Posted in Interviews on 22 Aug 2017
Vikki Woodfine is Head of the Road Haulage & Logistics group at DWF and specialises in health and safety defence work and road transport law.
Vikki joined DWF in 2009 as an Assistant Solicitor, fast forward 8 years and she has achieved partnership and now is the North- West Head of Regulatory, Compliance & Investigations!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself Vikki
I am not sure that I fit the stereotype of a partner in a large commercial law firm. Some might describe me as loud or opinionated, I would argue for "spirited"! I made partner aged 32 after having my son and returning to work as a part-time, agile worker with flexible hours. I think that promotion is not only testament to DWF's progressive approach to its employees but also my ambition and the hard work that I put in. I joined DWF as an assistant solicitor in 2009 and within six years I achieved partnership, moved house, got married and had a baby boy. Fast forward another two years and I have been the North-West Head of Regulatory, Compliance & Investigations for 18 months and I have had a baby girl. I guess I have been busy, but anything less than that would be boring!
2. Why did you choose to pursue a career in law?
There was no other career for me, I have always been drawn to the law. Growing up, my career ambitions ranged from the police, the prison service, the Bar, a criminologist and becoming a solicitor. Clearly a common theme emerged, but all of it centred around crime rather than the law generally. Consequently, as a teenager I stalked mini-pupillages in Manchester based chambers and work experience in any solicitor's firm that would take me. I randomly begged my way into work experience at a small police station within Dyfed-Powys police force, which was so small that when the officers had to go out, they couldn't leave me in the station as you would expect for a 17 year old work experience kid, so I got a high-viz police jacket and got to go out in the fast response vehicles, an armed response car and on the beat. I'm not sure that would happen these days, but it was amazing! That wasn’t my only experience in the police. When at DWF I really wanted to see why my haulage clients' drivers were getting into trouble at police checkpoints so I managed to get to go out with Lancashire Motorway Police on the M6 "undercover" again in a police uniform, but not before having to draw up my own confidentiality agreement for the Chief Inspector for him to agree to me doing it.
I love the drama of criminal court and the criminal justice process. I get a kick out of helping clients and the pursuit of justice on their behalf. My career choice so far has lived up to everything that I hoped for from it.
3. Tell us about your role as Partner at DWF
I head DWF'S north-west Regulatory, Compliance & Investigations team which is made up of some of the most talented and passionate regulatory lawyers in the country. We defend some of the biggest health and safety cases in the country and my team are working on cases that include the Grenfell Tower fire, the Bosley Mill explosion and the Didcot power station collapse.
I am also the head of the Road Transport & Logistics sector group at DWF, which is a role that I have held for many years at the firm. Holding such a prominent role from such a junior level (I was a senior solicitor when I was given that position) is testament to DWF's meritocracy; they seek the right people for the right role, regardless of whether somebody is a partner or not. Working and promoting yourself through your sector specialism allows you to offer a much better quality service to clients. Clients prefer this as their lawyer walks in with a true depth of understanding of their sector as well as the Law.
My "day job" is a regulatory lawyer, but my specialisms are health and safety defence, care/safeguarding and road transport regulatory work. The latter is often mistaken for road traffic law, but in fact it centres around HGVs, bus and coach work and all that encompasses, be it operator licensing, tachograph offences or smuggling, and everything in between. I am known as "the Lorry Lawyer" via twitter and our targeted website for hauliers. I have plenty to say about the plight of hauliers in the modern world and have given numerous radio interviews and had national press coverage over the years.
I am hugely proud of my team and the practice area that I helped to develop at DWF. DWF is now listed within Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners as a specialist Road Regulatory firm. Before I joined the firm they didn’t offer that service, but fast forward 8 years, not only do we now offer it, but we have a recognised team of specialists acting for some of the biggest companies in the country in this area.
4. What do you enjoy most about your job?
I don’t even know where to start! I genuinely love my job! I think that passion is evident to my colleagues and my clients and consequently I like to think that I am a good person to work with, as enthusiasm is contagious. My team have been with me for a long time and working with them is the best part of my job. But I have a huge passion for my practice areas, variety is the spice of life and you certainly get that by the bucketload in regulatory law. If you take health and safety for example, to be able to successfully defend a client you have to understand the processes involved in their work inside out. So the fact that one day I am representing a manufacturer and I need to understand everything that there is to know about their CNC machine, the next day a scaffolder and I need to know everything about the specialist cuplok system scaffold that they were working on and the day after that a nursery school and I need to be fully appraised of OFTSED guidance and early years foundation stage statutory framework.
A major part of my job is crisis management, helping clients through one of the most difficult situations that they are likely to ever encounter. I am often instructed following a fatality in the workplace, and with that situation comes an intensive police investigation, employee trauma and media scrutiny. I enjoy being able to bring a calm head to that situation and helping clients navigate their way through the process from the initial crisis right the way through Coroner's Inquests and potentially up to (and beyond) the Crown Court. My job involves so much more than the law, as reputational risk is such a key issue these days, that often conservations with clients centre around this and commercial matters first, and the law second.
5. What’s the most challenging element of your job?
Without doubt, given the nature of some of the cases that I work on, my job can be emotionally challenging. I have worked on a number of child death cases and the level of trauma involved in those cases can affect even the toughest of lawyers. I think that I have developed a reputation for handling these types of cases due to the level of genuine empathy and sympathy I bring to those tragic situations, but that approach means that I cannot always leave work in the office.
6. Who or what has had the biggest influence on your professional career so far?
It might sound cliché but my children. Having them makes me see a bigger picture to life than just the Law. I work hard to make them proud (when they are old enough to understand) and also to be able to give them a great start in life. Aside from them, my clients. Many of my clients have been with me for a long time and have become friends as well as clients. Their trust in me has helped me to work on some fantastic cases and their loyalty to me has helped me progress in my career without doubt.
7. Have you faced any crossroads in your career so far and if so how did you manage that?
I would say the biggest crossroads that I faced was as a trainee facing qualification decisions. I trained at Hammonds (now Squire Patton Boggs) and there was no qualification role available in regulatory, but there were roles elsewhere in the firm open to me. Being faced with a decision whether to stay with the firm that I had loved working at, alongside colleagues that had become friends, on a good salary set against leaving to pursue my dream of working in the regulatory practice area was undoubtedly tough. Ultimately, I realised that you are in this career for a long time and settling for any old practice area was not something that I could do. This was all at the height of the recession, so my decision seemed even more bonkers as there were actually no jobs out there! But I took the leap and went to work for a firm in Chester, who were able to offer me a role in road transport defence. My background had been predominantly health and safety as a trainee, but I decided that this was a "foot in the door" to regulatory little realising that transport would become the very practice area that would help me secure a role in the best regulatory team in the country and go on to rise quickly through the ranks at DWF. I often recall this story to trainees who face the same dilemma and encourage them to follow their heart, as if your heart is in it, you can make a success of anything.
8. Do you have any advice for new trainees or paralegals beginning a career in law?
Tenacity is key! Keep going and keep pushing. If there is a department that you want to work in, push for it. If there is a case that you want to work on, pursue the file handler until they realise the value that you could bring. Showing passion, dedication and a willingness to help means that you quickly become indispensable. If you are placed into a department that isn’t your first choice, or even your second or third (!) don’t show that disappointment. Work hard wherever you are, as the partner in that team may well have influence over your future role and the last thing that you want to do is leave a negative impression. I have come to learn that the legal world is a small world, so make friends wherever you can.
9. What could you see yourself being or doing if you had not pursued a career in law?
It would be in the law, but in another form on the other side of the fence. I would be a police officer, and no doubt power crazy in that uniform!
10. Active holiday this summer or relaxing on the beach?
Relaxing on the beach is distant dream with a baby and a toddler in tow, but I dream back to those days!