Donna Hart – The Woman behind the Business.
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Pip Andersen
Donna Hart is a family lawyer and Director/Shareholder at the prestigious Family Law Company; a long-standing business at the heart of Exeter’s community.
All but written off at school, her rise to the top of her law firm is yet another remarkable journey and proof of the power of positive intent and belief.
I caught up with Donna at the city’s Southgate Hotel where she spoke, with passion, about her commitment to supporting and mentoring those making their way in law and of overcoming her own struggles as a young, trainee lawyer.
On the Quest for Personal Improvement
I was born to teenage parents, so there was a real stigma around my birth and how I would progress. I remember when I first said that I wanted to study law, a lot of my tutors focused on the negatives, feeling that I wouldn’t succeed. That, thank goodness, only pushed me to work harder.
Family circumstance meant I didn’t go to University straight away, but an opportunity for students to go and live and work abroad came up and I headed to Denmark. I stayed with a family I’d never met before, I went to college there for a couple of months and then I went to work for the Danish Embassy. It was an incredible experience at a young age, that challenged me in all the right ways. I came home knowing I could go on to do anything and that I could definitely study law.
At the time, I felt that going to Uni wasn’t the best option, so I decided to study through CILEX (Chartered Institute of Legal Executives). This option meant I could get a job in a law firm and study in my spare time.
I believe that whatever your circumstances, personal improvement and growth is vital; but there are always options and alternative means to get there. You don’t have to have the degree. You don’t have to have the academic background. The most important aspect is having the belief and confidence to know you are worthy of growth.
On Embracing Change
The key to successful change is keeping people & your team informed and excited about the change. It’s also about trying to be ahead of the game with changes to the bigger picture. I do understand that change can be scary, but it’s important to remember that if a change is being suggested it’s for the good of the business.
It’s also about viewing things as positive and finding new ways of doing things. As a business, we tend not to focus on the negative, but look at what we can do to turn challenges into a positive where possible.
Mentoring is a part of my job that I love; encouragement, praise, reward, and communication is vital to the success of your team and ultimately your business.
I’m also looking at doing some mentoring for BEEP, which I’m very excited about and I’m a member of Inspiring the Future; working with young people who want to pursue a career in law.
I started my career as an office junior. I’ve worked every role within the law firm and I know all the challenges that each role faces. I’d like to feel that staff can come to me and openly discuss any area of concern; I certainly don’t feel that people see me as someone at the top whom they can’t approach.
On Seeking Advice
So I have quite a few mentors to whom I can turn. I work very closely with Rachel Buckley who’s another Director and Shareholder here at Family Law Company; she’s amazingly helpful & supportive and she’s a great friend too. We bounce off each other and have ideas that we work together on. Also, if one of us is having a down day and struggling, we’ll bring the other one up; it’s so important to know you have someone to turn to for advice.
On being prepared
For a lawyer, being prepared is a huge part of the job. I remember when I was training; I was so nervous going to court, afraid of making a mistake, of being called out. But actually, I realised quite quickly that nobody else knows your case as well as you do; you’re the one working with the clients & you know what it is that they want, better than anyone else. I remember on one occasion being in court with my supervisor; he was doing the hearing and I was sat behind learning. I just remember thinking, not that I could do better, but that I knew the case better than him because I was more prepared. I knew then, that as long as I was prepared, I could face anything. And I think it’s the same for every aspect of my life. Be as prepared as you can be. Always.
On Listening to Intuition
I think that in the early days I probably doubted my intuition because of a lack of confidence. But, as my confidence has grown, I’ve learned to always listen to my gut feeling; especially when it comes to hiring staff. On many occasions, Rachel and I have gone back to the Board to say that we want to hire a particular person and I’ve seen everyone looking at us as if to say what are they thinking? They’ve never worked in a law firm, they haven’t got the experience, but I’ve known from the minute I’ve met them, that they’ve been right. You can teach someone the legal side, but you cannot teach a good attitude. So for me, as soon as I meet somebody, if I get the right feeling about them, I’d employ them in a second.
The main problem we have with our team is delegation. I know that for me personally, when I’ve made a decision, I like to implement it very quickly; I find it difficult to hand something over and then not see it done. I’ve had to literally write myself notes to say; ’leave it’!
There’s nothing worse than giving somebody a role and then not letting them get on with. Let them know that it’s ok to make mistakes too; that’s why we have a rubber on the end of a pencil! Mistakes without consequences are the best type to make, but people will make mistakes and most mistakes can usually be fixed and learned from.
So it has been hard but I’ve seen the rewards. I think that the more you let them do, the more they’ll feel empowered. If your staff feel you’ve confidence in them, their confidence will naturally grow too.
On Wellbeing and Downtime
I’m a huge ambassador for wellbeing. Just over a year ago, I started a wellbeing club at work. There were a few of us with chronic illnesses and, as we all know, most chronic illnesses are exacerbated by stress. So we set up a group where people could meet every month and just talk because, whilst I’m very much of a positive mindset, there are times when you just want to have a good moan and then move on. It’s also a way of letting people know that they’re not alone.
We also let people work from home if that suits them. We have guest speakers in to talk about stress and about nutrition. We’ve held laughter yoga and creative classes. We also have a wellbeing newsletter and alternative treatment schemes. We are also a finish at 5 pm firm. It’s very rare that you’ll see anyone in the office at 5.10pm.
On Doing a Job You Love
I love my work! I always knew that I wanted to work in a field where I was helping people; when I found family law, I knew straight away that it was for me.
I feel like I’m truly doing something worthwhile and that’s the most important thing about job satisfaction; knowing it’s an authentic extension of who you are.
On Women in Business
The women that I work with, and certainly most women I know, are multi-taskers; they do numerous things, every day, without even thinking about it. Whether that’s working, managing childcare or looking after the home, they are just able to get things done and manage situations. They’re great organisers, compassionate and supportive of each other; especially in Exeter where there is such a community spirit.
I believe that the more women there are in business, the more likely we are to see a change in how businesses are run; women understand the pressures of today and how demanding family life is. I think that the way things will continue to improve is for those women who are already confident to step up and inspire those younger women who are lacking in confidence. Many women feel that they’re doing a lot of things poorly, but actually, it’s the opposite; they’re doing a lot of things really well.
We’re definitely learning to relax, to not worry so much and to go with the flow and that’s because our confidence is growing and we’re losing the perfectionist mentality.
And also, by our very nature, we’re communicators; we love to talk and that’s key to great business.
The only thing holding women back are themselves.