How one lawyer’s journey took her from Bristol to Botswana and back again
Ruth Lancaster’s first passion was foreign languages. She read French, Russian and German at university, paying a particular interest in culture and literature. Reading an account of the Nuremberg Trials, coupled with a love of detective fiction, eventually led Ruth to a career in the law.
She originally joined CMS, qualifying into the Insurance Team, where she stayed until she was drawn by the opportunity for a new adventure. We spoke to Ruth about the journey that followed.
What prompted the move to Botswana?
I had been at CMS for over eight years when my husband had the opportunity to do a 2-year secondment in Botswana. Stepping off the plane when we arrived was the first time that I had set foot in Africa.
I was there on a spousal visa and I had no legal rights of my own but I approached the three largest law firms in Gaborone and was asked to work with the senior partner of one of them. This meant that I set myself up as a consultant and, to do so, I needed be admitted as an attorney in Botswana. This did not require any re-training, just a lot of paperwork, which resulted in an appearance at the High Court in Lobatse and formal admission.
Whilst we enjoyed our time there, complications after the birth of my son led us to decide the time was right to move to be close to our family, so we came back to the UK.
You then moved to South Africa, could you tell us a little about that?
We had spent 2 years in the UK and, while I was pregnant with our second son, we were asked again if we would move to Johannesburg for a couple of years. This was totally outside our thinking, and we had some serious reservations but we decided to go for it, and had a mad rush as soon as our son was born to get him a passport and complete the visa process. We managed to get out to Johannesburg within 8 weeks of his birth. Again, the only way I could get a visa was on the back of being a spouse of a visa holder.
Moving to SA was the best decision we ever made. When we first got there, I did question quite why we were doing it (me at home with 2 young boys in a strange country was a daunting prospect) but, within weeks, we were meeting people and settling in to the city that we would come to love and where we would make so many good and deep friendships. 2 years turned into 4 and then into 6 and it was painful to leave our Jozi life behind, although we had no real choice as my husband’s job was ending. No work means no visa, and no right to stay!
You decided to return to law when you moved back to the UK, how did you go about finding a new role?
I looked online a lot and most of what I found was non-specific and did not give me any confidence that a law firm would look twice at a returner like me who had had 12 years out of the profession (and out of professional life in general). For that reason, I did not really think that going back into private practice was an option. Having said that, private practice was all I had known, even if it had been 12 years ago. I had loved my job then and I thought that there was a good chance I would love it again, if someone would give me the chance to try it.
I believe I first saw a link to the Reignite page through a Facebook post, and I clicked on it thinking that there was bound to be a catch with the organisation, as there was with so many others. Surely there wouldn’t be an opportunity for me?
But the criteria staring back at me were exactly me: a woman, a lawyer, a former city lawyer, a long career break. I sent a tentative email imagining a long and drawn out process but, within a couple of weeks, I had got an interview with RPC, and the rest is history!
There were a few challenges that I had to overcome in my readmission to the role (processing my name change, for example, and obtaining a South Africa Police Clearance Certificate – which, in turn required a trip to Lambeth to get fingerprinted, and sending various documents off to Pretoria without ever really knowing whether they had been received or would be dealt with). That was a small price to pay for the privilege of living in Johannesburg so long.
Why RPC, how have you found the transition, what are you enjoying about the role
As a firm, RPC has a similar feel and ethos to the CMS I left, so I felt that I recognised the place right from the start. It is a welcoming office with good work and quality people, and that is what I was looking for.
Of course, I have had the challenges that all return-to-workers have had, not least getting back to grips with the law, and coping with the massive technological developments since I left (no paper bundles these days!!). I am still learning on that front and I think I will always be. However what I have enjoyed is getting my teeth stuck into difficult legal concepts, re-learning how to apply those in a practical (and technological) way and learning new things every day. My philosophy is: if you get a chance to do something new, take it. The more I can learn, the better. The downside of that approach is that you open yourself up to your weaknesses (i.e. what you don’t know), but there will always be things that we don’t know, so I don’t think that should be an off-putting factor.
It has been hard juggling two boys (who have had me to themselves for 12 years) and family life with going back to work, but the ability to work from home and for 4 days a week has been invaluable. I don’t think I would be able to juggle all the plates without those arrangements, and I still pinch myself that the private practice that I left in 2009 is now prepared to offer those accommodations to their employees.
What advice would you give anyone else considering a return after time away from law?
Click on the link and investigate. Don’t let anxiety hold you back. If I had let worry or uncertainty control me, I would never have lived in Southern Africa for 8 years or have returned to a profession that I love. Stepping into the unknown is always a risk, but life would be so boring if we stuck to what always felt comfortable.