It was an uncle, who was a criminal lawyer, and Ally McBeal which set ULaw Alumna Catherine Russell on her path into law. After completing her LPC with ULaw, and spending 15 years working in legal roles, she now runs a successful sustainable business team for a FTSE 100 company and ‘loves it’. We spoke with Catherine about her career with Vodafone, the initiatives she’s involved with and what skills are needed to succeed.
I didn’t originally plan to study law at university. I was enrolled to study Psychology with Physiology but decided at the last minute I was keen to get out and work, instead of studying a subject that needed a Master’s. I swapped to a BA (Hons) Business and Law which turned out to be an excellent decision.
I was inspired to practise law after spending time shadowing my uncle, a criminal lawyer, but initially wasn’t sure how or where. The most appealing workplace for me was within a company, not a courtroom, so I always felt I was headed in-house. When I was at ULaw I arranged for my company to send me to their HQ in Chicago to do the first year of my training contract with their legal team in-house. At the same time, Ally McBeal was on TV (does anyone remember that?) and I loved this idea of American lawyers. My colleagues in Chicago weren’t like those on the TV but that year was one of the best in my life.
I came home and spent a year at Ashurst to complete my training contract – another incredible year – where my focus moved to mergers and acquisitions, which I loved. However, the recession meant mergers and acquisitions dried up. My private practice morphed into more commercial work, which was fortuitous as I always wanted to go in-house.
Finally, I made it in-house at Vodafone. I loved the collegiate atmosphere and commercial outlook of a company legal team. But I was watching another area of the business super closely and trying to get involved in any way possible with the Vodafone Foundation and its work. Doing something purposeful is attractive to many lawyers and this is where my career has led. Almost six years ago an internal role heading up the sustainable business team came up. I pitched for it and was given it on the spot. It was a leap of faith on the part of the company, but my transferable skills, passion and knowledge of the business set me up to succeed.
As head of sustainable business I’m responsible for setting the strategy to bring Vodafone’s purpose to life, for maximising our social impact and minimising our environmental impact. We work across the company, ensuring everyone knows about the work we do, how they can get involved and why it’s important. It’s enormously challenging but is the best work I’ve ever done. It lights me up.
One of the initiatives I’m currently working on is everyone.connected, Vodafone UK’s campaign to help people access the connectivity, devices and skills they need to live life to the full. Our current goal is to connect one million people by the end of 2022. Digital exclusion is a major issue in the UK. Around 1.5 million households in the UK don’t have internet access, and around 12 million people lack the skills needed for everyday life.
There are three key initiatives within the everyone.connected campaign. There’s charities.connected, which offer charities working with digitally excluded people free sim cards, loaded with data, calls and texts for six months. For our Buy One Give One scheme we work with Trussell Trust, giving someone living in digital poverty free connectivity for up to a year for every Vodafone Together customer we have. Finally, the Great British Tech Appeal encourages the UK public to donate their old devices. Vodafone collect them for free, clear them, re-box, add six months connectivity and distribute them via Barnardo’s centres to reach young people and families in need. Since May 2021, we’ve provided free connectivity to more than 500,000 digitally excluded people. Most recently, we have helped Ukrainian refugees arriving into the UK stay connected through a partnership with the Refugee Council and committed 50,000 SIMs to connect those affected by homelessness.
We were ‘highly commended’ for our everyone.connected programme at the Better Society Awards and won ‘Partnership with a National Children’s Charity’ for our work with Barnardo’s. To be recognised for the work I currently do is immensely important to me. I love doing purposeful work that makes a difference to our communities, employees and planet. Seeing the impact we have across all of those is enormously rewarding and winning awards is the icing on the cake.
I’m also involved with Vodafone’s Digital Parenting magazine. I am a parent of teenagers and right in the eye of the storm with digital parenting. I believe this programme sits in the sweet spot of being impactful in an area we have a responsibility in. At Vodafone we provide access to tech and the internet, and therefore we have a duty to our customers and their families to keep them safe online. We work hard to create useful content, made available in multiple formats (from online articles and resources to a printed magazine and social campaigns) to help families have those tricky conversations about keeping safe online, while also making the most of the amazing opportunities available. It’s proven very useful to me. I’ve learned so much running this programme over the past five years or so, it’s enabled me to deal with situations at home and with my kids’ friends that I’d otherwise have no clue about.
My experience at ULaw gave me not only the technical knowledge but also the practical skills I needed to get a great start in my legal career and beyond. I recall the course content and delivery being interesting. I worked so hard because I was desperate to go to the US and this was dependent on my results. I remember driving up to London to get the first edition of The Times at midnight, and not finding my name for ages because it was in the distinction page; the best results I’ve ever achieved academically. This was down to a combination of my passion for the future and ULaw’s great teaching.
I would say the qualities and skills for success in my role are strategic development, project management, leadership, collaboration and resilience. You need a sense of responsibility and what that means to a big corporation, curiosity and a desire to catalyse change and improvement. Finally, you need great communication skills and the ability to take others on the journey with you.
Vodafone is fantastic for career breadth. My advice would be if you’re looking for a fast-paced environment with challenging, exciting work in a technology company, Vodafone is a good choice. There are many people in roles like mine, across different industries, who have moved across from the legal world. The skills we have as lawyers prime us well for impactful, company-wide transformation and purpose delivery and integration, as well providing the right level of rigour and governance to ensure integrity.
Have confidence and follow your passions and purpose. You’ll create some incredible opportunities that you’d never think possible. Believe in yourself and enjoy the journey.
If you’re considering a career in corporate law one of our Master of Law (LLM) courses could be the perfect way to enhance your knowledge of the legal world.