‘How I went from mum with no qualifications to owner of big law firm’ | Business News

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In an eight-part series every Tuesday, Money blog reporter Jess Sharp speaks to women who are bossing it in their respective fields – hearing their stories, struggles and advice for those who want to follow in their footsteps.

This week, she has spoken to Teresa Payne, the managing partner of law firm Parfitt Cresswell…

Teresa Payne’s route to success was far from traditional.

Now the owner of the successful Parfitt and Cresswell, with offices in London, Berkshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent, Teresa’s journey started in a small mining town in South Wales.

Growing up in a working class family, she left school at 16 with no qualifications, and “low expectations” for her future.

A few years later, in 1987, while in her early 20s, she gave birth to her son and got married.

It wasn’t until around six years later that she got the idea to train as a lawyer – an idea that came from her own divorce.

“It was because of the really poor experience with my solicitor that I started looking into how I could do it myself and that triggered my interest in law”, the 57-year-old said.

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‘The life-changing moment’

But, obviously, she faced the “big barrier” of having no qualifications.

For her, the answer came in 1996 when she found an access to law course.

“That was a real life change because it opened up the door of possibilities for me,” she said.

“When you leave school without any qualifications, and come from a more working class background, it’s very hard to be what you can’t see,” she added.

Eventually, she made it to Cardiff University, her young son in tow, and “pushed through” as a mature student. It was here she came up against another challenge…

Cardiff University Pic: iStock
Cardiff University Pic: iStock

‘You’d be better in hospitality’

After getting her degree, she was required to take another course – called the Legal Practice Course, and she sought help from her male tutor, who told her she was too old to take the next step.

Recalling the conversation, Teresa said she was told: “You’re a mature student, you’re older, you’re a single mum and you haven’t got much chance.

“Instead, he suggested that hospitality would be a good alternative and I would do well there.

“He said it in such a caring way. Now we would call it unconscious bias,” she said.

Undefeated and determined to stay on the path she wanted, Teresa eventually qualified as a lawyer in 2004.

Three years later, she had her own firm.

Read our previous Women in Business interviews

‘There was a major panic’

“I really wanted to do my own thing, sort of create my own world,” she said as she retold the story of how she came across Parfitt Cresswell in Fulham Broadway, discovered the managing partner was retiring and offered to buy the business from him.

She didn’t have a lot of money saved, so she borrowed from a “couple of lenders”.

“At the time, it was such a big deal because you are borrowing a substantial amount of money in a personal capacity. It became very tricky in the major economic downturn of 2008,” she said.

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“There was this major panic of ‘oh my goodness, what have I done’. When I look back, though, I’m glad I did it.”

When the financial crash hit, Parfitt Cresswell was more than 50% property focused and work “dried out practically overnight”, she said.

“It made me realise that actually work diversity was so important,” Teresa said, adding that she eventually expanded the company’s family law sector, and introduced private client work.

The challenges

One of the first challenges, in the early days of her career, was childcare, but Teresa said she was very lucky to have supportive and helpful parents.

“It is a tough balance, particularly when you’re running your own business because it’s not 9am to 5pm,” she said.

“For me, I would try to carve out time for us to have together. When I just couldn’t do that, my parents were there, so he has a tremendous relationship with them.”

Without support, she said childcare can be “prohibitive” for anyone working or studying.

In the later stages of her career, dealing with conflict became another obstacle.

She said “societal expectations” left women with a natural reaction to just “keep the peace” when an argument occurs, but that isn’t an option in business.

“I learnt early on that doesn’t work, because it flares up and then there is a tendency to let our emotions get in the way,” she said.

‘We are worthy to be there’ – Teresa’s top tips

One of Teresa’s top tips is to deal with any issues that come up head on and figuring out a way to move on.

“In some cases it is difficult to get past it, but in others you can and then you have actually set the bar for what is acceptable,” she said.

“We teach people how to treat us. So when you walk in a room, bring your presence, expect people to treat you well and don’t apologise for being there as if you are not worthy.

Practically, she said women who want to get into law should start by getting some work experience.

For those studying, she advised doing some pro bono work, saying she volunteered for Citizens Advice.

Not only does it look good to employers in terms of soft skills and understanding the business, but it helps people to work out if it is actually a profession they will enjoy.

Getting a mentor is also helpful, Teresa added – a “huge asset”.

Despite some preconceptions about lawyers, Teresa stressed that a person’s background doesn’t matter- as long as they “bring something to the table”.

“You may hit a wall in some places, there are many places that will welcome you. There will be people who want to help you get in and get qualified.”

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