Meet Karen Elder. She’s been a commercial dispute resolution lawyer for over 25 years and is an accredited commercial mediator. She co-authors a practical manual on civil litigation, has taught law at Staffordshire University and is Beswicks’ head of dispute resolution, leading a team of talented solicitors and paralegals. But how did she build such a successful career and become the highly regarded lawyer that she is today?
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in law?
I did a degree in Linguistics and International Studies, which was essentially a French degree with law as a secondary subject along with Scandinavian languages. I wanted to live in France. I just loved everything about France and would happily have done anything there. Law was my back-up plan.
My boyfriend at the time was working in this country so I ended up not going to France and instead pursued a career in law. I don’t regret it at all though, as I absolutely love my job.
What was your first job and what big lesson did you learn from it?
My first job was with a fair-sized corporate firm in Manchester. I’d done a four-year degree and one year at law college in Chester before undertaking my training contract at Elliott and Company. I was always quite rebellious and on my first day was told I had to wear a longer skirt!
The big lesson for me was to take my training more seriously. It was a very social time and I think I enjoyed that a bit too much. At that time, I wasn’t hungry enough and consequently I wasn’t kept on at the end of the two years’ training. It wasn’t my ability that was in question, it was my attitude.
Reality hit me when I had to send out 60 to 70 applications to secure a job on qualification. I learned that you have to be more focused on your training and show people how important your job is to you.
I got a job in a small high street firm which was just wonderful. It was vastly different from anything I’d done before, but I found myself learning and enjoying professional life. I was there for two years before I realised it was time to spread my wings and focus on the area of litigation that I really wanted to practice in: commercial litigation.
What sorts of cases do you deal with now?
I deal mostly with commercial disputes, for example, any type of contract disputes, disputes over leases, building contracts. I also deal with non-contentious construction work, drafting contracts.
We act for clients of all sizes, from big PLCs down to smaller businesses, both local and from elsewhere in the country. All of which keeps the work that I do interesting and varied.
What’s the most satisfying case you’ve ever dealt with?
We handled a case for a German-based client who manufactured boilers, with a Chinese opponent. It was a really complicated breach of historic distribution agreements that also raised matters of jurisdiction.
It was a brilliant case because it was very challenging academically as there was so much information to go through and a lot of strategy involved. We ended up mediating in London through the night.
The case gave us the opportunity to work as a team and it felt very much that we were working with the client, rather than for them, which creates a sense of mutual achievement. The whole case from start to finish was a joy.
These types of cases are very satisfying and make you appreciate the job that you do.
Which part of your job do you enjoy most?
I like reading and thinking about everything when I’ve got a new matter and working on a plan and strategy with the client. I like seeing how things unfold.
I also like bringing on the young ones too at Beswicks because they have so much to offer. I always say to them that I don’t want them to be good lawyers, I want them to be great lawyers. They need to be motivated and bright.
I used to teach on the LPC course at Staffordshire University. Teaching definitely made me a better lawyer because it reminded me why we do things as solicitors and hopefully my practical experience of law made it a bit more meaningful for the students.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t think I would do anything differently. I had a taste of city life in Manchester and could have worked in the city but for me it’s about a work-life balance and doing what is right for you and your family. I abhor the old adage that you have got to be there to be seen. We live in a world with remote access, so no-one need be subject to that kind of culture.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
My advice to an 18-year-old thinking of going into law would be that it’s hugely beneficial to have done things other than law. If you’ve studied a different subject, you tend to have added skills. Being a lawyer requires so many skills that if you are exposed to a bit more of life through another course, that is a good thing.
It’s phenomenally difficult to get into law now and to get proper training placements. There are far too many students for the number of jobs. Young people need to work hard, be really focused and exceptionally motivated.