How does it feel to look into your client’s eyes and know they might die if you fail them?
Nikki Alderson can answer this question. As a young lawyer, she encountered death row inmates in Jamaica. As a barrister based in Bradford, she had visited many of Yorkshire’s prisons, including Armley, Wakefield and Doncaster, but conditions at St Catherine Adult Correctional Facility in Spanish Town were something beyond her experience.
Ms Alderson had volunteered to do free legal work on the Caribbean island after a request from the Bar Human Rights Committee. The experience reinforced her passionate opposition to the death penalty. Death row prisoners were kept in a separate area, often in dark cells, infested with maggots and cockroaches.
In early 2004, when Ms Alderson carried out the grim task of providing support to men on death row, the death penalty in Jamaica was mandatory on conviction for treason or capital murder.
She recalled: “I found the work so compelling that I self-funded two trips, and was successful in my application to do another, and raised money from the North Eastern Circuit to complete my final piece of work out there.
“Witnessing at first hand a capital murder trial which resulted in the wrongful conviction of two men, taught me to be proud of the UK criminal justice system and the standards of advocacy and trial preparation here. It taught me that human rights abuses are happening, day in day out, all over the world.”
“I also learned the benefits of developing a ‘rhino hide’ to deal with the inevitable emotions that are stirred up by seeing both the trial process, and human rights abuses. I guess I learned a lot about myself too – about my determination and commitment to the role in an often challenging and hostile environment, and my resourcefulness at being able to raise funds to re-visit and continue the assistance I was giving on the same case.
“Most of all, persistence pays off: after 18 months, the defendants in the case I was involved with were released from death row having had their convictions quashed, and unusually in Jamaica, they did not face a retrial due to the paucity of evidence.”
When she returned to the UK, Ms Alderson carved out a successful career as a rape and serious sexual offences prosecution specialist. But she reached a point where she needed a new direction.
She said: “The daily diet of sex trials created within me a conflict as to the value of my UK practice.
“It was at this career crossroads that I first experienced coaching. I was able to work with more vigour.”
She set up her own business coaching enterprise because she wanted to use her experiences to help others achieve their potential.
She added: “Between 2010 and 2012, while still working full time, I trained to become a corporate and executive coach with the Coaching Academy and a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner.
“I saw a coaching business as a credible alternative to life at the bar, which by then, had become not just a very pressurised and a negative working environment, but also my case loads were downright depressing.
“When I specialised in coaching for female lawyers, I was fielding lots of enquiries from women in the legal profession, who were sharing many of the similar pressures and challenges I had experienced. I also gave a lot of thought to my own goals; both professionally and personally”
“I realised that I was at a ‘now or never’ moment with my business,’’ she said. “If I went back to the bar I would have to do so with passion and commitment, on a full-time basis.
“I made an informed choice about being my own boss, so I could dictate my own hours and the shape of the working day. And so, in August 2017, Nikki Alderson Coaching was launched.”
Her business provides coaching for female lawyers to help them achieve their ambitions. She also works with law firms and barristers’ chambers to help them retain talented female lawyers. Coaching leads to a more engaged and productive workforce.
Ms Alderson added: “I’ve gained a great insight into the responsibilities, pressures and ‘expected’ career paths of women in law. I can use this experience to empathise with clients.”
Some of her clients are concerned about the lack of a meaningful work-life balance They may also struggle with confidence after returning to work following a career break. Her experience of setting up her own business taught her that calculated gambles often pay off.
Ms Alderson said: “I have learned how important it is to start before you feel ready. It sometimes takes a leap of faith to learn how to open the parachute on the way down. The stats on the poor retention rates of talented women within the legal profession are well documented.”
At entry level, about half the lawyers are women. This falls to 29 per cent at partner level. Incredibly, just 19 per cent of equity partners are women.
Behind these figures are terrible stories of wasted human potential. Too many gifted female lawyers fall by the wayside, when they should be given the chance to flourish.
Ms Alderson said: “I feel passionate about redressing this balance.”
She is supporting the regional launch of a group which promotes gender equality in the legal profession. Women in the Law UK, a not-for-profit networking and lobbying group with more than 700 members, is holding its first event in Leeds this week
She said: “By working collaboratively with Women in the Law UK, I would hope to raise awareness of these challenges within the legal community in Yorkshire and offer a credible method of empowering women to succeed within the law.”
She has never forgotten her experiences in the chaotic, maggot infested death row cells in Jamaica all those years ago.
She said: “If it weren’t for that time in Jamaica, and without the career crossroads moment on my return, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.
“For that, I am eternally grateful.”