Denise Nurse in The Lawyer: the journey to becoming Halebury CEO
Denise Nurse trained at Charles Russell and worked in-house at BSkyB before embarking on a second career as a broadcaster, presenting for Sky News, Sky Travel and hosting Escape to the Country for the BBC. She established ‘alternative law firm’ Halebury with business partner Janvi Patel in 2007.
What’s your background? Why did you become a lawyer?
I was born in London as a first generation immigrant, and brought up in the East End near Upton Park. I was the first lawyer in our family and the first to go to university.
I first got interested in law when I was about 14. I enjoyed English and history at school, I was on the debating club and was usually the chairperson. I liked to win! And I also liked novels about the legal process and TV dramas – LA Law, quite frankly. The legal arguments, the idea of winning a case – I liked all that.
How did you get into the profession?
I didn’t have anyone in the family who was a lawyer, but I got a scholarship to a private school. They were supportive, but at the time there wasn’t much information out there about what a legal career meant. So I took myself off to the local court and sat in on cases, and I got my first work experience on the local high street. I went to the local firm and asked if I could help them. They said: ‘Here’s a load of filing, can you do that?’
It was a more relaxed regulatory time and I very quickly went from doing the filing to doing prison visits. They sent me off to Brixton and Pentonville on my own to take statements.
They did immigration and family and criminal work: it was quite heavy going. After that first summer, one of the partners took me into the office and said, ‘I’m going to show you the reality of this world.’ He had the file of an old lady who had been murdered and he showed me the photographic evidence that had been used in the trial. It was a bit shocking but it didn’t put me off: I found the whole area fascinating.
I did my A levels in English, History and French and got a place studying law at Liverpool University. I really enjoyed the first year, but I hated EU and property law in the second year, and started to question whether this was the right career for me.
Because you didn’t enjoy the subject?
That was part of it, but there were only four black people studying law: me, two international students and a mature student in a class of 200. The lack of diversity was really quite obvious and I struggled with that. I was looking around wondering where I fitted in. I didn’t gel that well with other law students – most of my friends were medics.
The second year is when you apply to City firms. I didn’t have money, my parents couldn’t have afforded to put me through law school though no doubt they would have found a way.
I was really torn, but I knew I liked family law and I had a growing interest in IP, so I sought out firms with a good reputation that did both. There weren’t that many! I applied to five firms and Charles Russell were the only one to give me an interview. I was coming through just as full-day assessment centres were first starting to be used: I didn’t have any prep but got through the process and Charles Russell offered me an the training contract, so my path was set. Goodness knows where I would be if they hadn’t offered me the job!
I loved my third year of university, doing subjects I enjoyed, and then I did the LPC at [the College of Law] Store Street.
What advice would you have for diverse student now?
The advice I give today is, firstly: don’t worry about it too much. It wasn’t at the top of my mind. Focus on being the best, being excellent. I don’t think that’s changed – if you’re from any minority you’ve just got to be better than everyone else. Suck it up and get on with it.
Secondly, network. People tend to hire people who are like them and you’ve got to make it easier for yourself. Make the effort: there are more avenues now. Find out where events are going and start turning up and meeting people. Sitting back and waiting for the world to change isn’t an option. Firms are doing more but you’ve got to do your bit as well. If something isn’t there, create it.
Firms have to make more effort, and I think they are. It’s one thing to encourage people to start the journey, the issue is the whole pipeline: you do need to see people like you who’ve made it. A real effort has to be made – firms should be a bit more radical. I salute Charles Russell: in that intake of nine there were several people who were diverse: my now-business partner who is of Indian heritage, a French girl, an openly gay guy. The year above us were mixed as well, but further up you didn’t see it.
How was your training contract?
Charles Russell offered everything I was looking for: private client and commercial law at the highest level, a small trainee intake so I wasn’t just proofreading. My first seat was commercial property, which was the one I really didn’t want to do. What I did learn from it was that I loved the commercial side of things: I liked business and negotiation, doing deals, seeing something being born out of nothing.
After that seat, I never did do private client – I went to commercial litigation, IP and then company commercial and that’s where I was offered an NQ job.
But by that point I knew I did not have the will to be a partner in a law firm. I wanted to be able to have a family and a life and a balanced career.
But even more, I felt excluded from business, just because of the the way that private practice lawyers worked. I needed a job working for a business doing the things I liked, so I started looking for an in-house role. At the time people still looked at in-house as a second-class career, but I started applying.
How did you move in-house in the end?
It was a job ad in The Lawyer, actually. BSkyB were looking for an NQ to join their team. It looked interesting so I went down to Middlesex and met the Head of Legal, Deanna Bates. I was primed for the interview by my agent saying: ‘She can be a little bit scary, the last person who was interviewed came out crying.’ But it was fine: we talked about IP for a bit and after that we relaxed and talked about shoes and shopping.
I joined in October 2001, just after 9/11. It was a small legal team at the time – I was the 21st lawyer. Deanna was a fantastic boss: she had a lot of credibility and really gave you an opportunity. I ended up going in as a kind of minister without portfolio – a junior lawyer helping out everywhere, which suited my personality. I ended up being the only lawyer looking after their small claims county court work. It meant I got an opportunity to see the customers’ experience of the business. I really enjoyed that.
Then I worked for the marketing team and supported them for a while and eventually I took a role with the procurement and tech team, doing the red button and interactive technology work, and the first mobile applications. Then I joined the sports legal team. It was clear that content is king, and the king of content at Sky is sports so if you want to get anywhere spending time in that team is a good idea.
But then your career changed dramatically – what happened?
It was 2004 and I had only just started working on the sport side of things. The company ran a competition called Sky Talent looking for presenters from among their staff.
Sky was a TV company based on an industrial site, so it didn’t it always feel like a TV company. The competition was meant to be a way of increasing employee engagement – a bit of the glamour of TV. It was a well-run competition and I made it through to the top 10. As a prize we were sent to the National TV and Film School for a week and got training. We all came out with a show reel and everyone in the company voted for their favourite.
That meant all the channel heads saw our stuff and as it turned out, the Head of News saw my show reel and invited me to a meeting. I said, ‘Why would I quit being a lawyer? The only reason I might quit would be to be a journalist. He said I couldn’t be a journalist – you have to do your time and work your way up – but they did want someone to cover weather.
I said, ‘I know nothing about weather, I’m a lawyer!’ But he said, ‘Go on, it’ll be fun. Who doesn’t want to stand in front of a green screen?’
It was a big decision: I just got my dream job as a Sky Sports lawyer – how could I quit that to be a weathergirl? How could I leave my career?
But you did it – why?
In fact the head of legal encouraged me and told me to do a secondment for six months and they would keep my position open.
So that’s what I did – except I never came back! I really enjoyed not being a lawyer for six months – I think anyone with a career, six months of something else with the comfort of going back to your own job is attractive.
I did get some weather training; I went to the Met Office in Exeter for a few days. And I had a big map of the UK up in my living room and was practicing the pronunciations of place names! Six months became a year and I had to make the choice of going back or staying full-time as a weather presenter.
I realised I did miss law. So I asked myself, what is it I miss? What would my ideal career look like? At the same time my current business partner was at her own career crossroads, thinking about whether to continue being a lawyer. So Halebury was born out of that. For quite a few years I did both jobs, and thought, if this works for me it will work for other people as well.
You’re a CEO now, there’s your TV career – do you still practise law?
My career has evolved. When we started Halebury I was still practising. I don’t do much any more – I am still on the roll and keep up to date with my CPD, but as CEO it is more about management now.
We didn’t get bank funding: we worked, we earned, and we ploughed that money back in and gradually built the business up. Over time we hired people – we now have a team of 32 and are looking to increase. We do have a career coach service, and the joy is that I now help other people manage their careers.
I stopped filming since I had my son. I now have a family, I have two stepchildren and I got married last year, I couldn’t do everything so I pulled back on the TV bit, although I’m looking to get back into it.
And what are you planning next?
I think the wonder of life is not knowing what he next chapter is. I am a yes person. The more open you are to what might come your way, the more you achieve. I’m really excited.
I turned 40 this year – I see Halebury really developing into something that will be a legacy for us, because we are so committed to creating a different blueprint. I think we can help create a pathway for those joining the profession that is more inclusive, that embraces different skills, rather than focusing on hourly rates. Changing the way lawyers are trained – I think we are going to be part of that.
Then more TV work possibly. Maybe another business – something that marries all of the different facets. I don’t know yet!
This interview featured in The Lawyer magazine in September 2016: https://www.thelawyer.com/denise-nurse-career-quit-law-weathergirl/
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