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Life in the public eye

Alumna Nicky Morgan believes lawyers have a great deal to contribute in public life. If proof were needed, look no further than her own career as an MP.

The Rt Hon Nicky Morgan is the Conservative MP for Loughborough. She entered parliament in 2010 and served as Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities until July 2016. She is also an A&O alumna, having been an associate in the Corporate team from 1998-2002. However, despite the business and pressures of life in government, she is still using lessons learned from her time at A&O.

Being a woman at the top in politics is a significant achievement. What's been your greatest challenge so far, looking particularly at women in politics?

The greatest challenge has been getting used to being in the public eye. The negative language used about women, the casual misogyny, the emphasis on what you look like, rather than what you say – that all takes some getting used to. We still live in a world where those covering politics tend to be male and they expect you to behave in a male way. That’s something this generation of female members of parliament is challenging – commentators need to realise women are not going to do that anymore.

Looking back, and plotting your journey, how did you find your time at A&O shaped your career?

I was always interested in politics. At Oxford I was treasurer of the Union and involved in the University Conservatives. At the back of my mind I knew I would pursue a legal career, but politics was always there in parallel. At A&O, I got on the Conservative Party-approved candidate list, so I was running two jobs, which was part of the reason for leaving.

However, my time at A&O was hugely influential. Negotiation skills, interpreting law, being able to process lots of complicated bits of information very quickly – I picked up all those skills at A&O. I always remember Jeremy Thomas commenting with his red pen on my drafting. Now I do it to others and realise how invaluable his guidance was. The other thing A&O taught me was resilience. You’re working at a top law firm, you’re working long hours; you have to be resilient. There are times when you’re thrown into the deep end, and that’s exactly what politics is like.

I think it’s important to add, as well, that I don’t think we take enough advantage in this country of lawyers in public life. I think lawyers have an enormous amount to contribute, both in terms of standing for public office and filling political appointments, and also in how they lead the rest of the country on policy. Taking the gender pay gap and flexible working as two examples, A&O is at the forefront of both these issues and I think they should not underestimate how influential they can be. If they set the tone positively, other employers will follow their lead.

So were you looking for a specific new opportunity when you moved from A&O?

I needed to make the decision as to whether I was going to carry on being a frontline lawyer, or whether I was going to take a step back and pursue my political ambitions. As you can tell, I went for the latter! While at A&O, I fought for Islington South in the General Election of 2001. That worked well as it was ten minutes from the office and there was no pressure on me to win the seat. However, I knew if I was going to go for a seat in the future which I stood a chance of winning, I needed more time than being a corporate lawyer would allow. With that in mind, in 2002 I moved to be a professional support lawyer (PSL) at Travers Smith where I stayed until I was elected in 2010.

What advice would you give anyone considering a career in politics?

My big piece of advice would be “Do something else first”. Having a professional career to fall back on and being experienced in other areas is essential. For example, when I was Treasury Minister, the fact that I’d worked in the City as a corporate lawyer was invaluable.

So what's at the top of your agenda at the moment?

When I was Secretary of State for Education, we published a white paper in March 2016 with the aim of continuing to build a really strong consistent education system across the country for every child. I want to continue to support the new team in providing that system. Then, like all MPs, I have local constituency issues which range from getting roads resurfaced to getting dog fouling signs put up in the local parks, to sorting out football grounds!

How do you manage to balance your personal and professional lives?

The honest truth is that when you have this kind of job, there is no balance. I have a fabulously supportive husband Jonathan who, when we moved full time to Loughborough, gave up his career as an architect to look after our son, now eight. Obviously it’s hugely important to try and carve out family time, which I do when I go home every week from Thursday to Monday, but being away from my family is the hardest thing about being an MP. The impact of a full-blown political career on those nearest and dearest to you is appreciated by those who think about it, but it’s generally highly underestimated.

As a working mother, what advice would you give someone returning to work after having had children?

I’d say it’s a hard thing to do and you need to recognise that. Be kind to yourself. Accept that things have changed and don’t be afraid to ask for the time, the understanding and the help you need to be able to juggle. As a country, we want women to be able to make the right choices for themselves and their families. We also want to make sure we’re not seeing great women lose out on the workplace because bosses cannot be flexible.

Having excelled in your political career, what are you proudest of?

Being re-elected with an increased majority in 2015 was a very proud moment, and there are many times when I’m doing constituency work that I feel as though I’ve made a real difference to someone’s life. However, I think that the ‘stand-out’ moment for me was in 2012 in Westminster when I led a cross-party debate on mental health. The debate became ground-breaking when members of parliament started talking about their own struggles with mental health. Hopefully that debate shifted the narrative around mental illness a bit, and showed to people in the country that those of us in Westminster care about problems associated with mental illness; I know poor mental health or lack of mental health care is at the heart of many cases for my constituents.

So what does the future hold?

Well, after two busy and challenging years as a Cabinet minister, I find myself on the backbenches. I have many local projects to work on, including a mental health group and the Loughborough Wellbeing Project, which I’ve helped to set up in my constituency. Having a diary with more blank space is a bit of a treat and, as well as spending more time with my family and finally being able to read all the books on my bedside table, I’m hoping to lead some research work on community cohesion issues, focus even more intensively on the role of character education and also work on the impact of Brexit on our equalities and discrimination laws. 

Reconnect with Nicky Morgan.

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