Jodie Hill is a Leeds-based lawyer, and founder of her own firm Thrive. Whilst that in itself is news (despite the number of women qualifying as lawyers outnumbering men, the senior roles are still predominantly male), she set up on her own before she even hit thirty.
We meet Jodie, a vocal campaigner for better mental health in the workplace, to talk about work, mental health, Leeds, and her journey into law.
“I wanted to be a lawyer from a young age,” Jodie tells me, but “being a law firm owner – no, I didn’t always want to do that!” she laughs. She flippantly states “I got it into my head that I wanted to be a barrister” (being a barrister is one of the most challenging career paths out there, with pupillage to obtain – wherein 3000 applicants vy for 400 places – even after completing your qualification), but Jodie set her mind to it, taking the bar in Leeds in 2009. “I then cross-qualified and became a solicitor in 2013”, she clarifies, “so I’m dual-qualified in the profession. I did my law degree at Leeds Beckett, where I now teach as well – which is nice; a bit strange to teach with your old teachers, but still!”
She has spent much of her career pursuing employment law, which she prizes for its universality – “[it] sort of affects everybody – everybody is either employed or employing someone, at least most people are,” she states, “and most of those rights interlink.”
After a six month spell off work herself after suffering from poor mental health, Jodie decided to create her own business; one that would work for her and support her mental health and the mental health of future employees. But why Leeds, I ask? “I was born in Leeds!” she erupts enthusiastically – “my family were in the army. I went to school in Cyprus, Germany, Catterick – all over the place. And then to boarding school in Pocklington just outside York, so not that far away. But Leeds is my ‘home’. I came back to Leeds for uni, and just never left. It’s been over ten years now!”
“I did get offered a pupillage to go and be a barrister in London,” Jodie reflects, “but there was something keeping me here. When all my family were moving around with the army we never really had a base, so when I moved to Leeds and settled and bought a house here, I was like, that’s me done now,” she says. ‘Leeds was the best choice for me – where my connections are, and what feels right.”
This past March, Jodie launched Thrive Women. A network of (and for) like-minded, entrepreneurial women who offer mutual support and advice, it is not only open to women in law but across other industries too. “I thought there was a bit of a gap in the market,” Jodie explains, “there are a lot of formal networking groups and a lot of sector-only networking groups, so what I wanted to create was a cross-sector networking group aimed at business owners in the region.” The idea, she explains, is to “connect, inspire, and empower women across these sectors – because I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
“The idea [with Thrive Women] is to connect, inspire, and empower women across these sectors - because I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
As previously mentioned, law is still dominated by middle- to upper-class, white men. “Only 16% of partners are women,” Jodie explains, “despite more than 50% qualifying as women at a junior level”. Jodie works on equality with Women in the Law UK, The Law Society, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, so is well aware of the “mass disparity between top and bottom – more women than men are coming in, but there are less at the top. There are a lot of reasons for that,” she concludes, “but part of it is this Old School view we still have, that ‘women can’t do this if they’ve got children’.” She represents women like this, so has first-hand experience of how women can suffer in oppressive, male-dominated legal spaces.
She is clear to point out that the failure is systemic – “the figures are indicative that this is not an isolated incident. It’s still a problem, across the whole of the UK, in all sizes of law firms.” But why? “It comes from a culture,” Jodie surmises. “There are still a lot of white, middle- to upper-class men running a lot of firms. So until those people retire I don’t think you’re going to see an awful lot of change. You can’t get cultural change if you still have those people at the top.”
Being a law firm owner who is both female and under thirty certainly makes her an outlier. “People will say ‘who do you work for’ and when I respond ‘I have my own firm’ they’ll say ‘do you?! Oh! Right!’” she laughs, rolling her eyes. “They just assume that I should be older, and probably a man.”
“For me it’s about trying to shift people’s mindset. Lawyers aren’t all boring, old, white and upper class. It’s about changing the way we look at the legal sector. There are a lot of young lawyers, a lot of female lawyers, and lawyers from the BAME community. And it’s about trying to highlight some of those people.”
The Thrive team practices what it preaches. Looking at their website, you can see a lot of female faces. “We have two men!” Jodie laughs. “It’s completely organic. We haven’t actively recruited any one of these individuals, they’ve all approached us. We have just been really clear about what our values are, what we stand for, and we’ve attracted people who align with that.” It seems Jodie is sidestepping the traditional hallmarks of problematic hiring. She has hired the right people for Thrive, “regardless of their gender, sexuality, religion, belief, colour, anything – for us it is about attracting a really diverse and inclusive group of people, and we appear to have succeeded with that, I think.” For someone so involved with employment law, it was clearly important to Jodie to prioritise equality in hiring in her own firm. Diversity and inclusion are “so important for us. It’s one of the key reasons I set Thrive up.” But most big firms will have policy these days to support equal hiring, I suggest? “A lot of firms say they do things, and they don’t actually do them – they maybe have a policy for it, procedures for it, even win awards for it, but when you look at what their people say, it can be very, very different.” Jodie was keen to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, with Thrive.
“I never wanted to be that employer where my staff didn’t believe what I believe, because actually, if you’ve got that disparity, what’s the point of doing it? It’s so hypocritical. Especially when you're talking about sensitive topics like inclusivity, and diversity.”
“If you’re being disingenuous with any of those issues it really damages your brand, and damages your culture. People talk! For me it was really important to practice what I preach, so we attracted the right people. So if they go out representing Thrive, they go out and represent in the way we’d expect them to, and stand for the values we stand for!”
Thrive is clearly a hub of activity, but there is no rigid stipulation on work hours, or presenteeism, here. Jodie has utilised what she calls a Smart Working system, to allow employees the freedom (and trust) to get their work done in the best way they see fit. “An example of smart working;” Jodie goes on – “one of my solicitors lives in london. She was London City trained. She saw me talking about my own mental health on the news, and applied for a job to work for me, but actually she still lives in London and travels up.” How does that work, I ask?
“She works from Leeds when she wants to, and works the hours she wants to, as long as she gets the work done. So for me, Smart Working is identifying what works for that individual. It’s asking ‘when are they most productive? Where are they most productive on that day, or that week?’ – and working around them. The majority of the time people are Smart Working; working from home, or working in the morning rather than the evening, etc. I know I work best in the morning, so I will get up at 5 or 6 o’clock and blast some hours out, before everyone gets in, and then I’ll probably finish a bit earlier – or try to.”
Outside work, Jodie loves playing sport, from netball and skiing to yoga and weight lifting. She also loves travel. “I am always planning my next trip, and try to get away every few months even if it’s only for a long weekend,” she says. You get the idea that Jodie is dedicating an awful lot of her time, and energies, into making her successful young business shine – but she understands from past experience the importance of giving herself the occasional break, needed in order to function at your best. I ask what she enjoys doing with her valuable downtime. “I love to walk my dog in the Yorkshire Dales,” she responds “ – near water so he can go for a swim! I love East Ardsley reservoir too – it’s a hidden gem for a lovely walk. Very quiet. I also love eating out and trying new restaurants – I am excited to try El Gato Negro next month.” Jodie’s perfect weekend? “A country walk and a pub lunch with friends and family”.
Jodie clearly places value on social life and time away from work as well as her successful company, even if it can be a hard balance to attain. She’s made sure to organise a system at Thrive in which her staff can put in their best efforts, in a way that suits them most. “The idea is, I know what I can do in that period of time, and I know where my productivity levels are. Same for the rest of the staff. Some of them prefer to work in an evening, so I’d say ‘that’s fine, come in later’.” There isn’t a fixed policy, here. “It’s built on trust. It’s not flexible working, or flexi-time – it is slightly different, it’s less formal, and is very much based on trust.”
Jodie has been keen to trial new staff initiatives at Thrive, such as a four day week last year. “That was an initiative that the staff wanted to run,” she explains, “to see if we could condense all their hours into 4 days rather than 5, over the summer.” True to form, Jodie used this as a learning opportunity too. “We did a full report; how I felt it went as an employer and how they felt as employees, considering productivity, and whether we want this implemented as a permanent measure.” And her insight is so often shared. “It’s on our website I think”, she confirms. “The report is basically advice for employers if they’re thinking of introducing it – because it’s actually not that scary. I think often employers put things off because they’re a bit scared of change and different ways of working.” Her methods are trial it, get feedback, discuss it. And she holds employee feedback in high regard. “I’d say trial it out, do it for a month, and get feedback from everybody. It might not actually be something beneficial to the employees, so why bring it in if they aren’t going to use it?”
“If you communicate with your staff around any issues and initiatives, rather than just instigating them, you’ll find out what they really want. To me that’s common sense - but so many employers just put things in place without asking staff, and then wonder why people don’t use it, or their productivity and engagement haven’t increased - and they are like ‘I don’t know why that's happened, we have all these lovely things’ - but the staff don’t know about it, or use it.”
Jodie spent 6 months off work when she had to resign due to poor mental health. That’s part of the reasoning behind her campaign for better mental health support for employees in the workplace. As both an employee who has taken time off work and now an employer, she is well-placed to see both sides of the coin. “I think with mental health, it’s more about prevention”, she begins. “Once you get to a point like I did in my situation – I had a breakdown and had to leave my job – it’s really hard to come out of it. Especially where you have workplace triggers and you’re going back into an environment that causes you anxiety.”
And workplaces are so often stressful environments, made more so by a culture of burying our heads in the sand at any hints of mental illness. “For me, it’s about identifying those problems much earlier on. That’s why I started the campaign to effectively force employers to carry out mental health risk assessments.” Currently, you must implement stress assessments under HSE guidance, but Jodie is suggesting a “more holistic approach”. Currently, an employee is protected by the Equality Act – but only if they have previously divulged their mental health situation to an employer. In so many working environments this sort of conversation is a complete no-go – and that means the employee faces a situation where they have no legal support on their side, in the face of the impact of poor mental health affecting their work. “If you’re in a declining situation,” Jodie affirms, “you aren’t going to go to your employer and ask for help, unless you know they’re really open and supportive – and 90% of employers aren’t.” Jodie’s campaign for mental health risk assessments would “force the conversation early on, putting an obligation on employers to ask those questions and create a more supportive environment. You might as an employer be able to identify if someone has a mental health problem or are going down that road, and you can put adjustments in place and support them, early on. And it benefits the employer too,” she stresses, “because it means the employee doesn’t go off, and they’ll probably be more productive if you put adjustments in place – it’s a win win for everybody.”
But would employees be protected, I ask, if they disclose a propensity to suffer from mental health issues early on? From a legal position it’s cut-and-dried, Jodie insists. “Most mental health conditions are covered under the Equality Act as a disability,” she explains, “so what that means is that you’re protected from any detriment. You can’t be dismissed, and if someone refused to make reasonable adjustments, for example if you needed to change your hours and they refused to let you do that, that’s an act of discrimination. You’re protected in that sense,” she continues, “as long as your employer has knowledge. There’s a requirement, for that protection to exist, that the employer knows [about your mental health issues].”
At Thrive, the policy of being open comes from the top. “If I have therapy or am having a bad day, or with Smart Working I’m working from home, I communicate why I’m doing that, so [my employees] can see it’s ok to do.”
Thrive is a perfect example of how mental health issues needn’t hold you back in terms of professional success. I ask Jodie if she has any advice to give, both to those considering law and those looking to start their own business in Leeds? “Going into law, I would say just be really mindful that you need loads of work experience, and try to get that early on whilst you’re at university,” she states. “The more equipped you are when you’re going for those applications, the better.” She also advises garnering practical experience. “Get involved with pro bono advice and law clinics, and see if your uni has a module where you can do work placements.”
On setting up a business in Leeds, Jodie’s advice is to “surround yourself with good people who can guide you where you’re not strong, and look for funding.” She explains that she “did a three year plan, and went out and sought funding.” Leeds, it seems, has plenty of funding opportunities, if you know where to look. “I got a grant and a loan to help me set up,” Jodie explains. “I set up with no investors, I’m the only partner, the only shareholder, the only director, and I’d just had 6 months off work, so I had no money!” But if that sounds easy, she immediately counters with “equally, a lot of planning went in, and it’s about having the right support network around you.” Jodie sought help from an FD on grant applications and forecasting, as well as help in marketing and creating her brand. She knows where her various strengths lie, and isn’t scared to get people in to help her where she isn’t as strong, or has little experience.
“Don’t just go in and do it without checking what funding is available,” she advises – “you can get 50% of your website cost funded, and that kind of thing. There are lots of different things you can tap into and I don’t think a lot of people know that when they set a business up.”
And for anyone suffering from mental ill health and struggling with their employment situation, she suggests IAPT and Leeds Mind, who offer free support where you’re still in work. There’s a job retention helpline, and they will even come to meetings with you. They’re there to support you. “I support those charities for free”, Jodie explains, “so you get free legal advice from me if you go via those charities.” And if you’re off work and don’t think you can go back? She stresses the importance of getting closure. “It’s best to sort out some sort of settlement to get out of the place of work,” she advises, “even if that just looks like a reference, so you have the peace of mind that you can move on when you’re ready to. I’m not saying go and take them for loads of money, it might just be that for personal reasons you can’t go back. It just provides closure,” she underlines, “and that’s really important when you have mental health problems; you don’t want that procrastination and uncertainty moving forward. You get to a point where the relationships have just broken down and you don’t want to go back. If you get to that point then try to work a solution, there are resources available – go via one of those charities and we can help through that process, and make it as pain-free as possible, given the circumstances.”