David Owen is a ULaw graduate and currently holds the post of Deputy Head, Home Secretary’s Implementation Unit. He spoke to us about his experience in the Civil Service and how legal training has enhanced his opportunities to make a difference.
I chose law because, having been personally involved in a legal case, I realised how interesting it was and that my strengths (reasoning, facility with language, attention to detail and a dash of creativity) might be put to good effect without my weaker points holding me back. I chose ULaw because of its reputation and convenient campus locations.
Initially, I wanted to exploit my mathematical strengths in my career. I then became frustrated that purely technical solutions did not always get implemented effectively. To avoid being pigeon-holed as ‘just a numbers person’ I undertook an MBA. By chance I found a leadership role in the civil service which allowed me to combine analytical skills with my interest in public affairs and I greatly enjoyed grappling with complex but worthwhile issues of public policy.
When I was abruptly sacked and became involved in an (ultimately successful) four-year unfair dismissal claim, I needed to take a new direction. The experience revealed to me that I enjoyed, and had an aptitude for, law. I enrolled at The University of Law with a view to starting from the bottom in a new profession. The Employability Service did give me useful advice about applying for legal positions as a mature student, including on where to look, which type of organisations might fit my profile, what to cover in my CV, as well as interview tips. There were several lecturers who made classes entertaining and interesting.
Although shortlisted for a number of trainee positions after completing my legal practice course I did not land one before I had the opportunity to re-join the Civil Service. I consequently made use of my training in a role as Policy Lead for delivering the legislation on an independent UK tariff policy following Brexit. Now my main ambition is to make use of my combination of legal, analytical, management and policy skills, in order to make a difference on some of the toughest problems facing government.
My legal education was very important in helping me to re-enter the Civil Service with a job focused on legislation. Of course, the government has lawyers to provide legal advice, but having someone who understood both policy and the law was important to my remit. Once appointed, I was able to understand where there might be flexibility (from a legal perspective) that someone without my training would not have been able to do, and on a number of occasions think up legal solutions that the lawyers had not identified. I was also able to explain what the lawyers were saying to policy colleagues in a way they could engage with and defend the legal perspective to policy leads less familiar with how the law works. Had I not undertaken my training at The University of Law it is unlikely that I would have been appointed. When I moved to my current role, my legal training was a bonus because achievement of Home Office objectives is strongly influenced by the law.
I have now moved to be Deputy Head of the Home Secretary’s Implementation Unit at the Home Office. My team is currently focused on what it will take to cut crime. My legal knowledge is invaluable in this context, whether in understanding the criminal justice system, assessing the need for new legislation or being aware of the legal risks involved in policies and their implementation.
In my role, I draw a lot on skills that studying law helped me sharpen – for example, rational analysis and the ability to make and present a case, seeing things from both sides, using precise language, research skills, seeing links between apparently different concepts. I’ve not worked on legal cases since finishing as a Free Representation Unit volunteer. However, my work has, however, involved drafting primary, and a great deal of secondary, legislation including transposing EU law into UK law – mainly the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Act and associated secondary legislation. I am most proud of drawing together lessons from work to reduce hospital waiting times, delays in the criminal justice system and health risks in the workplace to develop an approach to tackling other public service objectives.
My previous role was as Assistant Director, Trade Policy for the Department for International Trade. Compared to my current role, the subject area is different (cutting crime rather than promoting international trade). In terms of using legal training, the focus is more on understanding the criminal justice system and looking at how the law can impact on what people experience in practice rather than the design of legislation.
My experience with the Free Representation Unit was excellent for direct experience of legal work including understanding the perspectives of clients and advocacy before a tribunal; both skills and experience acquired have been valuable in subsequent employment. I was also pleased to respond to an advertisement from Action for Children (formerly National Children’s Homes) to work as lead tenant. Direct understanding of the pressures on social work and the challenges facing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds has widened my perspective.
Furthermore, I persuaded the Constitution Unit to involve me in research on non-executive board members in Whitehall because of a personal interest in how ministers and civil service leaders can draw on external support. Unsurprisingly the privilege of interviewing ministers, non-executives and permanent secretaries has been very useful since my return to the civil service. I also helped Full Fact test their processes for ensuring that their fact-checking service was unbiased. Generally, I believe that the variety with which my voluntary work has added to my experience has helped in seeing things from different angles, making connections and anticipating more easily the reactions that different categories of people may have.
The Home Secretary’s Implementation Unit looks to apply learning on how to translate policy intentions into outcomes that make a difference to people. Focusing on some of the department’s highest priorities, it reviews regularly whether the right processes and capacity are in place and what the latest data tells us about whether the department is on track. It complements this with short projects designed to diagnose and unblock barriers to delivery. It is a departmental version of the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit, a flavour of whose work is described here.
Our project work can involve hearing from senior judges and legal professionals about a wide range of issues including how to make the law work as intended and whether it needs changing, the opportunities and threats presented by new technology, what works and what does not regarding interaction between the courts, the police and wider public services. My legal training has been very important in getting the best from these conversations.
I chose a non-conventional legal path as I had an opportunity to make use both of my legal training and my previous experience and (at my age) felt it best to take the bird in the hand rather than hold out for the more risky option of becoming a professional lawyer. The most important thing about ULaw’s training is that it provides a good understanding of the law and the opportunity to test and develop associated skills. This is complemented by lots of opportunities to hear experiences of those working in the law in practice and helpful career service.
If I could advise my eighteen-year-old self, I would probably say - be bolder and challenge yourself more – doing maths was the easy option for me and I enjoyed it, but if I’d dared more, I might have achieved more – possibly by finding my interest in law earlier.
If, like David, you are interested in enriching your career with a legal qualification, take a look at our postgraduate courses.