Alumni profile - Fran Ridout
Professor Nigel Spencer from Queen Mary, two other co-collaborators from outside Queen Mary, and I got together to make a podcast about legal careers. The whole idea is about diversity and democratising knowledge about the industry. We want an individual who doesn’t have a family member or family friend in Law to have as many insights into the profession as someone who does. We have episodes on different topics which might interest our listeners.
(Law LLB, 2006)
Can you tell me a bit about your work with the Legal Advice Centre? What inspired you to do this?
I am currently Director of the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre (clinical legal education), a Senior Lecturer and Barrister. So it’s a job of three parts. It involves teaching two optional undergraduate Law modules and overseeing all of the work of the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre. We are a staff team of seven, a student team of around 350 each year, and we have a team of about 120 volunteer lawyers a year. So quite a lot of stakeholders to keep happy and make sure things are progressing!
After I graduated from Queen Mary, I went on to do my Bar Vocational Course (as it was then called) and then my pupillage and tenancy at a chambers called 15 New Bridge Street. As soon as I had qualified, I came back to Queen Mary which I had heard had a Legal Advice Centre, and asked if I could volunteer. It felt like the natural place to come to do some pro bono work. At that time they didn’t actually help clients with crime enquiries, so I suggested they start. For about five years, I was the only crime supervisor – we had around two crime appointments a month, and I came and supervised those. After a while, the job as Deputy Director of the Legal Advice Centre came up, and I was starting to become a little bit fed up with the Bar, and working in Legal Aid. It felt like a really natural thing to apply - so I did. After a few years, I became the Director, and the rest is history.
The Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre delivers free legal advice and community resource in two main ways. The first is the one that comes to mind when you first hear about the Legal Advice Centre, i.e. 1-2-1 client appointments. So members of the public contact the centre, their issue is triaged to see if we can assist them. If we can, they then have a 45 minute appointment with a student adviser, who then researches the problem, and drafts a letter of legal advice that is sent to the client two weeks later. We see approximately 350 clients a year, and the legal advice covers a really broad range of legal areas; family, employment and immigration law, right through to company law matters. We have some really specialist projects that are designed to help certain communities, rather than linking to certain areas of law. This includes our Black Justice Project for the black community, a project called SPITE which is all about assisting victims of image-based sexual abuse, and Pink Law, which is about helping the LGBT+ community with Family or Immigration Law matters.
I didn’t ever really want to be a lawyer, I wanted to do closing speeches to juries as a defence barrister, from about the age of 14. The rest, I had to do to get to that point!
The second stream of our work is our community outreach work, which is public legal education. This is about working with the community to help raise an awareness of their rights and responsibilities. It is also about recognising when they have a legal issue. For most people, they only engage with the law when it crops up in their lives. So we offer various different workshops, which are bespoke and designed by students. It’s really important that we are led by the community and what they need, so we design workshops from scratch based on the community group’s wishes. We go into secondary schools and lead workshops on image-based sexual abuse, we also visit prisons to work with prisoners who have lost their property when they’ve been moved around between prisons or the police have property illegally. We also go to primary schools and run workshops with nine and ten year olds on the protected characteristics in the Equality Act, through play.
Can you tell me a bit about the Re-imagine Law podcast?
Professor Nigel Spencer from Queen Mary, two other co-collaborators from outside Queen Mary, and I got together to make a podcast about legal careers. The whole idea is about diversity and democratising knowledge about the industry. We want an individual who doesn’t have a family member or family friend in Law to have as many insights into the profession as someone who does. We have episodes on different topics which might interest our listeners. Listeners tend to be sixth formers or university students but anyone is welcome to tune in and subscribe. We have episodes around skills, pathways into Law, different roles, and industry insights. They are short episodes, and we often have guests. We ask our listeners to send in questions for our guests on social media too, so we can shape how our episodes look. It has been a really fantastic initiative to be involved in and it’s really helped me, as much as any of our listeners, to realise how broad the legal profession is. There is a space for everybody with all kinds of skills and interests somewhere in the legal profession.
Why did you choose to study Law? Why at Queen Mary?
I didn’t ever really want to be a lawyer, I wanted to do closing speeches to juries as a defence barrister, from about the age of 14. The rest, I had to do to get to that point! Even as counsel, only a tiny percentage of your time is spent doing closing speeches to juries, but that was the initial vision! So I studied Law, made all my options revolve around Crime as best I could, and was very naively very focused around that.
In terms of Queen Mary, I’m from East London, I grew up in Newham and went to a Newham state school. I have really strong East End roots and location is an important part of my identity. So it felt really natural and organic to come to Queen Mary.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of your time as a student at Queen Mary?
One of the things that I still look back on and remember is from my criminology module. The academic running the module organised for ten students to go to HMP Wandsworth on a prison visit. It was the most incredible thing, to see all of the prison. There was someone training to be a Judge, who had to do a visit as part of their training, who was there as well. I think it was seeing prisoners and hearing the guards talking about how prisons are public buildings, and that everyone has a right to see them, that particularly struck me. One of the guards made the valuable point that a country should be judged on how we treat our prisoners - the least sexy part of society, the thing that is not popular to give money to. How we treat these vulnerable individuals who are literally being kept captive, that’s how you judge the integrity of a country. Some of these phrases and that ethos I still say to students now! I think that was probably a life-shaping moment. I think that was one of the reasons I was so keen to set up a project in prisons at the Legal Advice Centre. It’s a great two-way process, the students are learning just as much from being around the prisoners, as the prisoners are learning from them. That’s why these initiatives are so powerful, because everybody wins.
What’s the best thing about working at Queen Mary?
It was the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre that initially drew me back. This is a really unique job, I’m a teacher, but teaching people something they really want to learn, I’m a lawyer but without the pressure of a billing, I’m involved in running a ‘charity style’ organisation but without the financial risks that come with that. I have to pinch myself sometimes because I have the best of these three worlds.
I think the best thing about working at Queen Mary is positivity. There’s a really positive, atmosphere from all parts of the university. The students keeps us current, and challenge us to think about their needs, and the work is incredibly interesting. We have freedom in the Queen Mary Legal Advice Centre to think about the current issues in Law and how we can use our resources for good. From the Legal Advice Centre’s point of view, it’s really important that the university has a strong ethos towards public engagement. It’s not just a watermark, they genuinely want to be good neighbours in the community, and I think, knowing that exists at institutional level is really important. It means we’re not an add-on, we are genuinely there to do good. There’s a real belief from management that we have dual, evenly weighted, purpose; helping clients, and helping our students develop.
What advice would you give a student or recent graduate considering their career options?
Slow down, learn about who you are, and what motivates you. Think about what drives you, what inspires you, what gives you energy, what drains you of energy, and what is important to you. Try different things if you need to, to find those answers. Then shape your career from that. If you don’t know yourself, you’re not going to be able to work out how you can add value to others. If you’re not living your own ethos, and doing something that fundamentally sits comfortably with you, then you won’t be happy.
The second thing I would say is that sometimes things come up, and you change your career path, and that’s absolutely fine. Don’t go into everything thinking you have the pressure of having to stay in it for life. You might naturally do that, and that’s fab, but plenty of people change careers or change roles within a career so don’t put that pressure on yourself.
What motivates you in life?
I think there are two things; firstly I knew I didn’t want to do a desk job, as I love being around people. Secondly I want to leave a positive impact in what I do. I feel very privileged that I don’t feel motivated by money.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah Dormor. If you would like to get in touch with Fran or engage her in your work, please contact Hannah at email@example.com.