Head of Content, Sparqa Legal
Helen came to Balliol in 2000 to study Law, qualified as a barrister in 2004 and is now Head of Content at Sparqa Legal: a legal resource for SMEs which provides bespoke online contracts and answers to legal problems.
I came to Balliol in 2000 to study Law and followed the well-worn path to the Bar fresh from my finals. I qualified as a barrister in 2004 and spent the next 12 years practising commercial and property law. I appeared in courts all over the country, arguing everything from multi-million pound contractual disputes to the right for a food truck to pitch in a car park.
By 2016 I was ready for a big change, so I wound up my practice and took a job at a tech start-up, Sparqa Legal: a legal resource for SMEs which provides bespoke online contracts and answers to legal problems. My current role as Head of Content has certainly been dramatically different from self-employed practice, and the start-up environment in particular is an exciting one with lots of energy and mercifully few buzzwords.
What attracted you to a career in law?
I spent a week watching barristers in action at Teesside Crown Court when I was still at school. I learned two things: that I admired the expertise of the barristers in weaving the threads of their case together, and that criminal law was definitely not for me. Litigation was a big draw when I was starting out. I was interested in both the analytical side, weighing principles and evidence to advise clients, and the more creative side involved in presenting a persuasive argument. I find a similarly attractive balance between the technical and creative working in legal tech, with the added spice of being involved in a fast-developing market.
What did you enjoy most when studying Law at Oxford?
I surprised myself by enjoying the dustier corners of the subject! Give me some convoluted ancient property rights any time. Aside from getting to freely indulge my nerdier side, the whole university experience was great fun and an excellent place to try out new things. I went from being utterly unexceptional at sport in school to being remarkably mediocre at rowing in university, and loved every minute of the transformation.
What aspects of your law degree have proved to be the most useful in your career so far?
The skills to do proper legal research and digest lots of detailed information in a short time have been invaluable. A law degree requires you to get to grips with a whole area of law in a week and then debate it with the person who wrote the book. It’s pretty intense and involves remarkably similar skills to trial advocacy. More recently, I have found it to be a bonus when getting to grips with the raft of new concepts involved in software development from scratch and online publishing – something I had no experience of before coming to Sparqa Legal. The tech side is fascinating.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career to date?
I thought that actually leaving my practice would be hard, but that turned out to be the easy part.
Figuring out what to do outside of traditional practice was a significant challenge. It was so competitive to get to the bar and had taken a lot of energy and drive to build a practice. Even though I was sure I wanted a change, it was incredibly difficult to envisage what that might look like. I found recruitment consultancies were only really able to offer roles doing the same work I wanted to leave behind, just in a different office. Nothing that they suggested really felt like it would deliver the kind of wholesale change I was after. It was around this time that I flirted with the idea of applying to be the A-G of St Helena…
In the end, I ignored advice to make a list of abstract things to look for in a job (every employer claims to deliver work/life balance and a challenging role) and cast the net wide to see what caught my interest.
What advice would you give to someone considering changing their career path?
Talk to people about it! It’s tough trying to figure out a career change in your own head, and the big questions about what you really want can seem overwhelming without any actual examples of jobs to weigh your answers against. Finding others who have managed a career change and asking about their experiences can be really inspiring. People want to help – I found everyone I spoke to incredibly supportive and full of great ideas and insight. Even better, anyone who knows you are looking for a change is likely to think of you if they hear of a job going in the future.
Don’t worry if the thought of networking a cold room fills you with dread. It’s most effective talking to people you know already anyway – start with friends and former colleagues and work your way outwards; perhaps they know someone else who changed careers and would introduce you. Ask people how they got their breaks, what worked and what they would do differently – you never know what might inspire you.
Figuring out what to do outside of traditional practice was a significant challenge...Finding others who have managed a career change and asking about their experiences can be really inspiring