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Nic Johnston

Meet Nic Johnston, Deputy Director of HR and Employment Lawyer

Where did it all start?

What now seems like many moons ago, I studied law as an undergraduate and then moved to Durham to do an LLM in International and European Law. I focused on European Law because I had an inkling that my heart belonged in employment law and, back in 2000, European Law was the solid foundation of most UK employment law such as equality rights and working time. It turns out European Law wasn’t as future proof as I thought!

I finished my studies with the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law in York, which required a walk past the Terry’s Chocolate factory each day – I can still smell the chocolate.

Tell us about your career to date

Solicitors do a two-year training contract at a law firm before they qualify into their preferred area of practice. I trained at a niche firm which specialised in representing the NHS, health sector clients and charities, doing my first and last ‘seats’ in employment law.

A year after qualification I moved to a large international firm, to experience a broader base of clients. As I’d come from a firm representing NHS clients, I was an obvious choice for HE clients which was about 60% of my workload. One of my clients was Durham. I also worked with a range of other clients from large supermarkets, to banks to manufacturers.

I did, and still do, love the variety and problem solving involved in day-to-day employment work. It’s one of the few areas where you do contentious work (mainly employment tribunals) and also non-contentious advisory work. There is rarely a dull moment and I think I just about have enough anecdotes for a several volume memoir.

Tell us about your current role 

I joined the University in 2014, initially in the Legal Team as an employment specialist. Over time, my role developed and I now sit in the HR Department as the Deputy HR Director and the University’s Employment Lawyer. My portfolio includes all aspects of employment law and employee relations, including leading our HR Business Partner team. I also lead the Occupational Health Team, the Recruitment, Relocation and UKVI team, and am the main point of contact between HR and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team regarding employee issues. I also work regularly with our campus trade unions.

As I’ve been fortunate to have experience across a breadth of areas, I also get involved in numerous projects across the University, many of which already have, or aim to, see Durham leading the way in the sector. This has included our response to Covid-19, hybrid working, our approach to moving from casual to default employment contracts, and currently includes a project to better manage workload for all staff.

What advice would you give women looking to succeed in your area of work?

Start with what you enjoy and be flexible in your approach to where the future might take you. I went down a traditional route of training as a solicitor and practicing in a big firm. It taught me some great skills and I worked with fantastic colleagues and clients, but big firms aren’t for everyone. While in practice, I hugely enjoyed secondments to the legal team at Asda and the HR team at the LSE, so jumped at the opportunity to join Durham.

Overall, don’t follow the herd. Do what is right for you and take opportunities which feel right. If you want a more hands-on career with potentially a greater depth of understanding of people in the workplace, it may be that HR would be a better route to follow than law. If you want to be a lawyer, think carefully about whether you want to work on deals in a big corporate firm or a more community-based approach on the high street.

Whichever path you take, it is never so set that you can’t broaden it out or follow something else which you enjoy more.

Do you have any tips for maintaining a healthy work/life balance?

Everyone approaches their work differently. As a lawyer in a firm, we had targets for how many billable hours you had to do each day and clients understandably expected high standards and to be billed as little as possible. It taught me to be efficient but with an eye to detail (my colleagues will roll their eyes at that). I therefore try to deal with things as they land in my inbox/on my desk (cue more eye rolling from colleagues reading this), or at least plan when I am going to be able to tackle a task and diarise some time.

We also have University Working Principles (staff-only link), which are small actions which each make you stop and be mindful about how you can approach your work so that you improve your work/life balance and also that of your colleagues. For example, I think about whether to ‘reply to all’ when I get an email and I aim to keep meetings as short as possible. The Working Principles can make a real difference individually and are really powerful if used by teams.

What are your interests or passions outside of work?

I’ve got two Tibetan Terriers, although I’m not always sure who looks after who. They can regularly be seen behind me on Teams meetings, which always adds to the conversation.

Friday and Saturday night, the cocktail shaker is normally out as I make my way through the Claridge’s Cocktail Book, although I don’t think you can beat a negroni made the Stanley Tucci way. I will admit that on the occasional challenging week, there might be a mid-week cocktail.

I also read advance copies of books for various publishers and provide reviews, so I’ve often got a stack of books to get through before publication dates. This means that I am the HR ‘go-to’ person for book recommendations before anyone goes on holiday.