Breaking the mould with Donna Scully

15 May 2023

"How did I become a lawyer? Have you got some time, so that I can tell you my (fairly) long story?

At 16, I left a very crowded inner-city school in Dublin, where I was educated by nuns in a Catholic convent school. There were many reasons for my leaving school at 16, and in retrospect, most of them weren’t necessarily mine. At the time, educating women wasn’t a priority and getting married was what I was predominantly urged to do and, because of the influence of the Church in Ireland, my mammy was also convinced that that my leaving school was what I should do. In many respects, I was very lucky that my Granny was quite progressive in her thinking and she steered me towards doing a secretarial course. Well, I say steer…she was a force to be reckoned with, in the nicest possible way, and so it was definitely more a forced steering. I am grateful to her for that now.

After completing this, I came away, able to touch type, had some questionable shorthand abilities and a little bit of book keeping!  My first role following this, was as an office junior, and then, quite quickly as a legal secretary in a law firm in Dublin. I then took, I suppose you could call it, a simple leap of faith, and moved to the UK at 20.  I got a job as a legal secretary in Newcastle.  Upon reflection, I suppose that quite quickly, I realised that being a secretary wasn’t going to cut it for me.  Just after my 21st birthday, I started thinking about and looking into whether or not I could study law at university. I found out that whilst wholly possible, it was also going to be very expensive, too expensive for someone like me with no funding or financial support. I can’t really remember how, but I found out about CILEX, and at that point began my long journey into law.  The amazing thing about CILEX (was and still is) is that after having left school with only GCSE equivalents, that was enough to set me on the road to become a lawyer.  

For the first two years in Newcastle, I studied on a day release basis but then, I moved to London, and due to the demands of my role, had to study after work, two nights a week.  That’s definitely when it got a lot harder! I was working all day in a busy London firm, going to college, and not getting home until gone 11 pm most nights. It was tough! I spent my weekends and any spare time I had in the library, and because of this missed out on a lot of the social side of life in London you could have in your early twenties. Not all of it I must add, I fitted in as much as I could!

I completed and passed my four years of CILEX and then went on to do my CPE (now GDL). I was then able to do my LPC full time at London Guildhall University, by taking 10 months off work, getting some sponsorship and taking out a student loan. By this point, I hadn’t been in full-time education since I was at school, and I loved it! Despite being one of the oldest in my class and not the ‘typical’ student, I met lots of interesting and wonderful people in this time and made lots of friends. I also really surprised myself in many ways and found the workload and course requirements manageable.

During my LPC, I chose the subjects you’d expect such as personal injury, employment and contract law. To add a little bit of difficulty and diversity into the mix, I also chose a module in international shipping law! Goodness that was tricky! In the end, I achieved a commendation and was actually very close to getting a distinction, much to my surprise. To this day, I remember what an amazing time I had studying full time, which I still feel very thankful for.

I did the professional skills course and whilst I was looking for a solicitor role (as I didn’t have to do a training contract), I took a job as a temporary secretary at the British Medical Association. In this role, what I lacked in my secretarial technical ability, I made up for with my knowledge of the law and my ability to be able to deal with and manage the various clients.

Although I wasn’t the greatest of secretaries, I did this role because I needed to pay the bills, whilst I looked for a solicitor role. Ironically, they did ask me to take a full-time secretarial role, which I declined.  Shortly after, I got a job at another law firm, as a very junior lawyer, doing motor personal injury (PI) claims. They knew I could type so they didn’t even give me a secretary when I joined, which really makes me laugh now. I was there a relatively short time before, due to my experience in PI, and some senior level departures, I was offered a partnership. Initially, when I looked at the financial package they offered, with my student loan still lurking, my head was turned, and I was tempted.  I soon realised that my values, priorities and long-term plans did not align with this offer and so I decided not to join.

I then decided to move to Merseyside, to be near to John Carpenter, with the plan of getting a job in a PI firm in Liverpool. It was John who persuaded me to join his niche commercial practice and set up a PI motor department. And so that’s what I did! At that point, John was more convinced of my ability than I was, if I’m honest.  That’s one of the main reasons that I truly believe that having people in your life who have your back is one of the most important things you can have. They add to and change your life, push you out of your comfort zone and see the potential in you. The potential that you don’t necessarily always see in yourself.

I do feel extremely grateful to have gotten here, to have had the chances, luck and success that I’ve had. One of my main wishes in life, is that, for people like me, the journey into law be a shorter and easier one. There were some really difficult times along the way, and I did miss out on certain things, but it was ultimately worth it. This is why social mobility, mentoring and sending the ladder down are so important to me.  My dream is to inspire as many people as I can not to leave education or give up on their dreams just because they haven’t got the right background, education or people supporting and encouraging them. 

I do genuinely believe that we will have a fairer society when we have a more diverse representation in that society.  I get asked a lot if my determination to ‘give back’, to tell my story, and to try to make a difference is driven by my background and education, and the answer is always yes. I’ve done every job in our business and so I know how it feels, I understand how important every person is to our success.  We have so many people at Carpenters who started in very junior roles, who are now helping to run our business, and so I can say first hand and from the experience and knowledge that I have, it can be done!

Our gender equality has been achieved very naturally and fairly. We offer flexibility, apprenticeships, support and sponsor professional educational qualifications. We also operate a transparent meritocracy, where the best and right people get the jobs. That gender equality is a huge part of our success.

I’m not sure if I’ve broken the mould or smashed the glass ceiling but, I sincerely hope that I’ve shaken it up a bit along the way and will continue to stir it up for as long as I can. I hate injustice, wilful abuse of power and unnecessary suffering and I still have a lot of fire in my belly to fight for what is right!"

Donna Scully, Director at Carpenters Group


Credit : News for the Law Industry | Modern Law Magazine