Lawyer of the Month: Rosie Walker
Rosie Walker, head of litigation and partner at Gilson Gray, didn’t see law as a particularly accessible career when she was younger, and instead decided to study politics and history at the University of Edinburgh. But while she was a student, she says she realised the importance of law in society and decided that was the career for her. Since then she has been involved in some high-profile cases, often in the political sphere, and is one of Scotland’s few election law specialists. One of her most notable cases was acting for Liberal Democrat MP and former Scottish Secretary of State, Alistair Carmichael, in the first election trial in Scotland for 50 years and the first case to be televised throughout the UK.
Ms Walker says: “Being a lawyer was something I thought about at school, but at that point it didn’t seem like a very accessible profession. I didn’t know any lawyers and I probably felt lawyers who I saw on television looked and sounded quite removed from my life. I was female, Scottish and I had quite a lot of surgery as a child and have a distinctive limp. It just didn’t feel like a profession that I would be very comfortable in.
“But studying politics, in particular, gave me an insight into how important law is in society. That persuaded me to do an accelerated LLB and that was my route into my profession.”
Ms Walker was with Morisons Solicitors for just over 13 years, moving up from senior associate level to being appointed a partner in 2013, before moving to Gilson Gray in 2015. Starting out, she says she did a wide traineeship and found she enjoyed both litigation and transactional work, but has focused more on the former during her career.
“I had some good mentors who worked in the field of litigation, like Alex Garioch who was my first boss when I was a trainee and who I’m now in partnership with,” she explains. “And litigation is really just problem solving a lot of the time. I began to realise a wide range of people and small businesses could all have quite interesting and challenging problems that I could play a role in helping them fix. That’s really what took me into commercial litigation.”
She identifies acting for Alistair Carmichael as one of the highlights of her career. The MP for Orkney and Shetland had been caught up in a row about a memo leaked from his department while he was Scottish Secretary before a general election. The court ultimately rejected the attempt, brought about by a petition, to unseat Mr Carmichael.
Ms Walker explains: “A lot of my work involves commercial litigation and I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a lot of big commercial cases with an international element, which I like. But certainly, the political stuff has played a large part in my career. The Alistair Carmichael case was the first election petition in Scotland for over 50 years and I successfully defended a challenge to Alistair’s election. It was quite a high-profile case with a lot of unusual elements. It was the first civil case to be live-televised which brought a whole added pressure. But it also gave an insight into how law and politics can be used strategically to complement each other.
“Since then I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a number of other election or political cases and can see the role that law can play in protecting and policing our democracies. That is very important.”
In other parts of her work in the realm of politics, Ms Walker has obtained interim interdicts during election campaigns against candidates from other parties who have made statements which were considered to breach electoral law or be defamatory. She has also dealt with challenges around election expenses and issues involving free speech and the policing of the behaviour of some elected representatives.
“Current events around the world show how important it is to have a society that’s based around the rule of law. You need lawyers to write the laws, enforce the laws, test the laws, and police the laws. I think it’s really important you have a healthy legal profession for all of those reasons,” she adds.
Another aspect of her legal work that she particularly enjoys is its international element which she says provides the chance to work with clients, lawyers and other professionals from different jurisdictions around the world. “It’s very easy in a small jurisdiction like Scotland to become accustomed to one way of working,” she notes. “I think the opportunity to see how other countries do things is really invaluable. It makes you question the assumptions behind a lot of how we operate as Scottish lawyers.”
On the international front, Ms Walker believes a lot of the effects of Brexit may have been delayed because of Covid-19 but that, going forward, it could potentially limit options for some of her clients.
She sees a number of other challenges facing the profession at the moment, but points out that a lot of these will also bring opportunities. Post-pandemic, she explains that parts of the profession are facing challenges around recruitment and retention of staff, for example as people at all levels reassess their work-life balance.
“Firms who can meet those challenges are going to be the ones who can come out of this the best,” she suggests. “You need to resource your business well and that involves treating your staff well and understanding how to get the best out of your staff. That’s a really important challenge we’re all going to have to face. For my firm, we want to access and retain the best talent.”
And she sees recruiting a diverse range of people into legal careers as vital for society as well as for individual law firms. She explains: “We want to ensure that Scotland’s lawyers reflect the society they come from. You have to have a profession which appears attractive to people from a range of backgrounds.”
In terms of diversity and inclusion, she believes a lot of progress has been made over the years, but warns that there is still a long way to go. For example, she points to the loss of talent that occurs, particularly with female solicitors as they move up through their firms. “There isn’t diversity across the profession and it doesn’t fully reflect the diversity of society. Until it does reflect society there’s always more work to do,” she adds.
In her own career Ms Walker believes she has been “very lucky” in having supportive colleagues, pointing out that she was made a partner with Morisons when she returned to work after maternity leave.
While she is still involved with cases, a lot of her time at Gilson Gray is now spent on management and a current focus is getting the team into a “new normal” way of working. She says a lot of her energies will be focused on ensuring the team is fully re-integrated.
“There are challenges for younger members in my team and across the profession who have had to work remotely and have missed out on some of the usual on-the-job learning experiences,” she says. “I think the whole profession needs to work very hard to ensure more junior members of the profession are able to progress without any disadvantage from a long period of working from home.”
She is also keen on the profession playing its role in ensuring the courts work in the most effective manner as everyone emerges from the pandemic. She believes there have been some benefits brought about by changes to how things are done during Covid-19, such as digital progress as a result of remote working. And she expects that certain procedural hearings will continue to be dealt with remotely. But she is keen to emphasise the advantages of doing certain things face-to-face.
“Ultimately it’s important for justice to be done, and for justice to be seen to be done, and I think that’s best served in open court in person,” concludes Ms Walker.