Yorkshire Legal Awards: Passion is nine-tenths of the law

Paula Dillon was named Yorkshire Lawyer of the Year at the Yorkshire Legal Awards in October. Here, she reveals where her passions lay, and how they make her a better lawyer

A real estate development and investment lawyer, Paula Dillon serves on the UK and global boards of Womble Bond Dickinson, and is the first female president of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce. She has more than 30 years of experience in advising on office, retail, industrial, residential and leisure developments of all sizes and complexities, and is consistently ranked as a leading individual in legal publications.

She is also diversity and inclusion board sponsor on the Womble Bond Dickinson board and is committed to many local causes. She founded the Crypt Factor, raising more than £500,000 for homeless charities, and helps to organise the Residential Property Awards to raise funds for children’s charity Variety. She is also a member of the northern board of the Investment Property Forum and, until recently, served as vice chair of Opera North.

Congratulations on your win at the Yorkshire Legal Awards. How did it feel to be named Yorkshire Lawyer of the Year?

Paula Dillon: It was quite a surprise to be named Yorkshire Lawyer of the Year, and a huge honour. It felt like an endorsement of something that I’ve always believed, which is that what you do and how you do it really matter. It’s easy to think sometimes, that what you believe only really matters to yourself—but receiving this award shows that isn’t true.

It was heartening that in the citation the Yorkshire Legal Awards judges recognised me for both my legal work and work outside of law. I believe that this work, such as my position at the Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, makes me a better lawyer. I’m not in an ivory tower. I have always taken an interest in the issues that people and businesses are dealing with that I wouldn’t otherwise come across, certainly not in the course of a lawyer’s day.

Would you recommend other legal professionals giving their time and energy to causes and issues such as these?

Dillon: This is what I wanted to do, but it’s not for everyone or every firm. I’m lucky because my firm, Womble Bond Dickinson, encourages its partners to get involved with organisations and causes outside of the firm. It’s much more difficult to do if your firm doesn’t support you.

Having said that, my work at the Chamber of Commerce and elsewhere has broadened my horizons and made me a better lawyer so everybody wins. Being named Yorkshire Lawyer of the Year and recognised for all of that hard work at the Yorkshire Legal Awards feels like it paid off. But there are other ways of doing it—and there are plenty of good lawyers out there who focus purely on their service and clients.

This year’s Yorkshire Legal Awards were the biggest ever—what does the event’s popularity say about the strength of the profession in the region?

Dillon: The legal sector in Yorkshire is thriving, despite some people saying that the region has too many law firms. They were saying that when Womble Bond Dickinson opened its office in Leeds seven years ago. The fact that the Yorkshire Legal Awards is getting bigger shows that it’s still doing well. The region’s lawyers are still getting hired.

In your opinion, where will the legal profession in Yorkshire go next? And what does the sector need to work on?

Dillon: I think the sector needs to familiarise itself with artificial intelligence (AI) and improved process. The way that legal services are delivered is changing, so the sector needs to get onboard as quickly as possible and, most importantly, figure out how to use AI to its advantage.

The legal sector is also relatively poor in the areas of diversity and social mobility. Collaboration is the best way to make law more diverse, particularly when highlighting where there are widespread issues to tackle. Better access to the sector itself will come when legal qualifications are easier to obtain, in terms of their financial cost.

It’s also worth pointing out that diversity and social mobility go hand-in-hand. When minority groups are better represented within the legal sector, the next generation is more likely to take a risk on the financial and time commitments required, because individuals will see others like them getting ahead and feel more confident about trying themselves. The benefit to the legal sector is that we’ll get a better mix of different viewpoints and opinions. If everyone within the sector were the same, we’d never innovate and improve.