Last November, Joanne Wilson was named Legal PA of the Year at SecsintheCity’s PA of the Year Awards 2019. Joanne is a Fellowship Member of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs.
After the ceremony, SecsintheCity caught up with Joanne to learn more about her career to date and her current role at Hall Brown Family Law, plus the advice she has for aspiring Legal PAs.
How did you become a Legal PA?
I became a Legal PA quite by accident – but a very happy one. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school and back in the 1980s there was a government funded/subsidised scheme very similar to an apprenticeship called a “Youth Training Scheme” which placed school leavers in jobs on a very low subsidised wage. My mum was one of the YTS tutors, so after two weeks’ training on basic office skills with her, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a firm of high street solicitors not too far from home. I stayed training on the scheme with this firm for just under a year before I left at the age of 17 to join a large Manchester City Centre firm as PA to a Partner – this is the firm where I stayed for 28 years before leaving to embark on my present role at Hall Brown Family Law.
What’s great about your job at Hall Brown Family Law?
To be honest, I love every single aspect of my job at Hall Brown Family Law: the people, the culture, the endless chocolates. It has been the biggest learning curve of my life and I have surprised myself with just how much I have achieved in the last three and a half years. This is due to (a) being given the opportunity in the first place; (b) having enthusiasm and passion for the role; and (c) the trust, belief and ambiguity I have so fortunately been given by both James Brown and Sam Hall – this means the world to me!
What do you love about being a Legal PA?
The variety, quality and teamwork. I previously worked in various areas of law including commercial property, employment and corporate before deciding to settle in family law. Due to the fast-paced and litigious element of family law – not to mention the variety in terms of divorce, finances, children law, injunctions, abduction, adoption etc – an uneventful day in the office can turn very quickly into an emergency application to court which involves everyone in the office. As it is an emotive area of law, I love working in private client and assisting the fee earners to help our clients achieve a Rolls-Royce service and therefore the best outcome they could hope for and to move on in their personal lives as easily as possible.
You helped to set up the firm you currently work at. How did that come about, and how does it feel to work in a firm you’ve been a part of from the beginning?
I feel extremely privileged and proud to have been the first employee of Hall Brown. While I didn’t co-find Hall Brown, I was largely responsible for the physical setup of the office, not to mention the working practices, policies, the day to day running of the office and everything that this entails. I had previously worked with and got on very well with James Brown at my previous firm. He left in 2011 to go to another firm and then in 2016 I heard through the grapevine that he was setting up his own practice with another person. I contacted James and, after meeting him and Sam for a pizza lunch, the job was mine. It really was as simple as that. At that time, I was told that there would be about five people in total – not nearly 40!
Do you have any great stories from your time as a Legal PA so far?
On my very first day at the firm I worked in for 28 years, I (a) fell down the stairs and split my pencil skirt up to my knickers, (b) sent all my letters out without being checked and signed beforehand; and (c) set fire to my litter bin – those were the days when smoking was allowed in the office environment!
We represented a well-known musician who was ordered to provide a hair sample for drug and alcohol testing purposes. He arrived at the office with his head shaven. Needless to say, we had to take the sample from another part of his body – I threw the scissors away!
How did you find the interview process for the PA of the Year Awards?
I could not have felt more at ease during the interview process. I was extremely nervous at the start but within a couple of minutes felt like I was sat with my friends just having a cup of tea and a chat. It went so fast and I could not have wished for a more relaxed, friendly, engaging and encouraging interview. It was an utter delight.
Tell us about the night itself?
The venue was stunning. I have never been to The Ivy before and it surpassed all my expectations from the beautiful décor, the champagne reception and the goodie bag on the table to the food, drink and the engaging company. I had a wonderful evening from start to finish and felt like a superstar.
I don’t think I fully appreciated the gravity and high standard of nominees until the ceremony. I couldn’t believe that I had been shortlisted among them.
I was completely and utterly shocked when I won – I was made to feel so important, with everyone congratulating me, the photographer taking copious photos, the wonderful prizes and award and the assurance and examples I was given as to why I won. It was the classiest event I have ever attended and a night I will never forget.
How did your colleagues react to your win, and have you seen any lasting effects from what is a tough award to win?
I walked back in the office on the Friday to a standing ovation and round of applause from my colleagues. I will certainly be reminding both James and Sam of this when it comes to appraisal time.
What piece of advice would you give others for achieving success as a Legal PA or EA?
Learn as much as you can. If there is training on it, do it. You never know what this may lead to in the future, not matter how trivial you think it may be. It’s the small things that make the biggest difference.