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Careers counsel for aspiring lawyers: Roche’s Funke Abimbola

Roche UK managing counsel Funke Abimbola (pictured) has embraced diversity in both her widely varied in-house activity and in her equally challenging voluntary work. Recognised as a leading healthcare and life sciences lawyer, she received the 2012 Association of Women Solicitors’ in-house award and most recently saw her team shortlisted for the 2013 in-house team of the year distinctions at the Legal Business Awards and Halsbury Legal Awards.

Here are some of her thoughts on in-house practice, the legal industry and her career so far:

Was law something you were always interested in?

I come from a medical background, actually. There are many, many doctors in the family. Choosing law came out of left field, and it came as a real surprise to my father in particular, since he’d assumed I would become a doctor. Choosing to do law was not an easy choice in that respect, but it was something I really wanted to do. But my father did come around in the end and he was very happy to support me.

What was your training like?

I read law at Newcastle Law School, which is a really good, top law school. When I finished my law degree, I had to go back to Nigeria for personal reasons. I ended up studying towards the Nigerian Bar, and working for F. O. Akinrele & Co, which had links with Simmons & Simmons. Part of qualifying in Nigeria is learning as you go. So I would attend classes in the morning and would then work at the law firm in the afternoon.

How did Nigerian law compare to the UK legal system?

It’s a common law jurisdiction – Nigeria is part of the commonwealth. When I was practising law in Nigeria, pre-1900s English law still applied. Some legislation had been revised and amended, but there was a lot of commonality with the English legal system.

Was the transition to working with UK law fairly smooth?

Yes it was. Because of the experience I gained with a top firm in Nigeria, I didn’t have to get a full training contract as such. The Law Society reduced the training contract period for me down from 2 years to just six months before I could qualify. I got that six months’ training experience by cold calling the heads of top 50 in-house legal departments and the partners heading up the top 100 City corporate departments. I called each partner or department head and I had a sales pitch. I told them who I was, what I could do for their team and what I needed from them – and it worked! I secured several interviews and offers with this approach.

You qualified into corporate/commercial law at Wembley Plc, then worked with Memery Crystal and Campbell Hooper (now Speechly Bircham). What drew you to these firms?

Campbell Hooper were looking to take people on at my level of PQE. Memery Crystal was then a niche, corporate finance practice so I wanted to move to a broad, commercial practice as I was conscious of specialising too early in my career.

How did the shift to working in-house happen?

I spent four-and-a-half years with Campbell Hooper. During that time, I had my son, which was life-changing, as these things are. After that, I was looking to find a different work/life balance. I had different priorities in life. I wanted to work somewhere where I could manage a home life and also keep my career going.

What’s the average work day like at Roche?

It’s such an incredible role. The pharmaceutical/healthcare sector is really close to my heart because of my family’s medical background, and so, for me, there is a really personal reason to be here. It’s a very, varied role: I head up the legal team so I have line management responsibility in leading the legal team. I also provide a lot of legal advice to the business so have advisory responsibilities as well. Balancing the two can be a real challenge. No two days are the same here. In-house work in general tends to be varied. You can’t, with very few exceptions, be overly specialised. You have to become a ‘specialised generalist’, which is the way I put it.

Is there a risk of burnout when working in-house?

We’re very conscious of work/life balance here in my team. It’s the most senior role in my career, but it’s the one where I’ve had the best work/life balance, ironically. Also, because the legal team is a support function, we don’t have some of the pressure you would normally have if you were actively generating fees or if you were a profit centre.

Are you ever in danger of falling into a routine?

There are so many opportunities to develop myself and my team – there’s an absolute abundance of them. There are projects to get involved with, as well as a variety of areas of law: we cover commercial law, soft IP and hard IP, competition law and data protection. We assist on regulatory law, my team helps with debt collection claims, and we look at some of the litigation. We do employment as well and other areas of law. And that’s a team of just five lawyers. For us, there isn’t ever an opportunity to be bored. I’m always learning and my team is always learning.

What are some of the things you like to do outside of law?

I do an awful lot of voluntary work. I have several real passions: education, economic regeneration and also fundraising for cancer research. I’m a school governor at a school in St Albans and a former governor of a large, further education college in London. I’m a director of a local economic regeneration project in Luton. I’ve raised thousands for Cancer Research UK and am now a Friend of that charity, in recognition of the money I’ve raised for them. It’s a cause that’s close to my heart. My father died of cancer. I also try to spend as much time with friends and family as I can.

Voluntary work has been really important in my development, especially where I hold voluntary leadership positions. I’ve learned different leadership styles, and I’ve had responsibilities outside of work that have helped me with my responsibilities at work.

What are some differences between working with a firm and working in-house?

Working in-house, you’re a lot more visible. You are actually working with the client. That visibility has its own unique challenges. When you’re in the same building as the client, you’re part of the client, and you have to be very careful how you manage your time and be very careful to not have that time hijacked. We’re in huge demand as a legal team. I find that challenging at times, as does my team, but in the end it’s all about managing expectations.

You’ve done a great deal of work in supporting and promoting diversity in the profession – how do you see the industry developing from that point of view?

I think that there’s a huge divide between private practice and in-house legal teams. In-house teams are much more diverse in general, certainly in terms of the proportions of men and women heading up the in-house legal function. There’s a really healthy split between both genders. Less so on the ethnic minority front, I must say, but certainly in terms of gender.

I think that a lot more work has to be done within private practice. Law firms really need to start at grass-roots level and focus on disadvantaged groups, because otherwise law will continue being a very exclusive profession. If we’re really wanting to commit to diversity, we must look at those disadvantaged groups. We have to reach out early, as early as the ages of nine and ten. Some firms are doing extraordinary work in this area, Hogan Lovells in particular. The clients are increasingly diverse now. This is the thing that law firms need to appreciate. Clients who are committed to diversity are also looking for diversity in their legal panel.

What advice do you have for people just considering a legal career?

They need to do a lot of research. Find out as much as you can about the different routes of qualifying into law. Be really open about what kind of lawyer you want to be. Think very early on about where your passions lie. That I what will drive you, when the chips are down, through the long hours. What kept me going was that I genuinely loved corporate law and advising businesses. Find a plan of action. What worked for me was having quite an unorthodox way to get the six months I needed to qualify. For me, I had to be quite bold. I had to get on the phone and say: ‘this is who I am, this is what I need, this is the value I can add’.

Try to be innovative. Use social media. Use LinkedIn. Try to get a mentor. Make sure people know you’re out there and available. I’d advise trainees who are looking into corporate law to join trade associations, find out about the client’s business or industry, learn their language. And really go for it, be really persistent.

This article first appeared on the website of Lex 100, Legal Business’s sister publication.