Beating the career block
This month’s in-house interviewee proactively sought out a training and career opportunity, on the back of her previous work experience, when her route to qualifying looked in doubt
Joanne Stenhouse is a newly qualified solicitor with Cirrus Logic, a hardware and software solution company which provides innovative audio and voice IC products for leading smartphones, tablets, digital headsets and emerging smart home applications. She is responsible for corporate compliance, contracts and procurement, and IP.
What was your career path leading to your current role with Cirrus Logic?
From leaving school I worked in various administrative positions and spent time travelling. In 2007, I took up a temporary position with Wolfson Microelectronics where I was offered a permanent post and the opportunity to sit my patent administration exam. I did that and achieved the highest grade in my sitting. I was very fortunate that my manager saw potential in me and encouraged me to keep going. He suggested that I consider studying a law degree, and Wolfson offered to sponsor me to study the LLB at Edinburgh Napier University. I would never have thought about studying law otherwise, and found that when I started the degree I really enjoyed it. Halfway through my degree I fell pregnant with my daughter, but I was determined to complete the course and returned to studying when she was two months old.
While I was studying I worked with the Wolfson in-house legal team for one day every fortnight to gain work experience in a legal environment. When I returned to work from maternity leave, I was employed as a paralegal with Wolfson on a permanent basis and graduated from university in 2014. Shortly after graduating, Wolfson was acquired by Cirrus Logic and I was made redundant from my position as paralegal. This was actually a blessing in disguise because my redundancy payment enabled me to fund a full-time place on the Diploma in Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh.
After that I found it difficult to secure a traditional traineeship because I didn’t have an honours degree, which I was unable to obtain on a part-time basis. This seemed to be a prerequisite with most firms despite me having lots of legal experience. I had resigned myself to the fact that I might not ever get to become a solicitor. I realised that I had to be proactive and think outside the box if I wanted to secure a traineeship.
I approached Cirrus Logic to ask if they would consider taking on a trainee solicitor. I had a basic understanding of the company and relevant work experience, but as there was a small legal team there were concerns that there was insufficient time and resources to train a trainee. Because of my background with Wolfson and my understanding of Cirrus Logic, I was able to hit the ground running and I was fortunate to be offered a traineeship in 2015. One year into my traineeship I was offered a permanent contract and I qualified in July 2017.
How is the legal team structured? Do you take on trainee solicitors?
The legal team is split between the United States and the United Kingdom. Our general counsel is based in America and has a small team of lawyers and administrators. I report to the associate general counsel in the UK along with one other lawyer. We are supported by a legal administrator. The US legal team support the business in the US and the UK team support the rest of the world, and when required we also support the US business.
So far I have been the only trainee solicitor and I think that is because of my previous experience with the company pre-acquisition. It was a steep learning curve as a trainee and that is why it was so important to the company that I had an existing understanding of its business when I started my traineeship. Given that we have such a small team, it would have been difficult to support a trainee had it not been for my previous experience.
What are your goals as a newly qualified solicitor?
As a newly qualified solicitor, it is important that I now perfect my craft and hone in on my drafting skills. There is also a constant need to focus on developing my knowledge of the business and our products.
What is a typical working day?
My work is very fast paced and is often dictated by the contracts that I am dealing with, so there isn’t such a thing as a typical day. As Cirrus Logic is a global company I receive a lot of emails overnight from vendors and colleagues throughout the world, so I spend the first part of the day reading and responding to emails. When I’m not attending meetings about new and existing contracts, I am negotiating and concluding contracts and advising on all aspects of corporate compliance, software licences and procurement.
What motivates you to go into the office on a Monday? What is the biggest challenge for your team?
The people I work with motivate me.
I am fortunate to work with a wide variety of people and for a great company which invests in its people. I also really enjoy my work, which I think is important.
GDPR is a big challenge at the moment, as it will be for many in-house legal teams. There is currently a big push to ensure we are compliant by 25 May. It’s tough to fit this type of project around “business as usual” when we have such a small team.
What makes a good in-house lawyer? What do you enjoy most about working in-house?
As an in-house lawyer it is important that you learn about the sector your business is in and what your company’s products are. It is great to see how the business develops and to be part of that success. It is important that in-house lawyers are flexible and can be responsive to urgent queries. The contact that in-house lawyers have with their clients is different to that in private practice because the clients are also their colleagues. In my work, many of my colleagues don’t necessarily want to be involved in the legal process but their business knowledge is vital to conclusion of the contract, so it is important that I can make it as easy as possible for them and manage their expectations along the way. I would encourage students and young lawyers to consider pursuing a career in-house.
What is your most amusing experience at work?
My team was giving a presentation to a delegation of 25 officials from the Chinese Patent Office. We were using my laptop for the presentation. We were talking for so long that my laptop went to sleep and my screen saver with pug puppies was projected on to the very large screen behind me.
I couldn’t unlock the screen quickly enough. Thankfully everyone found it amusing!
Does Scottish legal education and training provide the necessary skills for working in-house?
It certainly gives a solid basis for the law more generally but I found the Diploma and PEAT 2 to be heavily focused on employment in private practice. There are different skills required when working in-house and these could be explored at university level.
I have also found that working as part of a global company and dealing with companies across the world, I am required to access localised external legal advice. That has helped broaden my understanding of the law.
Is the in-house sector well represented in terms of equality and diversity?
I am encouraged to see that there are more female solicitors in the profession, particularly those choosing to work in-house, and it is great to see the Law Society of Scotland being so committed to ensuring equality and diversity in the workplace. The work that the Society has been doing around supporting parents in the profession is important too, as it can sometimes be difficult for solicitors to find a balance as a working parent.
What keeps you busy outside of the office?
Generally, my six-year-old daughter keeps me very busy. If I’m not playing taxi, I’m helping out at the school or visiting other members of my family.
What would you take with you to a desert island? What would you put in Room 101?
I would take music to a desert island; music makes everything better.
I would put judgmental people in Room 101. We can all be guilty of it but everyone deserves to be given opportunities and to have a voice.
Questions put by Arlene Gibbs, solicitor, Aberdeenshire Council