I was a mature student – now I’m a partner

Monica Kurnatowska went to university at the age of 28. She is now an employment partner at Baker & McKenzie. She featured in The Lawyer’s Hot 100 for 2013.

Monica Kurnatowska, Baker & McKenzie

You started off as a nurse – how did the transition to law come about?

That was straight after leaving school. I was working in Sheffield and I did it for about three years. Although I enjoyed it a lot, I found it quite stressful as a profession and decided it wasn’t for me, in terms of personality.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I got married, we moved and I went to work for the civil service for a while. I ended up in Inland Revenue and one part of that was looking at status disputes – employee or self-employed. I was thinking of dong a degree and that experience made me think a law degree might be interesting.

So that inspired me to go and do a law degree. I was 28. I applied to lots of firms and did City and regional placements. I got the interview with Baker & McKenzie and it was the one place where I felt really comfortable, somewhere where I could be authentic.

Looking back you wonder how you could have been so bold: you get more risk averse as you got older. It was a risk that I could afford to take and I naively thought I could do something else if it didn’t work out.

When did you know you’d made the right decision?

I really enjoyed the law degree and throughout I felt that I had made the right decision. I assumed I would enjoy practice and thought I could potentially look at being a legal academic – I just enjoyed it.

Did you face any issues regarding being a mature candidate?

At the time a number of firms said they wouldn’t take people over 30 on training contracts – that would now be illegal. The thing about a lot of firms is that you feel they’re very homogenous. I was from the Midlands and not from a particularly privileged background and starting law later on in my career.

Rightly or wrongly, that combination made me feel slightly uncomfortable – not the questions I was being asked, but just feeling self-conscious – and you do have to explain your career choices. One firm asked me if my husband would mind me working late. I was the prime age to be having children, I was married – but a lot of it was in my head. They asked different questions at Bakers, about my previous career and university and they made me think my background was an advantage and interesting and that, for example, my tax experience could be useful.

How did your experience differ from other trainees?

Once I was inside the firm it was broadly the same. Some trainees struggle to settle into the world of work – it can take a seat or two to realise they’re not students any more, whereas having previously worked I found it easier to get to grips with that.

I did disputes, corporate, employment and tax in my training contract. I hadn’t done employment law at university but what appealed to me about it was thought of non-contentious and contentious work so that attracted me to try the seat. It was absolutely the right decision – I enjoy the people side.

When did you make partner? What advice do you have about getting there?

In 2004. I was seven years qualified, which was the minimum then – it takes longer now. I was fortunate in being giving a lot of opportunities to progress within the department and developed number of client relationships that meant I was able to demonstrate the case for partnership.

I developed a reputation for being good with clients and kept in touch with them and naturally became first port of call for the next matter. In most cases I had contact with two or three people in organisations – it is about having several relationships. I think that is something all trainees and associates can do – though you need to test the water and environment of the firm. But keep in touch and have coffee with people, send them an email if you come across something of interest. Relationships are incredibly important, especially in employment law.