Friday, 22 August 2014

Silly Season

This week, Account Manager Adele Baxby takes over Clare's blog with a variety of eccentricities that's come off the press recently.

Although it’s easy to forget with the recent chilly spells, we are still in the throes of summer. And what does summer mean? 
Well, for many it means holidays and the promise of a quiet spell before September and the inevitable new-stationery-back-to-school time of year, making that final push before Christmas.
For the press this period means one thing - "silly season" – a time when the more off-the-wall, salacious or quite frankly wacky news stories get a little more column inches than normal. 
In the spirit of this, I thought I’d take my time at the helm of Clare’s blog to steer through the origins of silly season and celebrate the most ridiculous stories it has produced. 
It may seem like a modern phenomenon but did you know that the term "silly season" was coined in 1861? In 2012 the BBC reported on a university lecturer’s research into the origin of silly season – his findings being that the rise of these more frivolous stories also coincided with the newspaper tax being abolished. This meant the masses could afford to read the paper – and these silly sensations helped them to shift papers.   
It’s not just the UK which has a silly season either – the US calls it the (slightly less jolly-sounding) slow news season and our friends down under see their silly season coincide not just with their summer, but Christmas too. 
So far this summer we have seen the Ice Bucket Challenge take up more and more column inches, especially as an increasing number of celebrities get involved, challenging more famous faces to strip off, douse themselves in freezing cold water (while being filmed of course) and raise money for the ALS association. Even George Bush has got involved
We’ve also seen a monkey’s selfie garnering a lot of media attention - helped in part by the accompanying hilarious monkey close-up (The Guardian’s Tim Dowling noted the key elements of a silly season story include “an oversized picture of a cute or disabled animal; an amusing if implausible headline; a weasel-worded sentence that restates the headline in more cautious terms…”). Of course this story actually underlined an interesting legal issue around copyright

The Independent has a great round-up of some of the classic silly season stories, including:
When Benson the carp tragically passed away in 2009, the world’s media mourned his loss. The Times ran the story on the front page and papers across the world reported on the shady circumstances around his death.
In 2000 the Daily Mail ran a double page spread on crop circles – with a portion of the story using a Siamese cat as a credible source for the circles’ origins. 
And finally, a personal favourite, in 2005 The Sun reported that by joining up a star constellation, astronomers had found not just actor Richard Wilson’s face – but specifically, that of his One Foot in the Grave character Victor Meldrew
Some have mourned that silly season is getting less silly – of course when there is important news to report the papers aren’t going to favour a fortune-telling pooch – but as i editor Oliver Duff says, silly season can offer some light relief – which we could all do with in 2014. 
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed a slight deviation down the path of all things silly –‘tis the season after all. We promise normal service will resume next time, when Clare returns from her break!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Kelly Duke

Various members of the Kysen team will be taking over Clare’s blog during the summer period. This week, Account Manager Nick Croysdill finds out how planning a Barry Manilow-themed birthday party is all part of the job for new partner at Kent law firm Brachers, Kelly Duke...
Law firms are often challenged to demonstrate their commitment to equality of opportunity, with the number of female partners serving as a regular benchmark. Kent firm Brachers, believes neither sex nor background need be barriers to progress - just witness newly-promoted partner Kelly Duke who joined the firm as a trainee secretary 20 years ago and today heads up a practice team of eight.

So what spurred her on to commit to all the extra hours of unpaid study? “I’ve always had a very independent streak and as my colleagues keep reminding me, I’m basically a study geek. I came top of my year during GCSEs, went onto A Levels at college and could have gone on to university but didn’t want to put too much financial burden on my mum, as she was bringing up three of us on her own. As the eldest I really wanted to share some of the responsibilities.”

Kelly enrolled in a legal secretarial course and joined local firm Brachers in 1995. Why law and why Brachers? “I did A-Level Law at college so I suppose the interest was always there – I’ve always hated seeing people wronged, especially if they don’t feel they have their own voices, and the law is a key instrument in combating this. I’m a Kent girl through and through; my family have lived here for over 500 years -  my mum was an apple picker -  so I wanted a firm with established roots that is really committed to the region.”

A stint in the dispute resolution team was followed by a move into private client work. Kelly enrolled on a course for the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, qualified as a CILEx fellow in 2005, and soon began specialising in work for elderly and vulnerable clients. She advises her clients on a whole range of subjects from powers of attorney, wills and Court of Protection work to benefits, care charges and continuing care – and  everything in between.

“It’s such a rewarding area, and I have probably been heavily influenced by the relationship with my grandmother – we are extremely close. I’m passionate about championing the rights of the elderly and vulnerable, many of whom feel they have no right to complain.”

The experiences have been varied to say the least – from attending a hearing in the Court of Protection one day to planning a 50th birthday for an adult with learning disabilities the next. “She is a big Barry Manilow fan so we themed it around the 70’s crooner, with a cake and all. While I can’t quite admit that we were all swooning to Copacabana, it was a fun night and even the local MP was spotted cutting some shapes later on.”

So what are the challenges? “It can be very tough sometimes – I have had to break the news to one elderly gentleman that his wife had passed away the previous night. He had no family nearby and was obviously extremely upset.

“It’s not like other areas of law, where the work revolves around a single transaction, so it can be difficult to switch off due to the close relationships. Balancing work with all the additional study has been a challenge, but I’m very luck to have a supportive husband. The firm has also been very encouraging over the years.

“We also constantly have to challenge people’s expectations and perceptions of legal executives, as some may feel we don’t have the requisite skills. I’d always argue that the work legal executives do at Brachers is often more specialist than general practice work.  Perception is certainly a challenge within this market, but things are improving.

“Everyone here really cares about what they do – motivation within the team is never an issue. We’ve also forged close relationships with KCC, Age UK and other very worthy charities. I can honestly say I love what I do.”

With a female managing partner and over a quarter of its partnership made up of women, Brachers is exceeding some of its City peers in offering equality of opportunity - a smart business move.  

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Mark Landon

Mark Landon has been challenging my ideas about What Success Looks Like. As well as being London Managing Partner of multi-award-winning law firm Weightmans, and a market-leading employment lawyer with a very busy work portfolio, Mark is also Secretary of Changing Faces, the charity dedicated to "Challenging the way people face disfigurement and public attitudes towards it." 

When we spoke, he told me how his role in the charity's  new campaign aimed at challenging disfigurement in the workplace, entitled "What Success Looks Like", brings his experience as an employment lawyer nicely together with the insights he has gained through his work at Changing Faces into our society's pre-occupation with appearance and bizarre prejudices around facial disfigurement. I'll repeat here the video link to the Changing Faces' film short "Leo" which I have blogged about previously, as I don't want any of you to have missed it. This little video story illustrates far better than the written word the problem of how quick we all are to equate facial disfigurement with threat or evil.  And, for those of you who missed my previous post on this topic, it's clear this issue is not helped by the film industry at all, given their love of signifying villains by facial scars and the like (think Two-Face, Blofeld, The Joker, etc. See here for more).  This attitude has a particularly debilitating consequence in the employment context, hence Changing Faces' new initiative.

I ask Mark what the campaign is all about: "It's aimed at transforming everyone's confidence and expectations around disfigurement in the workplace.  It can be one of those issues that makes everyone feel awkward.  You know the scenario: you want to avoid staring at a new colleague with an unusual face, so you end up not making proper eye contact, the initial interaction is poor and very uneasy on both sides.  Everyone comes away feeling bad.  It's one of those situations that you'd just rather not face at all.  And you certainly don't want to talk about it.  But it's that silence, the taboo around it all, that makes it worse.

"It's worse still in a recruitment context, and again it's the unhelpful assumptions and anxiety that result from people being too afraid to communicate directly that compounds the issue.  Very few individuals, interviewers and employers are confident enough to talk about "the elephant in the room": candidates don't discuss their mark, scar or facial condition out of fear of jeopardising their chances ... and many ask why they should have to mention it.  Interviewers are fearful of asking the wrong thing or using inappropriate words or being accused of discrimination."

The statistics on the Changing Faces website make for uncomfortable reading: 43% of people said they'd decided not to apply for a job "because they believed their face wouldn't fit", compared to 4% of people who did not have unusual facial features.  22% had been told by an interviewer that they wouldn't get the job because of the way they looked.  46% said an interviewer seemed uncomfortable with the way they looked.  And 55% thought that their colleagues treated them differently.

"The Changing Faces campaign is all about opening up the conversation and encouraging people to talk openly," he explains.  "The big idea behind the campaign is that by demonstrating that success can and does look like in the workplace we can start to replace the fear of rejection, of causing offence and of being accused of discrimination, with confident dialogue, open-mindedness and fair decision-making."

Well I for one am certainly a believer in the power of conversation. You can find out more about the campaign here.

Law is such a small world isn't it? I blogged only a couple of weeks ago about our good friends at Serle Court breaking out in a sweat for Changing Faces, raising money for them in the Standard Chartered City Race. Chief Executive Nicola Sawford became a trustee of the charity a year or so ago.  I asked Mark if he has ever come across her.  "I interviewed her when she was recruited to the board of trustees!" he tells me.  I've worked closely with both Nicola and Mark for years, and now I find out they are connected to each other for reasons outside their work in law.  I think the world of both of them; two consummate professionals at the very top of their respective trees.  No wonder they sought each other out eventually   
You can look forward to some Guest Blogs from my Kysen colleagues over August as I will be taking a little break from it over the Summer.  I will be using the time to catch up on some business reading. 

I have a few books lined up already: Richard Susskind's Tomorrow's Lawyers of course, and a recommendation from Fay Gillott at 7 Bedford Row  "Oh Do Shut Up Dear" about how women's voices have been silenced in the public sphere throughout the history of Western culture. But I'm up for more suggestions! So do please let me know any particularly interesting or provocative reads.
What better way to wind down to my Summer break than a chilled Friday afternoon playing our "SuPR Powers!" game. Since my last blog post about it, we've invested a little in developing it as a physical asset. SuPR Powers! is a training game we have devised, to encourage an internal conversation about seeing "difficulty" as an opportunity to show off your skills, rather than as a cue to give up. Because the best PRs are the ones who always persevere and go the extra mile to get the very best possible result every time... the ones who see difficult situations and obstacles as opportunities to shine and show how good they are. If you think of super heroes in literature and film, they are all defined by adversity.  That's what creates the opportunity for them to bring out their special powers. After all, if the world had never been under threat, Clark Kent would never have gone into THAT phone box and put on THAT costume. 

Yes, we're setting the expectation very high at Kysen. But playing SuPR Powers! on our roof terrace in the sunshine on a late Friday afternoon, drink in hand, makes being SuPR Heroes fun too!