At Crafty Counsel, we regularly focus on getting to know more about members of our in-house legal community. This week, we spoke with Jennifer Barnett, Senior Counsel at Commonwealth War Graves Commission and member of Lean Legal – our group for sole counsel or those working in smaller legal teams. Along with Emma Sharpe, Jennifer is the Crafty Local Ambassador for Chester, Wirral, North Wales and Liverpool.

[Did you know we have different groups within our Community for in-house legal professionals which have regularly scheduled virtual meet-ups and in-person events? Learn more about the Crafty Counsel Community.]

The road less travelled

Jennifer’s entry into the legal realm wasn’t conventional. With a history degree in hand, she took an unexpected turn into computer programming when she discovered training schemes accepting graduates from various disciplines with no computing knowledge required. Jennifer saw this as a gateway to an interesting career.

“I burst out laughing when they suggested computer programming. I couldn’t even turn a computer on!”

Despite her lack of computer knowledge, Jennifer took the bold step forward into the world of coding and tech, which she pursued for four years until recognising a yearning for different challenges.

“I just really like words.  I spent more time at Uni writing for the student paper than on my degree.  Otherwise, programming and law have similarities – the punctuation is really important in both jobs.”

It was at the age of 25 that she decided to explore law, undertaking a law conversion course while juggling a full-time job. Her transition into the legal field was unorthodox, lacking the typical law firm work experience due to lack of availability – with a full-time job, her annual leave was spent revising for exams. 

Finding a niche in Law

Qualifying in 2006, Jennifer stayed with her private practice firm.  When applying for training contracts she had strategically selected firms she felt aligned with her lifestyle choices. A deliberate move.

“At the grand old age of 27 I realised I wasn’t suited to a training contract where I lived at the office. I’d heard horror stories of London trainees who didn’t even have milk in the fridge as they were never home.”

Jennifer’s transition from private practice to an in-house role was catalysed by an unexpected opportunity during a client secondment.  The Head of Legal offered her a position, prompting her shift to the in-house sphere at Iceland Foods, managing legal affairs through a retail lens.

Stewardship at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

In her current role at The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Jennifer plays a pivotal part in managing legal intricacies tied to commemorating and preserving the memory of fallen servicemen and women from World War I and II and the global organisation that exists to support this. Her day-to-day responsibilities reflect a diverse range of tasks, dealing with contractual, employment and property matters in over 140 countries worldwide, working closely with her colleagues to address operational challenges.

Striking the balance: challenges in-house

Navigating life in-house, Jennifer’s encountered challenges that have tested her adaptability and problem-solving skills. As with so many in-house teams, workload management proved to be a major hurdle. The pace of work demands quick responses, posing a challenge to ensure thoroughness while at the same time recognising the level of urgency. 

The CWGC legal team are whole-heartedly adopting Legal Ops, to ensure they aren’t just reacting but strategising for the long-term. Workflows and contract wizards for self-service are the focus for this quarter.

“We liken this to a lake where we were having to rescue swimmers in peril. Legal Ops is us building the fence round the lake to stop them getting in the first place.”

Advice for her younger self

If Jennifer could give any advice to her younger self it would be that achieving a balance between professional competence and personal passion is not just possible, but advisable. With time, she has discovered that pursuing something that she genuinely enjoys not only leads to job satisfaction but also excellence in her pursuits.

“I spent a long time doing things I thought I should do.  But then I realised that other people like the bits I don’t like, and I like the parts other people don’t like.  If you can coincide something that you really enjoy, with something that you’re good at, then that little bit of the Venn diagram is going to be your space.”