By: 16 March 2017
Sarah Cookson: A path less trodden

Yorkshire Legal recently caught up with Sarah Cookson, a partner at Switalskis and the new President of the Huddersfield and Dewsbury Law Society, who has never found convention to be a comfortable bedfellow

Sarah Cookson is used to juggling a number of roles.

“I’m a Mum, a wife, a solicitor, a director, and president,” says the new leader of the Huddersfield and Dewsbury Law Society.

It’s the latter role, however, that may well present her with her biggest challenges in 2017. The Society is still fi nding its feet after beingcreated in November 2015, but that hasn’t stopped it from setting itself some ambitious targets.

“We need younger members to get involved,” explains Cookson. “We want to make it more fun and emphasis the networking opportunities we can offer.

“Part of that is about giving the Society a different identity. If we can do that and get the buy-in, then I think more people will be interested.”

The hard way

If anyone can make a good stab at meeting the Society’s targets, then it’s Cookson. Whether it be as a student, trainee or experienced practitioner, she has never taken the easy route.

Her first major challenge came when she found out that she had not done very well in her A-levels at Sixth Form. She was told that it would be best if she re-sat them. But for personal as well as academic reasons, she was adamant that her time there was done. So instead of dutifully following the advice of her teachers, she managed to find and enrol onto a HND law course, after which she completed a two year top-up degree.

“I didn’t come out with a stunning degree and if I were to apply for a job or training contract now then I’m sure I’d just go straight in the bin,” she says.

Working in Leeds for Addleshaw Booth (now Addleshaw Goddard) and Walker Morris, as a remortgage fee earner, Cookson carried on studying, taking the LCP on a part-time basis. She then joined Chadwick Lawrence in April 2002. After only three months at the firm, she asked for a training contract. Suitably impressed with her work and attitude, the firm granted her wish. She ended up running the conveyancing department with one of the firm’s current partners.

Six years later and four months pregnant with her first child, she was headhunted by Milners to head up its Wakefield office just as the bottom fell out of the property market following the financial crisis.

After falling pregnant again at Milners, Cookson decided to move to Hellewell Pasley & Brewer in Dewsbury, simply because it was closer to home. It wasn’t long however, before she decided to look for a new, more demanding role.

“I worked there for a year and then just got the bug to go somewhere else,” she explains. “One of my friends who worked at Switalskis was saying that they were looking at new ways of bringing work in. At that time they were predominantly a legal aid practice and my friend said let’s meet up with John [Durkan, the firm’s managing director].

“Switalskis had nothing: no panel membership, no CQS, no Lexcel. They had half a person who did conveyancing. I started in April 2012 and was given the notional title of head of conveyancing for Dewsbury, even though we already had a head of the department based in Leeds.”

After working “incredibly hard” to get the Conveyancing Quality Scheme standard (CQS) in September 2012, Cookson and the rest of the team had the task of getting onto various lenders’ panels. Having successfully done so, she had a meeting with John Durkan in February 2014, during which he told her that he wanted to make her a partner.

“It’s what I wanted and I’d made no secret of that. But you could have lifted my jaw off the ground.”

New blood

Cookson’s responsibilities as President of the Society dawned on her at her first meeting with members in December when she felt that all the eyes in the room were on her.

“I got the feeling that they weren’t very interested in what I had to say, and I began to think ‘what have I done?’”

Thankfully, the second meeting in January was a much more productive affair, giving Cookson some reassurance that her plans for the year ahead have a chance of coming to fruition.

“I would say that the reinvigroation we’re hoping for is starting and we’re getting more people on board,” she says. “But we need to do more.”

With this mind, Cookson has managed to convince a number of members to take part in a running challenge in May. Solicitors from a number of local firms will run round Scammonden Dam for Cookson’s chosen charity, Hollybank Trust in Mirfield. The Trust supports and educates over a hundred disabled children and adults at its special school and residential homes.

As well as the race for charity, the Society will ramp up its efforts to make it a networking enabler. Cookson says that a number of social evenings and training sessions are already in the pipeline as a result. “We have a duty to increase the awarness of what the Society does.”

One of the barriers to getting the Society’s message heard is simply down to size and resources. To counter this, Cookson has been instrumental in pushing the Society to join forces with the recently resurrected Yorkshire Union of Law Societies.

“We have expressed interest that we want to become members of the Yorkshire Union. They prepared a response to the recent training consultation paper which they asked for opinions from members and the response to that was really good.”

“With us, it is a case of being a small fish in a big pond. But as part of the Union we can have a say on a bigger stage.”

A long association

The merger between the Huddersfield and Dewsbury Societies was in the pipeline for about two years. Initially, the Halifax Law Society was also interested, only to drop out towards the end of the process. But joining forces didn’t just seem to be the correct thing to do for Dewsbury. It was the only path it could take.

“The number of solicitors involved was decreasing. Partly because many of them could not see what we were doing to help them. And that was difficult because no new blood was coming in and it had become stagnated.”

Cookson was asked at the time to become vice president to represent Dewsbury. “It hadn’t even entered my mind that I was going to take over a role in the newly emerged society,” she says.

“I was very excited about going along to the first AGM and witnessing the merger going full steam ahead, but that was all. Then one of my fellow directors, Ruth Coneron, who was President at the time when the merger was first mooted and Ranjit Uppal, our director in Huddersfield, asked me if I was interested in becoming Vice President.

“You could have knocked me down with a feather.”

Cookson accepted the invitation, knowing that she would be expected to become President after her tenure. She decided to use the experience to sit in background and learn as much as she could about the duties expected of a President, such as public speaking.

It was never in her plans to get so involved in her local law society, however. When she worked in Wakefield, Cookson attended the Wakefield & District Law Society’s meetings but was never a committee member. After moving to Hellewell’s she found that the firm was very involved in the Dewsbury Society, with some of the staff holding positions on the committee and partners having been past presidents.

“It seemed a no-brainer to get involved,” she says.

The shadow of cyber crime

In some ways, Cookson’s work with the Society is a welcome break from the day job, given the pressures faced by those on conveyancing. At present, one of the big issues that is concentrating minds within the sector is fraud.

“It’s always been there, but not as much as it has now,” explains Cookson. “We have unfortunately as a profession been really hit by cyber crime.”

“It’s so high up on the radar now. Criminals have hit on a new kind of area that they can defraud and sadly that seems to be the legal profession and conveyancing. Emails can be hacked and bank details changed and that’s a huge game changer. As a profession and as a firm, it’s something we take very seriously.”

The problem recently came to light with the case of City firm Mishcon de Reya, which was ordered to pay out more than £1million in January for falling victim to identity fraud. It was found to be liable for breach of trust after its client was duped into buying a London property from a tenant posing as the owner.

“It is an incredibly scary thing to think about, it adds a different dimension. There’s always been the money laundering regulations, and checking your clients identity, source of funds to make sure that your client is not money laundering, but all of a sudden there seems to be an extra layer.”

“You have to take the view that the firm will be targeted, but it’s then what we do to stop that and make ourselves as protected as we possibly can be.”

Reputation, after all, she says, is everything.