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Susanna McGibbon: A government lawyer at the height of her career reflects on gender equality in the Civil Service
After 25 years of public service, Susanna McGibbon, a Director General at the Government Legal Department (GLD) talks about what the Civil Service can offer to female lawyers.
As part of the First 100 Years of Women in Law celebrations I attended a fascinating evening at the Royal Courts of Justice, where Baroness Heather Hallett spoke powerfully about the history of women in the legal profession. As I listened to the series of “firsts” – names now familiar to many of us, but unheard of in my Bolton state school – I wondered what had possessed me to consider law as a career. Like so many I had been attracted to the Bar through TV drama; the advocacy, the argument and the pursuit of justice. Growing up at a time when we had a woman Prime Minister from a similarly modest (and Methodist!) background, it didn’t occur to me that gender or class might be an issue.
After failing to secure a tenancy in any of the three sets of chambers I had worked from, I decided to face facts and seek a job elsewhere in the profession. The Government Legal Service was one of many roles I applied for so it was far from an early ambition! But upon joining the Civil Service, I quickly felt that I had found my niche. I immediately embraced the public service ethos and enjoyed working as part of a team with colleagues of different disciplines on issues I quickly recognised as vital to the country. The ability to combine my legal knowledge and skills with my interest in politics, and in particular the relationship between the citizen and the State, has continually motivated me as I have developed my career.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the unique elements of a legal career in the Government Legal Profession; supporting policy development, drafting secondary legislation, steering primary legislation through Parliament and working on Public Inquiries such as the Bloody Sunday, Hutton and Grenfell inquiries.
After junior roles in the Foreign Office (now FCDO), Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department for Education (DfE), I joined the Senior Civil Service when I became Head of the Cabinet Office legal team. Around this time, I also took on responsibility for the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (now GLD) Legal Trainee and Pupillage Scheme – of which I remain a strong supporter. To give junior colleagues the training and development to help them achieve their potential is very important to me – and within GLD it is a continuous process for all of us to keep learning and improving.
Then followed time as a Legal Director in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), after which I was Director of Litigation in GLD for 5 years. This was a great job, leading a team of 600 colleagues handling almost all government litigation – from the Immigration Tribunal to the Supreme Court. To be involved in some of the most significant public law and constitutional cases of recent years was a real privilege.
Now, as Director General, I am responsible for 6 “in-house” legal teams advising a range of departments including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the MoD. I am also responsible for our Commercial Law Group, which supports all government departments on procurement and other commercial issues.
I see the organisational elements of the job as crucial to creating the conditions where great lawyers can flourish and provide outstanding legal services to government. As a member of the GLD Board I play a key role in setting our strategy and priorities as we adapt to changing demands. We aim to be a brilliant place to work for everyone, and that means setting high standards of leadership, management and behaviour.
With the creation of GLD in 2015 we have been able to develop clearer paths for lawyers and to centralise learning and development. Colleagues from legal teams across government can now share knowledge and work on cross-cutting legal issues, reducing duplication. We have also strengthened our litigation, commercial and employment specialisms, while maintaining our advisory practice supporting departments on policy development.
Flexible working practices
GLD is an employer with a solid track record of supporting and promoting women throughout their careers. Long before COVID-19 we supported colleagues to work flexibly and we have a wide range of patterns – part-time, job share partnerships, term-time with a mix of time in the office or at home. Over half our senior leaders are women – pretty much reflecting our intake at junior levels. Not many legal organisations can say that! But we are not complacent – our progress on race has not been good enough and I am conscious that our black, Asian and minority ethnic female colleagues, for example, are concerned about the intersectional impact on their careers.
Importantly, flexible working is not just a “female” thing in GLD, many male colleagues work flexibly too and our parents’ network has just as many active men as well as women providing support and advice to colleagues juggling work and family life.
For any women interested in a legal career in the GLD, here are some top tips and advice:
1. Make sure you have a genuine interest in the relationship between the rule of law, politics and society.
2. Recognise that the financial rewards won’t be as great as private practice.
3. Find out about as many parts of the legal profession as you can to help you understand the pros and cons of different roles.
4. It helps to keep an open mind about your career path in government – think about the skills you want to develop, rather than subject areas.
5. Make sure you enjoy working collaboratively – it is a team sport.
6. With the privilege comes responsibility – everyone knows who your client is – behave accordingly!
7. Read GLD’s “The Judge over your shoulder” guidance to get a feel for the work and keep an eye on the website for details of how to apply for vacation schemes, traineeships and permanent roles.
I had to deal with the disappointment of not securing tenancy at the chambers of my choice. I had to change my aspirations and find a job quickly, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Susanna McGibbon is a Director General at the Government Legal Department and a member of the Executive Board. Susanna is also DWP’s Director General for Legal Services and a member of DWP Executive Team.
Susanna is also on Twitter @SusannaMcGibbon
Photo credit Legal 100