I’ve always wanted to be a barrister, since before I can remember. There was no particular event or anything, I just always knew. I must have seen something on TV or the news perhaps. It was easy for me, because once you know what you want to do, it’s easy to follow that path.
I’ve never been an outgoing, loud person. Although I have married my complete opposite! I was the youngest of three children, and a girl with two older brothers, so I was always wrapped up in cotton wool. But I’m quietly confident.
My parents were born in India, and my grandad came over in a boat in the 1930s. He came to Coventry, where there was a bit of a Sikh community back then. He worked for what is now Jaguar Land Rover, and he stayed here for quite a long time before going back to India to bring all his family over. My grandad was one of seven children, so we have a huge presence in Coventry. My dad came over when he was 17, and he worked for Jaguar as well as a tea boy. He was also the eldest of seven. They worked very hard.
My parents were very successful – they had a manufacturing business of their own. They employed quite a lot of people in Coventry. I still meet people who were employees – I used to help out on weekends and holidays handing out pay packets in little brown bags, so they all love me!
The biggest influence in my life is my mum. She taught me the value of being independent and hard working. Such a strong lady, I’ve never met anyone else like her and I don’t think I ever will. My dad passed away when he was 55 from a heart attack. I was in Bar school when I found out, just about to sit my exams. I carried on for him, to show him that I could do it. He was so proud of me, going to Bar school in London.
My brother passed away a year after my dad. He was 24. He had a heart attack – there’s heart disease in the family. That was during my pupillage. Then 13 years ago my other brother, my eldest brother, passed away. My mum had lost her husband and her two sons, and she looked after my eldest brother’s kids. She was the guardian. My mum passed away in 2019 and now we are legal guardians to the children.
To carry on and continue living life, looking after grandchildren despite suffering with cancer for the last eight years of her life, was inspirational. You would never have guessed her condition. She was such a strong, happy lady, really interested in other people. She showed us how to be strong. Life throws things at you but you have to carry on.
I went to the University of Central England in Birmingham, and they had a free representation unit. I helped out there, with people coming to us with issues over their benefits and things like that. One of my lecturers, who was amazing, had contacts in Miami. So for two months over summer in my last year of uni, I went to Miami and worked as an intern at the public defender’s office. It was an amazing experience, because the public defenders were so passionate about their job. They weren’t paid very much but they wanted to help people. The way they approached their work was amazing.
I had to defend someone on death row. A young guy, about 18, shot a German tourist. He was facing the death penalty, so I had to interview his family and friends to put together a case. I compiled a plea bargain for the public defender, which they took to the prosecution, and his death penalty was revised down to life imprisonment. There was another guy who chopped up his partner and put her in bin bags because ‘the devil told him to.’ Coming across people like that was an eye-opener.
My pupil master was a role model as well. Being able to shadow him at a rape trial at the Old Bailey was amazing. I also did youth court trials in Wolverhampton. I remember one early case in particular: there was an Irish family in Birmingham, two brothers, that I was defending. I questioned the police officers who were prosecuting them and I proved they were lying. I got the brothers off and then had to go to a police disciplinary committee and give evidence. The officers were disciplined for what they did to that family.
Going in-house was mainly due to family and circumstances. I remember contacting Michael Page, who had this role at SSE, which was based in Maidenhead. I was just married, living in Slough. It all happened very fast – I did the interview and I remember the legal director at the time asking me: ‘Do you know what a wayleave is?’ I’d done my research, so I knew what it was. I fumbled my way through the answer, but they offered me the job the next day. When I first started at SSE in 2002 it was overwhelmingly white, middle-class males on the board and executive committee. As one director put it: ‘We’re just a bunch of hairy-arsed engineers.’ There has been a lot of progression since then.
My dad passed away when he was 55 from a heart attack. I was in Bar school when I found out, just about to sit my exams. I carried on for him, to show him that I could do it.
I hated the first six months at SSE, it felt so claustrophobic. It was tough having a nine to five job, in the same office with the same people, whereas at the Bar you can be in the court on the Isle of Wight one day then in Newcastle the next. I used to do a lot of travelling with my dad when I was younger, and I actually enjoy it. It soon changed once I got the experience I needed. We work quite independently, and because of the complexity and breadth of the work, I’m always engaged. I have the same freedom now as I had at the Bar. I can choose which cases to outsource, and which to keep for myself.
I thought I would be at SSE for a couple of years then go back to the Bar. But then I took two-and-a-half years off for maternity leave to have my three children over the course of three years and have been there since. I do miss the Bar. Particularly because I work with QCs most days. But what I’m doing at SSE is equally as good and important.
We do a lot of judicial reviews against Ofgem, but we sometimes support them too. The judicial reviews usually arise around transmission charges where there are regulatory issues. Ofgem will make a modification to the charging regime relating to our transmission business, and that has a huge impact on us. We often litigate when we think they’ve made the wrong decision. All of our judicial reviews have been successful.
A customer once complained to a local trading standards organisation about our doorstep sales team, which snowballed into a prosecution – SSE was prosecuted, as well as the salesperson, a young 19-year-old lad with his whole life ahead of him. He was facing this criminal prosecution for reading off a script at people’s doors. I made sure that we had funded his criminal defence – we always fund independent legal advice for employees. We paid for one of the leading firms in this field to represent him. We faced seven charges and he had four against him in the Crown Court. We were found guilty but we got him off, thankfully.
The newspaper headline was ‘David and Goliath.’ A small trading standards organisation had taken down one of the Big Six energy firms. The prosecution, to everyone’s surprise, had then asked for a Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) investigation, which would have involved them coming in and investigating us. They reasoned that as we were found guilty, we were making money out of crime, which would have been a PR disaster for us.
We engaged ‘the King of POCA’, Andrew Mitchell QC, for our appeal, and he did a really great job. So much so, that I rang the prosecution up saying we were going to win but if they dropped the POCA investigation that day we wouldn’t come after them for our costs. They dropped it and we subsequently lost the appeal! But we didn’t get POCA, which was a massive win for us. When the CEO found out he said: ‘You played a blinder.’
The team has grown massively since I joined. Originally I was a bit of a one-man-band but we now have a team of 14. We have moved from reactive to pro-active. If we think we have a claim, where a contractor isn’t behaving, or a regulatory issue, we take a stand and defend ourselves. The business sees the value in that, which is why the team has grown.
I like to be open and honest with the team, and I like the concept of 360 feedback. People see me as a good role model, juggling family and work. I’ve always worked flexibly, even back when flexible working wasn’t seen as a thing to be doing. I’ve been a trailblazer in that respect at SSE.
I like to keep fit. I can’t wait for the gyms to open again on the 12th April. All my kids and husband love it too, because he’s super competitive. If he sees me going five days a week, then he makes sure he also goes five days a week.
I hate Marmite. I don’t know why people like it. That, and crumpets. Not for me, I like croissants and teacakes. And scones. Cream first, then jam on top, when it comes to scones.
My eldest daughter wanted to become a barrister like me. She did work experience in chambers and loved the work, and they loved her as well. But I tried to put her off it. When you’re in a profession yourself you know the pitfalls, and you want what’s best for your children. She’s now decided to go into medicine, just to avoid the stress…
I’m reading a book called ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’ by James Nestor. It’s about the lost art of breathing. Everyone is a ‘dirty mouth-breather’ now, as the book calls them. Breathing through your mouth is really bad for you, makes you snore. Breathing through your nose is healthier. If you breathe in fast it increases adrenaline and makes you more focused, whereas breathing out makes you more relaxed.
Life mantra? Be present and enjoy being in the moment. Make the most of what’s in front of you.
Gaby Dosanjh-Pahil is head of dispute resolution and group anti-financial crime officer at SSE