at Kingsley Napley.
The journey has not been easy, and I have faced a fair bit of adversity along the way. To anyone who is reading this and has been on the receiving end of, or is perhaps currently dealing with, unfair criticism, micro-aggressions, discrimination, a lack of support and/or supervision – please do not give up. I have been there, and managed to make it here. When you are in the moment of dealing with such adversities they can be draining and frankly debilitating. I am no specialist, but my tip would be to find an ally. Confide in someone in a position to assist you and use that relationship to navigate the situation. It is also important to remember that not every organisation will be a good fit for you!
Let me also be clear, I have not shared my story to gain sympathy, but to illustrate that not all paths into the profession are the same and you should never be ashamed of or reserved about yours.
If I could look back at a younger me and give myself advice and tips, they would be as follows:
The legal profession is difficult but rewarding. Know your worth, put in the work and don’t give up.