Inspirational Woman: Carly Thorpe | Partner, Construction & Engineering Team, Walker Morris

Carly Thorpe

Carly is a specialist in construction and engineering law, known for advising clients on managing risks before, during and after construction projects, and in avoiding, resolving, and minimising the impact of construction related disputes.

She was named as a Next Generation Partner by Legal 500, who refer to her “exceptional ability to analyse the options available and find a way through difficult negotiations”.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role 

I am from Huddersfield, where I grew up on a council estate with my grandparents, and as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a lawyer. As a young girl, I spent a lot of time around solicitors due to my family situation and I always thought they were very intelligent, glamourous and the job seemed really exciting. From then, I went on to study Law with Spanish at the University of Sheffield before attending Law School in Birmingham, which is where I completed my training contract at (what is now) Gowling WLG.

I’m now a partner in the Construction & Engineering team at Walker Morris, where I’ve worked since 2015. My practice covers all areas of construction and engineering law, both non contentious project work and dispute avoidance and resolution. I have a particular focus on the energy and infrastructure sector and the contractor market.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not initially. Before I qualified my focus was purely on securing a training contract and I didn’t think beyond that. The process of securing a training contract was challenging. It was so competitive and while I was looking for a role, I had no certainty about where I would be working over the next few years.

I only really started to think about the trajectory of my career when I joined Walker Morris in 2015 as an Associate in the Construction & Engineering team. The firm has a really strong focus on professional development and planning my career became a priority, under the encouragement of the partners I worked for at the time. During my appraisals, we worked out a plan for how I would progress and in May of this year I was promoted to partner, with the help of my supportive team behind me.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Of course. As a mixed race, working class female, I felt like the odds were stacked against me from the outset. When I started out, I often felt like an outsider because I didn’t have any connections within the legal sector. It made me question myself and my ability to succeed in this field. It can be very difficult to pursue a career within the legal industry, especially when you don’t have connections to help secure training contracts.

When I was younger I was also actively discouraged by careers advisors from going down this path. One told me that I “don’t look like a lawyer” and I was treated differently because of my ethnicity, gender and accent.

One of the great things about Walker Morris is that there is no bias towards which university you attended and we all recognise the challenges in securing a training contract, appreciating that it can be more difficult for some than others. I am so glad that the industry is changing and there are now alternative routes to enter the profession. However, there is still a lack of information available to young people on how to access these routes, especially as nearly half of students say their school or college doesn’t even offer the option to study law as a GCSE or A-level. Because of my personal experiences I am passionate about ensuring Walker Morris can help support young people to pursue a career in law. One of our key focuses is working to ensure that we help improve social mobility and diversity in the industry, rather than just talking about it. One of the ways we have taken action is the implementation of RARE, a contextual recruitment system (CMS) which identifies the most disadvantaged candidates and those who have outperformed their schools by the greatest amounts. It levels the playing field for those from different backgrounds and we hope to see the shape of our next graduate intake change as a result.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

There are many things I would consider a big achievement, and often these come after I have forced myself to do something that I find really scary initially.

This year I would definitely say that securing my promotion to partner at eight years qualified at a top 200 law firm is up there – 18 year old Carly would have been pretty happy to think she’d be a partner by 34 years old!

Recently I also led a $134million claim to the Technology & Construction Court in London all the way to a five week trial. This was a high value, complex dispute and encompassed several new points in contract law.

On a personal level, navigating ten years of marriage and still having a great relationship with my husband is an achievement I’m proud of too. We’ve also set up a successful business together called New Yorkshire Emporium, that offers a range of hand crafted chilli sauces, spicy pickles, and nuts.

Having suffered mental health issues in my teens, navigating a successful career and home life is something that at one point I never thought I would be able to do so I’m proud of myself each day.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I think one of the hardest but most effective things is forcing myself to do things that scare me. So many times over the years I have doubted myself and felt like no one else believed in me either – I know we all have these feelings sometimes.  I will always try to put that to one side and do the scary thing anyway, even if I have to give myself a stern pep talk in the loo beforehand!

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had some great mentors throughout my career, who have encouraged me to believe in myself, acted as a sounding board, and given me the confidence to keep going. I am a passionate believer in both informal and formal mentoring and believe that teaching and mentoring junior lawyers should be an integral part of the day to day responsibilities of any partner.

I also believe that as lawyers we should be bringing that support into schools and engaging with careers advisors to ensure that people from all backgrounds know about all the alternative routes into the legal industry. It is so important that firms build diverse teams with input from those from a variety of backgrounds with different life experiences. At Walker Morris, we have been working to increase our reach into universities and schools to share information about law – partnering with Ahead Partnership to work with Bishop Young High School in Leeds to host workshops and Q&As, as well as running mock vacation schemes and Career Booster Weeks for the Universities of Leeds and Bradford.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

We need to change the assumption that only women take time off to raise a family. I believe that all parents should have the same parental leave entitlement, so that women are not negatively impacted by being forced to take a career break and men are not side-lined at home. At Walker Morris, we have recently introduced a new Family Leave Scheme, which aims to ensure that all colleagues, regardless of their gender, have the opportunity to take a significant break from work to focus on their new family. As a firm, we also recognise that we all have a role to play in breaking down societal gender norms and we hope that our new policy gives families the choice to share parental responsibilities. We are starting by providing new fathers and partners the right to take 10 weeks paid leave and we’re committed to increasing this to align with our maternity and adoption policies in the near future.

I also think that there needs to be greater transparency on pay so that women are not inadvertently accepting lower salaries than their male counterparts – this is something that should be spoken about more across all sectors, not just within law.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t worry what other people think about you, focus on how you feel about yourself. I love the Eleanor Roosevelt quote – “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. I spent so much time trying to “look like a lawyer” and it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I had to look and act a certain way, however now, I know that clients and colleagues value me as I am.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Currently I’m focussed on doing what I can to improve diversity in the legal profession, I am a Diversity Champion, an interviewer and assessor for Graduate Recruitment at Walker Morris and a mentor on the Stronger Together initiative – a collaboration of Leeds’ Big Six law firms, the Big Four accountancy firms and Leeds City Council. We’re working together to improve racial diversity & inclusion in the Leeds professional services industry. I’m hopeful that going forwards people who look and sound like me won’t face the same challenges I did.

I’m also focussed on continuing to progress my career at Walker Morris and continue the success of our award winning Construction & Engineering team.

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