Taking a career break: Leaving behind my beautiful shoes and pristine files to realise the real measure of my success is not in my job title or the size of my pay packet – Claire Monkhouse, Solicitor, Accredited Civil and Commercial Mediator

Backpacker

Claire Monkhouse is a solicitor, accredited civil and commercial mediator who is currently on a career break travelling internationally after working for ten years in commercial litigation [bringing or defending lawsuits in court to resolve disputes] in Yorkshire. Alongside her role as an associate in the dispute resolution department at a firm of solicitors, Claire found a passion for education and teaching, sitting on Huddersfield Law Society’s Uganda Twinning Group, where she travelled to with colleagues to deliver training to Ugandan lawyers and support welfare projects for local children. Outside of work, Claire is an active member of Huddersfield’s Rock Choir and the Huddersfield “Tea and Tarts W.I.”.

Claire Monkhouse

Claire Monkhouse

“…I know that I want – perhaps need – to use the knowledge and skills that I have learned from my ten years in practice in a way that has more meaningful, measurable ‘human’ results than merely … winning a trial that means large sums of money are shifted from the bank account of one commercial organisation to another…”

Walking away from my job

Walking away from a job that I had been in for ten years; well-known and respected within my firm, with an Claire Monkhouseestablished client base and a good network of relationships both in and out of the legal community, was not something I would have ever seen myself doing.

Not least when I was leaving the familiarity of my more or less 9-5 routine and the collection of shoes that had earned me the “Imelda” [Marcos] moniker in the office, to put a scant collection of belongings into a rucksack and spend the next six months travelling around Europe with my husband, with each week’s worth of my budget less than my hourly charging rate had been.

Perfectionist and straight A student, but I was feeling disconnected from my work

I have always been a perfectionist – the straight A student, assignments handed in on time and, as a “grown up”, immaculately kept files, court deadlines carefully diarised and time managed to ensure that I was more or less on top of my work and the client call-back list was never too long.

Yet in recent years, there has been an increasing sense of unease with my professional life – however well drafted my witness statements were or however high the sum ultimately agreed on to secure an out of court settlement, I was beginning to feel disconnected from my work.

I love a good argument

LaptopIt was the profession that I had ear-marked as the right path for me back in secondary school, even before completing the career-finder questionnaires to help us decide whether we were best suited to being in the armed forces or spending our lives shushing louder members of the public as a librarian, based on facile multiple choice questions about whether we favoured team sports, or reading in solitude.

It was the job that I had decided I wanted to do based largely on my love of a good argument – spending my holidays cleaning toilets in a hospital to help pay for my own computer as a student – and I was beginning to question whether I had made the right choice.

Theory was very different to practice

For me, the theory of being a lawyer was rather different to the practice. I had certainly moved on from the vague, perhaps naïve, student ambition of wanting to “help people”; my family law seat as a trainee meant that I was either on the verge of bursting into tears in difficult care cases, or battling a rising irritation with parents having a weekly argument about which stand in the bus station they would deposit their child for weekend contact so they wouldn’t have to actually see or speak to one another.

Not cut out for the “touchy feely” stuff

I decided that I was not cut out for the “touchy feely” stuff but nor was I ready to join the ranks of the biggest commercial firms where the rumours of having beds in the office and an on-site doctor, such that you never needed to go home, meant that the concept of a work-life balance was something that could never be attained; at least, not without feeling guilty any evening or weekend that you left the office before your colleagues.

I thought for a time that I had nailed it – working as a civil litigator in a reasonably large general practice meant that I had a diverse range of clients; from the individual who needed help with understanding how far his neighbour’s tree branches could grow before they became a legal nuisance, right through to managing challenging and high-value litigation for international organisations.

Access to justice for all was no longer the underpinning principle

With growing budget cuts, drastic reductions in the availability of public funding and dramatic rises in court fees, however, I felt that I was in involved in a system where the idea of there being access to justice for all was no longer the underpinning principle; with the court system becoming the preserve of those with deep pockets and the “man on the street” (or, for lawyers, the Clapham omnibus) only being able to protect their legal position if they could muster sufficient funds to do so.

ClockTime-recording every minute of the day and desperately trying to reach a financial target for my firm in an increasingly difficult economic climate meant that the sought-after clients necessarily became those that could readily fund the hours of my time whereas, on a personal level, working with those who could least afford my expertise, but needed it all the more, was far more satisfying.

Time to take stock and reassess

Being able to progress any further within my firm would have meant billing greater sums and taking on management responsibilities that would ultimately take me away from the very thing that I had originally set out to do and still derived most enjoyment from – using my knowledge and experience of the law to help others navigate through a difficult situation. I felt as if I had reached a point where I was assessing clients based on their means, rather than the merits of their case. I was feeling demotivated, beginning to doubt my abilities and knew that I needed some time out to take stock of the situation.

Getting married more or less coincided with my ten year work anniversary so it seemed the perfect opportunity to use our honeymoon as an opportunity to have a travel adventure and get some much-needed headspace away from the routine that had, over the years, become a bit of a rut.

It’s a big world out there…

Over the course of the past six months I have, amongst other things, sipped cocktails atop a revolving (slightly motion-sickness inducing) tower in the Albanian capital, stayed in a treehouse village in sweltering heat near ancient Olympos, explored Transylvania by train and witnessed first-hand the refugee crisis at its peak; being in the middle of Budapest Keleti station – and the hundreds of desperate, fleeing families camped there – only hours before its closure.

Claire MonkhouseI am not sure that being able to order beers in faltering Polish, count to ten in Romanian or negotiate on a night train to Lviv with Ukranian border guards who have decided that my (Ukranian-speaking) husband’s passport photo is unsatisfactory will improve my ability to prepare a costs budget on a piece of heavyweight litigation, or have a favourable impact on my ability to remember the provisions of Part 36 of the Civil Procedure Rules without reaching for the White Book every single time.

Trapped by the thing I thought gave me a level of financial freedom

I am absolutely certain, however, that taking some time away from the legal system has been a positive step. Having stepped off the treadmill that had unwittingly become my life, I realise that whilst there is a superficial level of security from having the guarantee of a monthly income, I was being trapped by the very thing I had thought gave me a level of financial freedom.

Welcome signIt was by no means an easy decision to kiss goodbye to the comfort of a regular pay cheque but we have managed. We may not have stayed in the most luxurious accommodation at times, have had heated debates about the cost of a hotel room and have become heartily fed up of making budget-friendly packed lunches with packets of salami and slightly sweaty cheese but we have visited some amazing places and have memories of things that I could never have hoped to encounter if I had stayed behind my desk, wearing my beautiful shoes and working on one of my pristine files.

The notion of “safety in numbers” is somewhat of a misnomer

So many people said that we were “brave” to be taking off on our adventure or “lucky” to have the freedom of a temporary hiatus in lives filled with responsibility but the reality is that anyone can do what we have done. The notion of “safety in numbers” is somewhat of a misnomer – there is not necessarily any more security in doing what everyone else is doing; simply a perception of such because we are surrounded by people who have made similar choices, lending a sense of legitimacy to our decisions and actions.

Having taken a short break from my professional life, I have realised – and accepted – that I do not want to follow the traditional path to partnership. The growing number of female partners is reflective of a necessary and positive shift within the profession over the years and for a while, I felt almost guilty that I did not feel an urge to join the ranks of some of the most inspiring women I know who not only excel as lawyers but as managers, leading successful teams.

The measure of my success is not in my job title or the size of my pay packet

Claire MonkhouseFor me, the measure of my success is not in my job title or the size of my pay packet but a sense of knowing that I am doing a good job and being recognised for so doing – a thank-you card from a client, or an acknowledgement from a colleague that I had made a valued contribution to a team effort has always made me glow with pride and feel a huge sense of satisfaction, like a child with a positive school report being praised by parents.

Crucially, having time away to reflect on things has made me realise that I should not simply rely on other people’s opinions as the barometer of my success but to accept that my choices, whatever they may be, are as valid as everyone else’s and I am no less ambitious or talented for not choosing to follow the now well-trodden path.

The future – a shift in focus to mediation or more teaching?

I have no firm plans for my return as yet – perhaps a more active role in mediation, having qualified several years ago but never had the time to fully focus on, a complete change of direction to teaching or even a return to private practice but rested, re-energised and ready for a new challenge. Whatever I do, I know that I want – perhaps need – to use the knowledge and skills that I have learned from my ten years in practice in a way that has more meaningful, measurable ‘human’ results than merely meeting a financial target or winning a trial that means large sums of money are shifted from the bank account of one commercial organisation to another.

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase; just take the first step”

SeaTaking time away to travel has not brought about any great epiphany but it has made me realise that, having spent ten years providing (or at least trying to provide) the answers to my clients’ problems, it is okay not to know all the answers all of the time. Wasn’t it Martin Luther King that said “You don’t have to see the whole staircase; just take the first step”? If you have any doubts whether to do something, try something, go somewhere new, just do it – it might turn out to be the best thing you have ever done.

 

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