How to find a perfect field and other useful career tips from Alisa Grafton: Partner at De Pinna Notaries
I interviewed Alisa Grafton, a lawyer and partner at De Pinna Notaries. She also falls under the labels of networking enthusiast, speaker, writer and blogger. She’s former Director of Communications at City Women Network and currently acts as a mentor to many. She is a woman with a plethora of experiences, and has shed some light in this interview on how she has made it in the industry, offering us some of her wisdom and experiences.
Can you briefly detail what you studied at university and your career path since?
I qualified exactly 20 years ago as a foreign lawyer after my studies in Moscow. This is when I decided to emigrate to London where I found myself with a degree in law from a different country. I realised that I needed to retrain to practice law fully in London. I found that I had a few options open for me: I could either go down the solicitor route, or perhaps try the bar but I decided to choose the third option and qualify as a scrivener notary public.
Why did you personally choose to study law and in particular, scrivener notaries?
Well, I was looking at my strengths and interests and realised that I wanted something that offers me a fast moving environment, I didn’t think I suited well to deals that lasted for weeks if not months and I wanted to also use my qualifications as a foreign lawyer and my interest in foreign jurisdictions and languages. All of this urged me to look into the profession of scrivener notaries. We assist clients in transactions that involve a foreign element: for example, when documents are executed in England but take effect abroad or are subject to foreign law, or when there is another cross-border aspect to a deal. This means that the environment ends up being very fast paced and I get to use my foreign languages and my knowledge of Russian law, as well as the field of the English law that I specialise in. This field might be niche but is immensely fascinating.
How would you recommend a future graduate, who is unsure of what field they want to enter into in the future, to find their perfect field?
People normally have an idea in mind of where and what they want to do. I would really recommend that first and foremost you network with the people who have worked and have been successful in your chosen field. Also, meet people in a field you haven’t considered yte, as it may be that what you have in mind is very different to reality. Secondly, spend some time being very honest with yourself and find out what works for you. I knew very early on that I valued a balanced lifestyle — ambitious, no doubt, yet leaving some breathing space for things other than the office. I love practising sports — I have been dedicated to anything from fencing to triathlons, and from Capoeira to surfing in the summers and snowboarding in the winters — and I genuinely think that I deliver the best value to my clients as a well-rounded individual. So you should really spend some time asking yourself, are you incredibly ambitious or are you more focused on this allusive work life balance and want more flexibility and less time in front of the screen. In order to be successful, it is a good idea to firmly know what suits you.
Could you tell us a little about De Pinna Notaries?
I have been in the profession for over 20 years and joined De Pinna only recently. However, I have watched the firm’s progress with interest over the years. There are nine partners at the firm now, all different characters, with their specialised interests, yet united by the ambition to see the firm not just grow and flourish, but to make it the trailblazer in the industry. It is an aspiring task, and the one that requires trust in each other, as well as candid communication — which is, of course, the main sign of a healthy environment. I’m genuinely excited to be a part of this change-making mission in our fairly conservative profession, and the firm’s success to date speaks volumes about the crucial value that good management combined with open minds can bring about even in the most traditional fields of law.
Could you, from a recruiters point of view, offer some insight on what you’d like to see in a CV and Cover Letter?
I still remember myself as a newcomer to the industry, and you’re always trying to second guess what the interviewers have in their mind. Having interviewed quite a few people in my time, I’ve realised that very often you have that sense of chemistry with the candidate. I’ve noticed that people often want to show everything that they’ve done and accomplished and sometimes that is a little overwhelming for an interviewer who just wants to get to understand you a little bit more. When I interview a candidate from an outstanding university, I can assume that they’re highly accomplished and very smart but I often want to see the person behind all the accomplishments. So I would say, the overused phrase, of being yourself and being true to yourself. Learn how to talk about yourself in a way that showcases your authentic self behind your degree, your strengths and weaknesses. A realistic, honest assessment of yourself — that self-awareness — is what endears the interviewer to the candidate. Focus on the relationship-building aspects rather than trying to overwhelm your interviewer with all your achievements. I also really like it when people ask me questions and may I just add — when they listen to the answers. I notice that people may ask questions, yet they’re so wrapped up in what to say next, that they don’t listen to the answer, this immediately drops the momentum of the relationship-building. As the manager, you want to see what it’ll be like working with this potential candidate: will they listen to you, how open are they to compromise and exchange opinions? To summarise, be confident with your achievements, by all means, don’t throw them out of the window, but focus on relationship-building first and foremost.
Can you tell me of an interview experience which has wowed you?
I’m not saying anything new here, but I do like it when someone’s done their homework. It shows diligence and serious intent to commit, when the person hasn’t just been on the website but has done some extra research. For example, when they’ve googled me or perhaps even connected with me on LinkedIn before the interview. It’s good to see that they’re not doing this just to tick off a box. That aspect of genuine interest from the candidate is what you remember, as it speaks volumes about their client skills and the ability to collaborate. I am also intrigued by people with the high level of self-awareness, who are not afraid to talk about the rejections that they have faced and the inevitable failures on the way to achieve things. This is what impresses me — people who’ve really done their homework and who are not afraid to be presenting themselves as a flawed human being, as we all are. I like to see the person behind the interviewee.
Would you like to walk me through your training contract — how you got it and your experiences as a new lawyer in the firm?
I used a targeted approach. I sat down over 20 years ago and looked at all the firms which would suit me and then I applied to those firms. I didn’t straight away get a training contract as I wasn’t sure which position I could hope for. I actually had an interview as an assistant at the law firm where I ended up making Partner some 11 years later. I took that role and within 6 months I was offered a training contract with the firm. I remember it was a really informal procedure. The managing partner at the time just walked into my office and said that he had noticed that I was working really hard and saw my commitment and believed that I was ready to take the next step up and become a trainee. I was ecstatic, and the rest is history. My advice from that experience is to always behave and act as someone who is ever so slightly more senior than you are, not in an arrogant way at all, but give yourself that extra responsibility, as they say, dress for the job you want to have, not the one you have.
Can you tell us why you think networking is so important if you want to be successful?
First and foremost, I want to establish that networking isn’t just you giving someone your business card and promising them a great opportunity, it is about forming a relationship with someone. Networking, I believe, had moved me from an ordinary trainee to one that was bringing business to the firm very early on in my career and this was simply down to the fact that I was interested in getting to know people in all industries. For me, it was all about getting to know people in depth, not just to be connected and to nod at them at the next drinks social, but to invite that person into your professional life and to share challenges and ambitions with them. I’ve had dozens of spontaneous connections which have enriched both my personal and professional life. So, networking is all about knowing what you want to achieve in your professional life and being willing to share that openly with those who you feel you have chemistry with. You never know when people you randomly meet can eventually be your lifeline.
How do you make yourself stand out, as a female, in a very male dominated industry?
With a hand on my heart, it has not always been easy. As many senior women may tell you in the city, we are still fighting the same battles as we did 20 years ago and it’s a very slow moving process. I think the world is changing, for sure, and there are definitely things that were acceptable when I was starting out which aren’t now. But still, you have to always be prepared to not be liked and you have to be strong-minded. I wish I were able to tell you that the path has been paved for you by the likes of me. My generation of professional women have worked hard to progress the status quo, but this path still requires commitment and resilience, and the preparedness to be uncomfortable in order to achieve what you want. You have to take your principled stance sometimes — something that men probably have to do less frequently.
How do we build that confidence?
This is a tricky one. When I was young and in training, I never strove to fit in, I always had wild hair, at one point I even had a Mohican hairstyle, streaked with multi-coloured hair. I made a point of being assertive and to stand out. You need the courage to not be afraid to be acknowledged. This may not always make you the most popular person in the room, but you need a strong sense of self and to own your space.
Final comments and advice.
Make connections with people who you normally would not talk to. You need to be able to communicate with people at every level, no matter how successful you are. Your ability to motivate the people working under and speak to the person above you determines how successful you are. Have your elevator speech ready at all times and get to know yourself very well indeed.
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