Resilience, empathy and passion – but what else does it take to be a lawyer for the people?

Opening statement

Why I became a lawyer

Henry, my four-year-old son, asked me the other day, 'what do you do?' I said, I'm a lawyer. 'What’s that?' he asked. I said I help people when they are in difficulty or are in trouble.

I’ve always wanted to protect people’s rights. My family may joke that I’m argumentative and have to have the last word, but protecting the rights of people has always been my inspiration.

When I studied To Kill a Mocking Bird in English literature, Atticus Finch inspired me. He represented Tom Robinson to the best of his ability, despite knowing the prejudice, despite knowing it was a losing battle. Finch was protecting rights, against huge odds. 

I see myself as a little bit Atticus Finch and a little bit Erin Brockovich – a hard-working woman juggling kids – on a legal journey that has included several proud moments, including winning a tough case thanks to the power of Theresa May.

We're human

People are always a little nervous when they come to see a lawyer. Whatever they are dealing with it is going to be something which is quite emotional. Whether that is moving house, someone’s died, getting divorced. It’s about making them feel at ease.

I am an associate at GA Solicitors in Plymouth, where we pledge to lessen the stress on our clients, not add to it. Whoever you are and whatever the reason for needing a lawyer, you're guided through it.

If you can bring that human element in, people relax. So much of our job is building this rapport, showing empathy and communicating clearly.

<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akaster Solicitors<br></p>
<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akaster Solicitors, with a client<br></p>

Steps into law school

Why I chose to do a law degree

I completed the first year of a law degree through the Open University (OU) and although I enjoyed learning about the law, I was actually missing the human interaction.

I also had to choose whether I wanted a degree or to complete my Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) qualifications. 

There is a difference between being a solicitor and a lawyer. A solicitor is a protected term for those that have gone down the academic law degree route. If you haven’t gone down that route then you have to use the word lawyer.

I decided I wanted the experience of university, so that’s why I chose to study at Plymouth.

Personable Plymouth

When I went to the University to have a discussion with Professor Simon Payne, Head of Law at the time, he was so friendly and welcoming. It made me think this was somewhere I wanted to be. The fact it was my home city as well – I've long been captured by the sea and the moors – it was just an extra tick in a box.

I really enjoyed my time at Plymouth. It was definitely the right choice for me. I continued to work with law firms around my study. I was on the Student Law Society committee and organised a law fair. I was part of the mooting competition, in a team that got to the semi-final and lost by one point! 

The law clinics were very useful, working closely with lawyers in private practice. A win-win for students and clients – developing skills in how to handle clients, in research, how to run a file, while gaining experience to put on your CV when you are looking for that elusive training contract.

Perspective of a mature student

As a mature student, there was definitely a difference in the relationship with the lecturers. We were seen as a calming influence on some of the younger students. It was a friendly, supportive atmosphere, with a chance for fun. 

A friend and I played a joke on my dissertation supervisor with a pretend idea on 'Cannibalism as an alternative to custody', whereby I used my best poker face to answer my supervisor's increasingly panicked questions, up until the point I caught my friend’s eye and we burst out laughing, much to my supervisor's relief – it was such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for learning.

I would quite often go to study sessions with peers in halls with a bottle of wine and pizza. And of course, there is the Student Union bar. I ensured I made the most of my student experience.

<p>Mooting final 2013 in Plymouth Crown Court<br></p>
<p>Plymouth Sound and Hoe with graduation marquees<br></p>

A wealth of evidence

From criminal defence, to Mum, to residential conveyancing

My range of experience has helped a lot with cross-selling and how different areas of law interact. 

I started off doing crime and prison law, which fed my desire to help people’s rights. But legal aid was being squashed and being on call meant I didn’t have a balance for my quality of life. 

My next experience took me towards employment rights, followed by a step into private client work dealing with the aftermath of losing a loved one. I ended up running a branch office and developed skills in management, as well as in contentious probate. I then had a baby. 

After I took time off to have Henry, I worked in-house for Plymouth City College, which opened my eyes to a whole new area of laws around reasonable adjustment for students with potential disabilities.

At this time I also prepared for GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the big change in data protection. We think I am the only lawyer in Plymouth who has GDPR accreditation. 

I was then headhunted by GA Solicitors, where I used this commercial experience to present seminars on GDPR, which helped me stand out above other candidates. My current focus is in residential conveyancing.

Every file is a human being

If a lawyer can avoid walking through that court door, that’s better for the client. Just because someone comes in with a problem, doesn’t mean it is in their best interest to pursue it. 

Once you start that rollercoaster and issuing proceedings, the court takes over and it becomes everything you live and breathe.

I explained to my trainees that every file in the office represents a human being.

During your degree you learn all about the law, but you also need to know how to translate that in a way that the client will understand. It’s about reading people and ensuring they understand what you are explaining to them.

Joining forces with Theresa May

A real career highlight came when I asked Theresa May to help an elderly man in prison.

There are certain types of cases where you are not allowed to be released on home detention curfew (HDC), one of which is manslaughter.

This case was corporate manslaughter. An elderly man, who ran a business with his friend, had an accident. The man was seriously injured, while his friend died. The man went to prison.

His wife died a long time ago, but his daughter was about to give birth and wanted her dad. So we applied for HDC. He had been a model prisoner, there were no risk factors, this was his only offence.

At governor level they rejected it, but they hadn’t read the application. So I appealed. Again, rejected.

I decided to write to Theresa May, Home Secretary at the time, and asked for her help. She did and the prison reconsidered the appeal.

The man then got released on HDC. I was very proud. I was battling against everyone saying no. But it was such exceptional circumstances that it deserved an exceptional way of being dealt with.

<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akasters Solicitors, outside Plymouth Crown and County courts<br></p>
<p>Inside the offices of Gill Akaster Solicitors in Plymouth</p>

Balancing the scales of justice

Qualities to succeed

You need empathy, regardless of the practice area. You need resilience. You need to juggle client expectations with your workload and third parties.

It’s important you develop the aforementioned poker face, to withhold your gut reactions. In prison law and criminal matters you hear a lot of shocking things. Some of the time they want a reaction from you, so then it's about not reacting.

At times, particularly in prison law, you have to put to one side any moral judgement. You are a lawyer, there to do a job. It's the client's right. It’s not up to me to make a judgement, that's down to the court or parole board.

Coping with pressure, people and paperwork

There is always pressure, but it's about effectively managing this, for yourself and your team. It’s not just being aware if your client doesn’t understand what you’re saying, but spotting whether a colleague is looking stressed and asking them if they need any help. We have a very supportive environment here.

Away from the job, I enjoy crafty things. I’m learning to crochet and recently made an outfit for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at my son’s school – Henry is the proud owner of a bespoke Four of Spades playing card costume. I’m very proud of it. I’ve made Christmas tree decorations in the past, as gifts for colleagues. Making things helps me relax and unwind.

The art of promotion

A day does not just involve clients and legal work, the admin, but is also about how you promote yourself and the firm. I do this by writing articles. If you Google me you'll find that I have always written them.

When I was a trainee I wrote loads of articles for The Inside Times, the newspaper for prisoners. Once I had cottoned on to the fact that there was always a surge of instructions following an article going in, I aimed to get one in at least once a month. This led to me being invited to their Q&A panel. It is a really good way of marketing and I still write articles today.

This commercial element for lawyers is so much more important now. The industry is so competitive, you need to keep getting your name out there. Networking is how you build your reputation, it’s how you build the work referrals.

<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akaster Solicitors, presenting a seminar</p>
<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akaster Solicitors, on the phone to a client<br></p>

Closing argument

My hope for the future

I aim to become a partner at GA Solicitors. This is everybody’s career aspiration, to become in charge of a team. Be part of the decision-making process. This is the ultimate goal. I was made an associate in just over a year and a half, which shows my dedication to the firm.

I’ve proved myself to this point. I just need to keep on proving myself. It’s about what else can I bring to the party. It’s not just about showing I can build the company, it’s about writing articles, networking, and having the personality to ensure clients, colleagues and the company are always happy.

At university, it is about building these friendships, too, because some of these trainees you may later come across in future practice. Socialising is a good thing to do at university, because you need to socialise in your work life to build long-term relationships.

My advice to tomorrow's lawyers

For those about to embark on a law degree, enjoy your time, because those three years really do go quickly. Once you’re out in legal practice you have to grow up and be professional. So work hard, always listen, do the extra reading, but ensure you have lots of fun as well.

When I did my law degree I was open to everything. It's difficult to know where you will ultimately end up, because the topics you study then will change again when you do your Legal Practice Course (LPC) and will change once more when you select the seats you will deal with on your training contract.

When we recruit, we look at the non-legal experience, as well as legal experience, because this so often includes a vast array of people skills and experience managing different situations which may be valuable in the job.

A law firm always wants a nice rounded individual. One that knows the theory but can also do the marketing and network.

Every experience I collect becomes valuable for future cases. I'm always learning. Always striving to do the very best for my company. Always prepared to fight to protect people's rights. This is my job. This is my passion.

<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akaster Solicitors with a colleage<br></p>
<p>Donna Butler, Gill Akaster Solicitors, outside their offices<br></p>

Client testimonials

“How can one explain excellency in knowledge and in human contacts? That is exactly what Ms Butler is, excellent by excelling in her job.”

“Donna made me feel we were in a safe pair of hands. She dealt with everything in a quick and efficient manner. Answered all our questions and was very knowledgeable.”

Final verdict

Do you have what it takes to follow in Donna's footsteps?

Our academically challenging, qualifying law degree will prepare you for a career in the legal profession. With strong public and private sector connections, and a clear focus on developing skills in the workplace, we’ll ground you in the fundamentals of law – so you can set your sights high. From national competitions to High Court appeals and community projects – our students win acclaim.

For further evidence, please review our course page.

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