Day in the life... Nilema Bhakta-Jones

From barrister to general counsel to LawTech CEO, the diversity mentor and First 100 Years Champion of the Year shares a slice of her working life


It is 5am and the Uber taxi driver has just cancelled my ride to Heathrow Airport. He sends a nonsensical text. Nothing on the app helps and of course there is not one driver available at this hour. My flight to Prague is at 7.20am. I try local cab firms and there is at least a 20-minute wait. Can’t risk it; I am due to give a speech at the Innovative Legal Services Forum just after lunch local time. Announcing to my husband that I am taking the family car and that he will have to organise different transport for the school run, he groans about the kids kicking off. I make time to tweet my annoyance @uber.

I arrive in Prague, £70 poorer from parking fees but receive a warm welcome from my hosts. To my delight I catch up with Alex Hamilton from Radiant Law and Catherine Bamford from BamLegal (my compadres for the day). My talk follows on from Alex who has just lambasted the audience (of predominantly law firm partners) about how their business model is broken! I am presenting on innovation and creativity and invite the audience to adopt some techniques developed in other successful businesses. I cite Harvard’s Professor Hill’s work on creating and building a culture of innovation using ‘creative abrasion’. To solve some of the problems in the legal sector I advocate taking a diverse group from different strata in an organisation and adding external stimuli (eg experts or disrupters) to generate diverse ideas and a new way of working. For people to offer ideas that allow creative abrasion to occur, they need to feel both motivated and psychologically safe. Those conditions can only exist when the group is a community, where members feel bound by a mutual purpose and a collective goal, shared values, and real rules of engagement.


Advice to my younger self: Open your mind and seek out diverse people to enrich your life and perspective. Don’t compromise on your core values, listen to your heart, be kind to yourself and others. Take the chances that present themselves, network broadly and widely, and be open to continuous learning – not just in your chosen profession. Seek out a mentor, invest in your physical and mental health. Don’t be afraid to fail – many great lessons are learnt from failing and finding a path back from it. Don’t dwell on fear or self-doubt, it will hold you back. Do what makes your heart sing!


I am followed on stage by a partner from Taylor Wessing who dwells on my provocation and the example of the madness in our profession where partners still print and mark up emails by hand for secretaries. He ruefully informs the audience that he is such a partner!

Tuesday is the two-year anniversary of my mother’s tragic passing. I remind myself to do more to publicise the Courageous Leaders Event that I founded in her honour and in partnership with Plan International UK. We want to help women to find the courageous leader in themselves with a day of curated world-class speakers; all of whom volunteer their time for free. The entry fee is a donation, 100% of which goes to an education project run by Plan International UK to enable school girls in Zimbabwe to continue in their education. It seems like synchronicity when Simmons & Simmons’ senior partner, Colin Passmore, confirms that they will gift their auditorium to the event at no cost!

My diary is busy with client meetings. After presenting Alacrity’s solution to a well-known general counsel, our conversation drifts to the cultural chasm between in-house teams and external law firms. I observe that many of the issues that arise are due to time poverty, a lack of insight to the GC’s key pain points and pace of change in business. Time poverty as a theme arises with another client and my mentee. We discuss ‘addiction to work’ and where self-esteem and identify is so intertwined that busy professionals question their value outside of work.

"We want to help women to find the courageous leader in themselves with a day of curated world-class speakers; all of whom volunteer their time for free."

At Alacrity we are running hard to year-end. News just in – we have won a new client against established competitors; high fives all round! The new client has asked for some additional features to be built on the platform. We weigh up the use case, development time required and re-prioritise other tasks in engineering. I spend a couple of hours preparing a screencast video for a US-based client using my best BBC World Service voice. One of the advantages of being called to the Bar!

My phone is buzzing. Realise that my eight-year-old has Egyptian day for assembly after the school parents’ WhatsApp group goes nuts – 34 messages! My husband drops me a note; Maya does not want to wear her older sister’s Egyptian costume because everyone else has one from Amazon and she will be the odd one out! I am torn. I will not be home in time to see my girls before bed time. Do I head back and not attend an awards evening I committed to go to? It’s the First 100 years Inspirational Women’s Awards and I am listed amongst the finalists. I want to honour the winners, support First 100 Years and thank Dana Denis-Smith. A quick call and FaceTime with Maya, a negotiation and a promise to do her make-up in the morning.


The Courageous Leaders Event in March raised £109,010 to support 130 girls in Zimbabwe to continue their education.


To my delight, I meet GC friends Maaike, Jeremy, Ruth amongst other colleagues. The final award of the evening is for Champion of the Year. I smile at Dan Fitz standing next to me. He is bound to win it or Ray Berg, managing partner of Osborne Clarke, both legends! Elliot Moss from Mishcon de Reya steps up to the stage. Jeremy Barton and I are chatting about altruistic capital and whether you need wealth to be truly philanthropic. Elliot starts to describe the judging process and how hard it was to select a winner. He starts to read the winner’s resumé: ‘... the winner was general counsel at Ascential plc for 11 years...’ At this point, I am overwhelmed with emotion and disbelief. Familiar faces in front of the stage look back and part ways with smiles. I am not thinking logistics and rather than take the stairs stage left in a cool dignified way, I step up mid-stage with my backpack still on my shoulders. Elliot and I laugh, he jokes: ‘I cancelled our Skype call today!’ I nod ‘Yes, I know!’ The photographer takes a blurry picture of us both. My makeup has smudged, and I am quietly admonishing myself for not being dignified and collected. I give Dana a huge hug and thank her. I am still shell shocked when I get home. I receive over 26,000 views on LinkedIn and capitalise by publicising the Plan International UK work.

It’s the end of the week and I have a meeting with the managing partner of a global firm. We discuss the value of capturing regular feedback from GC clients and client sentiment. He sees the value of automating simple tasks and the efficiency gains of capturing client feedback systemically and in real time. Later, I negotiate a sponsor deal with conference organiser, and they have invited me to facilitate a session using a technique called the Samoan Circle. The day concludes with a management meeting and round-up on engineering, sales and marketing.

I review the long list of tasks I have to get through – deciding to leave those and my board report to the weekend. A glass of Pinot Noir awaits and Friday night is movie night with the family.


See the First 100 Years interview with Nilema at: first100years.org.uk/ontheroad-2/

First 100 Years is marking the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 with a digital museum of 100 videos telling the story of women in law. Resources from the touring exhibition are free to use in schools, libraries and universities: first100years.org.uk/resources/


Nilema Bhakta-Jones is CEO of Alacrity Law. She was called to the Bar in 1994, worked for the Government Legal Service, joined Simmons & Simmons then became General Counsel of Ascential plc. She founded the Courageous Leaders Event to empower women worldwide through a foundation set up in honour of her mother and funds go directly to an education project for young girls in Zimbabwe.

 

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Nilema Bhakta-Jones

Nilema Bhakta-Jones is CEO of Alacrity Law. She was called to the Bar in 1994, worked for the Government Legal Service, joined Simmons & Simmons then became General Counsel of Ascential plc. She founded the Courageous Leaders Event to empower women worldwide through a foundation set up in honour of her mother and funds go directly to an education project for young girls in Zimbabwe.