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14th Aug 2019 in Business

‘There’s no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs’ says Belfast solicitor

Work life balance is an over-used term, as is the cliché about companies being focused on people and caring for clients. But for Dorcas Crawford they are touchstones in her work as Senior Partner with Cathedral Quarter based solicitors Edwards & Company.

As is an ethos of hard work that has seen her rise from when she was an apprentice at the firm

Press Eye – Belfast – Northern Ireland – 17th June 2015 – Picture by Kelvin Boyes

, fresh out of university.

After graduating in 1987 she initially applied for the Bar Course to be a barrister. She said: “There were 20 places on the bar course and I was 21st on the list, so I didn’t get in and you couldn’t apply for another year.”

Dorcas wrote to local law firms and was offered a paralegal position with Edwards & Company. “I joined in 1987 and loved it from the start,” said Dorcas, “the client interaction, which is what you miss at the bar, became the thing that appealed to me most. 

“I soon realised that helping to solve people’s problems was what I wanted to do, so at the next year’s round, that’s what I applied for.”

“There’s no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs,” Dorcas said of her time at Queens University, but it was partly a family influence and a TV show that led her to law.

Although her mother had been a legal secretary before she was born, Dorcas was inspired by Paper Chase, a 1970s American TV series, to choose a career in law. 

Dorcas stayed with Edwards & Company for her apprenticeship, and qualified as a solicitor in 1990, specialising in personal injury litigation, acting for unions, and cutting her teeth on cases of hearing loss, asbestosis and vibration white finger. “On a Friday afternoon, when businesses used to close early, our waiting room would be jammed because the Shipyard finished at lunchtime. I loved the work and there were some great characters.

“Many of them reminded me of my grandad when I was growing up, so I had an affinity with them.”

In 1995, Dorcas became a partner in Edwards & Company and her caseload broadened to include Judicial Reviews and professional conduct cases for bodies such as the Nursing Midwifery Council and the NI Social Care Council and representing large numbers of clients in several public enquiries.

In 2005, Dorcas took over as Senior Partner and also embarked on one of the biggest cases of her career. She said, “I was acting for the Police Federation, representing 5,000 serving and retired police officers who were seeking compensation for trauma they faced during The Troubles in the 1980s and 1990s. 

“The case, which was at the time the longest civil case in Northern Ireland, was a harrowing litigation process for my clients, who after telling their stories and facing cross examination were put under immense stress when they were already suffering from PTSD.

“It was the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. Intellectually and professionally it was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and it was really hard work.”

In a quirk of the law, although they won the case on the issues theoretically, none of the individuals received any compensation.

In the aftermath of this litigation, after working long hours tirelessly for months, Dorcas said: “I was disillusioned, not just with the outcome, but the process too. The litigation was a horrible experience for people who were already suffering. 

“The whole system of examination, and cross examination, it’s unkind, it’s vicious. There was no recognition of their suffering, no apology or compensation for their distress.

“I had entered the profession to solve people’s problems and that process was no way to do that. I felt we’d made their problems worse.”

During the case, a retired senior judge from England became involved to attempt mediation between the two parties that impressed Dorcas.

She embarked on training and qualified as a mediator in 2008, and set about raising the profile of the process in Northern Ireland to try to change the way things were done.

“I engaged with many of our senior judges in Northern Ireland to encourage them to promote the process, and gradually mediation began to take off hereas judges were driving it and more lawyers were embracing it.”

Dorcas was back doing what she loved best; interacting with people. She said: “I really loved the process of active mediation and empowering people to solve their own problems.  

“It’s so different from the litigation process, just listening to people and finding new ways to look at a situation. It really works.”

In 2015, Dorcas trained in workplace mediation, working with senior management, team directors, and boards, listening to their issues and helping them find a resolution without having to resort to litigation. “I built a model and launched ‘The Better Way’ service within Edwards & Company.

“It’s a service to prevent, diagnose, and resolve disputes through education, facilitation, and mediation, which has proved successful with our clients.”

After being with Edwards & Company for over 30 years, Dorcas believes they were ahead of their time in creating a happy, supportive culture in the workplace. “From the start of my time here, it’s been a great place to work,” said Dorcas, “and even through the changes with people retiring and joining over the years we’ve maintained that happy culture.

“As an apprentice, I could go in a senior partner’s office and ask for help with something, and we still have that ‘open door’ policy for all staff.

“Now, people call it staff engagement, but we just strived to have a happy, supportive place to work.”

Throughout her twenties, Dorcas worked hard putting in long hours to achieve her position as Senior Partner, however after her first child was born she had to rethink her work schedule. Dorcas remembers: “One Saturday, I had a piece of work I had to get done. My oldest daughter, Niamh, was around 10-months-old and wouldn’t go down for her nap.

“I heard myself saying ‘Go to sleep, I have work to do’ and then realised I had to rethink things.”

It was the trigger Dorcas needed to reassess her work/life balance to ensure both sides got the best of her. 

Dorcas is a firm believer that achieving that balance is important for the staff at Edwards & Company too, as if their children are happy, then they are too. 

Dorcas said: “I worked really hard in my 20s and early 30’s, so by the time I had children I was a partner, which gave me greater flexibility to attend those all-important events. I never missed a school play or a sports day, which was important to me.”

Promoting that culture is something Dorcas is passionate about, so staff members look forward to coming to work especially as they spend such a large amount of their waking time in the office. Edwards & Company has a reputation for being a fun place to work and one that cares about people’s partners and children too and takes an interest in what’s happening in their lives. 

“It’s possible to maintain work output at a quality level and guarantee good service to the clients,” said Dorcas, “while keep a sense of humour, and creating a happy culture.

“It actually makes people more productive, which is something I spoke about in my TED X talk.”

While some law firms faltered in times of recession, it’s the forward-thinking attitude within Edwards & Company which has allowed them to not only ride out economic downturns, but to thrive in them. 

The company has always promoted a social consciousness amongst their staff, being consistent with who they are and what their values are, and rather than turn to traditional team building exercises, they decided to take on activities to support good causes. Dorcas explained: “We try to engage everybody. It doesn’t work all the time, but most people do get involved.

“A couple years ago, about eight of the fitter people did a half marathon in London to raise money for bowel cancer. 

“We couldn’t take everyone to London, so we gave each runner a buddy who was their fundraiser. It meant that everybody really engaged, and of course in a law firm you get a bit of competition as well, so it was brilliant.”

It’s no surprise then that these activities led them into the charity sector, and they recruited a specialist partner in 2011 to service their client’s needs. This department has now grown and recently taken on a second full time senior charity lawyer. 

Edwards & Company relocated to Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter in 1994. Dorcas said: “We were in Victoria Street, opposite the Old Town Building. At that time, there was a bomb scare almost every day, aimed at disrupting court business. 

“You would have just settled down to your desk and you’d have to leave. On the night of the office Christmas party in 1993, the office was hit, sustaining considerable damage and the partners at the time decided it was time to relocate.

“They bought an old furniture warehouse and converted it into offices, and we became one of only a handful of businesses in the Cathedral Quarter. On the day we opened our doors, the first ceasefire was announced.

“We were welcomed with champagne from a neighbouring bar, a tradition we have kept up with new neighbours, recently sending a celebratory bottle to new solicitors who moved into the area.”

Dorcas and the team witnessed the Cathedral Quarter grow around them, getting to know new neighbours as they arrived. “It’s a real village community,” said Dorcas, and I get such a buzz from seeing the rise in tourists to the area.”

However, it hasn’t all been positive and in particular Cathedral Quarter has seen a disturbing rise in the number of homeless people sleeping on the street. Dorcas explained: “Given the nature of people within Edwards & Company, seeing such desperation caused us great concern and we reached out for advice on how we could best support people in need. 

“It’s so upsetting to see people in such distressing circumstances, but you don’t want to do the wrong thing.”

In recent times, the arrival of CQ BID has led to better communication and practical support to businesses in the area, helping them address problems they may face and there is a co-ordinated plan to bring together agencies to help those people who are in dire circumstances, rather than just move them on to be someone else’s problem.

While their involvement in events and fundraising is a reflection of their charitable culture, it also helps to raise the profile of Edwards & Company. Dorcas said: “As a small business, we service other small firms well as we understand the challenges they face.”

To achieve that they have shunned the expensive world of billboard advertising.

“We decided to make best use of our website and deliberately set out to be different from other solicitors, using plain English and telling stories rather than using over technical jargon. 

“To drive traffic to the website, we took to Twitter to share articles and information and we set up #BelfastHour which has just celebrated its 5th birthday. We had a fantastic celebration, with many of the businesses who use the free online marketing tool, hosted by U105 in their gorgeous new building.”

#BelfastHour now has over 20,000 followers and more than 500 businesses engage every Thursday night.

Dorcas has come full circle in her career to be back to solving people’s problems, something that is now embedded in the company’s mission statement.

“Letting people know we can help them find  the answers to their problems is key to Edwards & Company’s continued success.”

To find out more about Dorcas Crawford or Edwards & Co, based in Hill Street within the Cathedral Quarter, go to edwardsandcompany.co.uk

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