Meet the law firm CEO who never loses sight of the human story

Shirley Woolham, the chief executive of Minster Law, wants to ensure that victims of road accidents gain access to justice. She met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright

Shirley Woolham the CEO of Minster Law in Wakefield. 22nd November 2018.

EVERY time you hop into your car, you pray that you won’t encounter a driver who could ruin your life.

If something terrible happens, Shirley Woolham’s team at Minster Law could be on hand to ensure you gain justice.

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The personal injury specialists helped the former Essex Police special constable Reece Clarke, who was just 19 years old when he sustained life-long brain injuries in a work-related car accident in 2011. He was in the passenger seat of a police vehicle when it collided with a car that was being driven badly and at speed.

Shirley Woolham the CEO of Minster Law in Wakefield. 22nd November 2018.

The legal team at Minster Law secured interim payments for Reece, which enabled a rehabilitation programme to be put into place.

These payments allowed for adaptations to be completed at the family home, allowing Reece to regain some independence. Reece’s multi-million pound settlement was the largest sum ever secured by Minster Law.

The settlement has provided Reece with the access to the care, support and treatment he requires to live the rest of his life comfortably and semi-independently.

Ms Woolham, who took on the chief executive’s role at Minster Law last summer, believes stories like Reece’s show that there is no substitute for gaining swift access to informed legal advice. She never loses sight of the human story behind each case, regardless of the nature of the injuries.

She said: “Our people can pick up the phone to somebody who has just had an accident and wants to pick their kids up, after their car has been rear-end shunted. That is a very important role.”

She leads a firm of personal injury specialists who are facing upheavals in the legal landscape.

She added: “The Government will introduce a civil liability bill that will fundamentally change the way people who have accidents will get access to support to help manage their claims. It will impact the amount of damages and compensation they will get.

“For Minster it means that, for a lot of our cases, we will no longer get paid by the at-fault insurer for the work that we do.

“We have to find new ways of making sure that people can still get access to lawyers.”

Ms Woolham, who leads a 480-strong team at Wakefield-based Minster, is a real pioneer, although modesty makes her reluctant to acknowledge this fact. She was the first person in her family to go to university. She is now one of a tiny number of women who have risen to the top of the legal sector.

“People are the product of their environment and the connections that they make,” she said. “I was the first person in my family to do A levels. I went to a college in Horsforth and I met people who had different aspirations to me.”

She gained a place on a business studies degree course at Leeds Polytechnic which opened up a world of opportunities.

She added: “I thought a business degree would give me practical skills to get a job. I realised business was really about people. Every time I took a step away from home I learned and met new people.

“I didn’t really know what I planned to do afterwards, so I started applying for lots of roles. I was lucky enough to apply for the opportunity to take on a role with Ernest Smith, who was the owner of Green Flag National breakdown.

“Ernest said he wanted to give an opportunity to a couple of people who would come and join him and advise his business. He was a serial entrepreneur and he wanted to give people a break.

“The interview was fascinating. I had done research on why I was such an experienced strategist in business, without really knowing anything.

“The interview largely consisted of him wanting to know about me and my aspirations and dreams and my background. And I spent a lot of time talking about my mum and dad and my background. I got the role as did a friend of mine.

“His dad was a carpet fitter. My dad was a plumber. Ernest was keen to make sure that people got a break. I had an amazing year, working for a man who had set up an amazing business. That gave me a passion for staying close to people who want to drive businesses forward.”

After graduating, Ms Woolham spent almost two decades working at Green Flag and CPP, which gave her the chance to embrace new cultures.

She recalled: “I was given the opportunity to help CPP take its UK business model into other territories, and work with other territories to help them learn. Working in other cultures helped me understand that it’s really important to sway with the culture of the company before you try to change the company.

“It’s so important to find out the differences. If you don’t understand them, you won’t be able to try to create connections with people and ensure that the execution is done smoothly and effectively.”

She believes her sector must make access to services as easy as possible.

She added: “The answer is not to stick a digital portal in front of everyone, give them a pat on the head and tell them to go off and do it themselves.”

This commitment to personal service is reflected in the fact that Minster wants to hire more people in Wakefield, but, in common with many firms, it has struggled to find the right staff for some roles.

There are regular intakes for entry-level roles, for example in customer services, and for trainee legal advisers.

But Minster has had some challenges in recruiting people with the skills and experience to step straight into roles, particularly in professional service, IT and change management.

The company is planning to hold a recruitment open day in early December. Prospective employees can find out about available vacancies and meet the teams they may be seeking to work with.

Ms Woolham said: “I believe Minster can play a key role in giving opportunities to local people. Minster benefits from not having a partner model. I’m a big fan of the best person for the best role.

“Of the six people on the executive team, four are women. The two lawyers who sit around the table are both women.

“My goal is to make sure we grow our people base alongside technology.”