SPECIAL EDITION - INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY
Updated: Apr 26
Head of Legal (Eastern Region) Network Rail Infrastructure Limited
IWD Focus: In celebration of International Women's Day, we interviewed Network Rail's newly appointed Head of Legal (Eastern Region) Janie Thorn. We learn of the challenges she has faced, her broader career journey and the lessons she has learned along the way to becoming a senior woman in both the legal world and the rail industry!
Janie Thorn is the Head of Legal for the Eastern Region of Network Rail. She looks after a team of lawyers who deal with all matters affecting the largest Region of Network Rail.
Janie is a construction lawyer by trade, who trained at a niche commercial property and construction law firm, Maples Teesdale, before qualifying as a construction lawyer at Lawrence Graham (now Gowling WLG).
In her role at Network Rail, Janie advises on the whole development process, from procurement and planning law to final account and disputes. Janie also has extensive experience of railway law including advice around Authorising Acts, level crossings and statutory and regulatory advice. If that wasn’t enough Janie also advises the business on employment law and health and safety matters.
What advice would you give aspiring solicitors looking to enter the in-house profession, whether they be students or qualified solicitors looking to move from private practice?
Think carefully. Personally, I think there are huge benefits to working in-house but it will not be for everyone. I say that as someone who has worked at a niche firm, an international firm and for a large regulated in-house organisation. My experience at each has been very different.
When I made the decision to move in-house I spent some time looking at the sort of organisations where my skill sets would transfer well. I looked at the insurance industry, construction and professional services firms and companies like Network Rail who are experienced in large infrastructure projects.
"...find a company you feel passionate about, something you can get behind and be proud of".
Network Rail not only interested me from the large volume of high value projects and variety of work but also the fact that I am helping to, as one Regional Director once put it, move people and bananas! Helping people to get home safely every day, whether that be from work, from days out, nights out all whilst keeping freight moving around the country.
Which comes to my last point, find a company you feel passionate about, something you can get behind and be proud of. Network Rail comes under a lot of criticism at times but watching what we achieve on a daily basis really inspires me every day.
Who inspires you?
My first line manager at Network Rail inspired me. Large public sector organisations change continually and she inspired me to embrace the change, to keep moving forward and to not look back.
My first General Counsel at Network Rail, Suzanne Wise, inspired me to have a career plan, to be strategic and really get to know the business you are working for, the data, the financials, move outside your comfort zone.
Finally, my friends and family inspire me. Inspire me to try and keep the balance, to remember there is a bigger world out there, that we are more than our jobs, and much more than the roles that can so easily define us.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
Probably taking on my current role. I came into the role as the organisation was going through a large period of change. We have a fantastic programme of Putting Passengers First which has resulted in a large number of organisational and other changes to make sure we deliver on this. This resulted in a real spike in work at a time when my team experienced some resource challenges. It has been a stressful period, but these times teach us a lot about ourselves and we learn from them.
I have been supported by so many in the Legal Team at Network Rail and also some great secondees and locum lawyers from Addleshaw Goddard and AG Integrate. It is great to see the legal services market really changing in this way and creating greater flexibility for employers and employees.
Has your perception of the workplace changed as you have become more senior?
I feel like I have gained a greater perspective of the organisation. I feel like I have a more overarching insight into the business and what its priorities are. This helps me and my team work out where we can best add value.
How do you achieve a work life balance?
I am not sure I always do! Some days and weeks are better than others. I always make sure I look at my work life balance across a broader period, to not be too short sighted about it. I work flexibly and currently work 4 days a week and I am very precious about my non-working day. I make sure I spend that day focusing on my family and my two young boys who never fail to keep me busy.
"There are no right and wrong answers or hard and fast rules, it is about finding what works for you and what works for you at one stage of your career may not work at a different point. Keep things under review and be open to change."
I also have a great support network at home. I have to travel around the Region as part of this role and I could not do this without the support of my husband, family, friends and our excellent childminder. I really do believe in the phrase that it takes village. In my career, I have worked full-time, 3 days a week, 4 days a week and even not worked at all. I took a self-imposed gap year but was very much ready to return to work at the end of it! There are no right and wrong answers or hard and fast rules, it is about finding what works for you and what works for you at one stage of your career may not work at a different point. Keep things under review and be open to change.
Do you have any advice to those of our members returning to work after maternity leave (or another break), and how to hit the ground running?
It is often joked that I am like the Network Rail boomerang. I have had time off to have my two children and a year off, but I always come back. I can’t stay away! My main piece of advice, which was given to me, is to do a phased return to work. This was particularly helpful after maternity leave. It helps you get used to being back in the work environment and equally helps integrate your child/family into new routines and childcare. I returned to work earlier, but on a phased return, which meant by the time I was ‘fully back’ I was very much hitting the ground running and it really helped with the work life balance mentioned above.
If you could give your younger self some advice what would it be?
This is a common one I am sure, but to worry less, particularly about career progression. I worried about the impact on my career of having children and taking a gap year about 15 years after most people do, but I needn’t have!
I think this comes back to the point above about finding out what works for you at certain points in your career and to have a strategy. I have recently been having some coaching as well which I have found invaluable. I think I would have encouraged my younger self to get more involved in coaching and mentoring to really help with some of the issues raised in this interview.
What change would you like to see in the profession in the coming years?
With our panel of solicitors, we very much work on the principle we are people first and then lawyers. I stand wholly behind this. We are human beings, we have emotions, private lives as well as work lives. We will often not know what someone else is going through, it is important to be kind. We will make mistakes, we will have good days and bad.
There is a worrying rise in mental health issues amongst lawyers, particularly with junior lawyers. I think the current private practice model and PI insurance regime that underpins it is not conducive to positive mental health, it needs wholesale change.
Dan Kayne, our General Counsel for the Regional Teams has been developing the concept of the "O shaped lawyer" which is a cross industry programme. It is a fantastic programme we are piloting with our panel law firms to look at this and other ways to create the lawyers of the future, who will benefit from a broader development and are therefore able to take more control over their careers.
Women solicitors practising in England and Wales outnumber men. Do you think gender equality is still an issue in the legal profession?
Yes and no. I think there is gender equality at entry level, but I think the gap appears as we become more senior. Personally, I have never felt at Network Rail that my opportunities for career progression have been hampered by my times away from the office, but I think this is the exception rather than the norm.
I think it is not only women being away for a period, but also the perception that when they return they cannot be committed in the same way. I do not believe this is true, but I think the only way this can really change is if there is true equality, i.e. a greater take up of shared parental leave, shared parental responsibility. At Network Rail I have a large number of male colleagues who have to do the pick-ups and drop offs, need to leave promptly to do so, work flexibly to share in childcare.
The work that the Flex Appeal campaign (headed up by Anna Whitehouse aka Mother Pukka) does is really making great strides in this sphere which is fantastic, but we have some way to go. I am a Diversity and Inclusion Champion at NR and our legal team is roughly 75% female which is very much in stark contrast to the rest of the organisation where we have some way to go.
Network Rail is very much alive to this and once again it is running a great campaign for International Women’s Day which I recommend you all check out. It is our first all-female train journey with one of our train operating companies, Southeastern, demonstrating the opportunities for Women in the rail industry. https://www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk/news/britains-first-all-female-operated-train-service-runs-today
What practical tips can men and women do to champion women in the workplace and to achieve those senior roles?
It is about treating people as people, as human beings, not as men and women. It is about affording equal opportunities for parental leave and flexible working. It is about creating diversity in the work place and being an inclusive employer.
"I think like with most things in life we also have to take responsibility for our own careers, to put ourselves out there, to challenge gender and stereotypes and be treated as people first and then lawyers."
I find myself at times recognising in myself that feeling of imposter syndrome. It is commonly felt more by women than men and I think this can hold people back from applying for more senior roles. At Network Rail we have always been encouraged to apply for promotions. I applied for 2 previous promotions at Network Rail. One when my eldest child was 6 weeks and I breast fed him in the café next to my then CFO just before my interview! Another excellent female lawyer in the team got that job and she was very much the right person for the role, but putting myself out there and showing my ambition, I believe has really helped my career. Accordingly, whilst I believe we all have a role to play in supporting each other in progressing our careers, I think like with most things in life, we also have to take responsibility for our own careers, to put ourselves out there, to challenge gender and stereotypes and be treated as people first and then lawyers.