39. Denise Nurse: Creating the career and life you want

Sue Stockdale talks to Denise Nurse, an award-winning entrepreneur, solicitor, coach, and broadcaster about creating the career and life you want by being flexible and not limited by traditional business structures.  She explains how sometimes you need to have a safety net ‘at least in your mind’ to give you the confidence to take that step into the unknown.

In 2007, with Janvi Patel, she co-founded Halebury, a pioneering UK law firm. Halebury introduced flexible & agile working in the legal industry. In 2018 Denise successfully sold Halebury to a global legal services business, and stepped down from her role as VP Flex Resourcing in 2020.

Whilst working as an in-house lawyer at Sky, Denise won an internal tv presenter competition. She presented the Weather & Programming for Sky News, Sky Travel and Sky One and was a presenter of BBC One’s Escape to the Country. Denise has been recognised with several awards and was recognised as a Woman of Influence & Power in Law 2020.  More recently Denise was inspired by a desire to make positive change during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic she co-founded two non-profits Black Founders Hub and Support SEND.

Connect with Denise on LinkedIn and Twitter 

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Denise Nurse Transcription – Creating the career and life you want

Sue: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unalike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. Well today’s guest is going to share with us their experience of their entrepreneurial journey.

One of the things we’re often asked about by our listeners about how can people get inspiration to change their career. Denise Nurse is an entrepreneur, a solicitor, and a presenter. In 2007 she co-founded Halebury with  Janvi Patel, which was a pioneering new law firm in the UK. Halebury  introduced flexible and agile working into the legal industry and was a leading business in diversity and inclusion and changing the way that law firms operated. They successfully sold the business in 2018. And while working prior to that, as a lawyer in house at Sky, Denise won in a competition to become a presenter. And she went on to present the weather for Sky News. So if that’s a heady mix, then carry on listening and welcome Denise to the podcast.

Denise: [00:01:27] Hi Sue. Thank you so much for having me on. I’m really excited to have this conversation with you.

Sue: [00:01:33] You have had a very interesting career to date. One might describe you having been a lawyer, a presenter, and an entrepreneur, and probably other things besides. Out of those three, what role have you enjoyed the most?

Denise: [00:01:46] Honestly, Sue that’s very difficult question because partly I did them all at the same time. I do them all at the same time. So it’s not been consecutive, it’s been simultaneous and I’ve enjoyed each role for different reasons. So it’s probably easier if I tell you the thing I’ve loved the most about each and why I did them all together, being a lawyer, I love solving problems. So I see my work in law as about helping people to navigate a system, particularly the legal system, and to reach justice and consensus and agreement as a way of moving forward. I really enjoy that about the law.  As a presenter, I absolutely loved doing what it says on the tin which has being in the present moment. Your job as a presenter is to really drop into the moment and then be a communicator. And that brought me a lot of joy. And as an entrepreneur, I love creating things. So I love having a blank sheet and coming up with a solution and being creative in business. So there’s some sort of formality to it. There’s a process, but there’s creativity as well. I like all those bits of my personality being exercised. So if I’m doing only one, I tend to feel a bit out of balance. So I have to do everything .

Sue: [00:03:02] Sounds like a great mix. And I can imagine from what I understand, you’ve done Denise. Your world of working within the legal system, you’ve used your creativity and your being present within it to think about how it could change to be more inclusive and diverse. Is that a bit about why Halebury was started?

Denise: [00:03:21] Yeah, partly in all honesty, it was started out of a selfish desire to create a working environment that I wanted to work in. And then I looked at that inwards desire and then thought externally, if it works for me, surely it would work for many others. So my training in the legal field had been quite traditional. I’d done a law degree. I’d spent a year at law school and then I’d worked for a traditional law firm, in the city of London. And when I say traditional, I mean, it had been existed for a hundred years. It was called Charles Russell after the founder. One of his great, great grandsons was still the managing partner. So it was traditional in that sense, it was a majority male middle-aged white leadership of about 50 partners. And there were five women, I think at the time that were equity partners and had a stake in the firm. When I was training the way I looked at the environment at that time, you could look at pretty much, most other firms and they had a similar blueprint.

They were very successful. They were good lawyers, but they were very homogenous in the way they did things. So if you wanted to do something different, there was a shift in 2000, which is when I qualified where you went to work for a company in a company, and that’s called working in-house as a lawyer. And what I experienced there. When I went to work for Sky it was diversity of experience and thought. So in a law firm, you are lawyers working together as lawyers, which is great, but you get a very siloed view of the world. You go to a company and I was part of a department which worked with marketing and HR and business people and commercials. So just in terms of my environment, it was much more diverse in terms of the type of work we were doing. I launched Halebury because what happens is as a lawyer, or I noticed was that I wanted to leave the profession so that I could pursue other things and more creativity, because I didn’t think within the structures that existed, I could continue and do both, even though I knew as a person, I could.

So Halebury was about flexibility. It was about allowing people who are lawyers who wanted to explore the whole of themselves whilst continuing to be a lawyer, to be able to do that. And I thought that would bring richness to the profession. So instead of losing people who would reach a certain level in their career, And they would get to a certain level and then think I don’t want to commit over a hundred hours of my week, every week to being a lawyer only, and working in this construct, I want to do something else and be a lawyer. Halebury was for me was initially about that. And that flexibility also meant that women, minorities, others who would otherwise have left the profession, had a place to go. So the structure allowed the diversity.

Sue: [00:06:06] Oh, that makes complete sense. And you’re reminding me of a book that I read recently called Range by David Epstein. I don’t know if you’ve come across it, how generalists triumph in a specialized world. And that idea that being able to behave, perhaps more broadly than just a pure specialism enables us to adapt in uncertain situations. And when the world is rapidly changing and I get a sense that partly might have been one of the benefits that Halebury was creating was people who had that more generalist mindset. Would that be right?

Denise: [00:06:40] That’s absolutely right. That was one of our key selling points. And one of the unique attributes. So law firms, again, are about specialists. You gather together a group of specialists, and then when a client comes to that law firm, they will be presented with the intellectual property lawyer and the employment lawyer and the property lawyer. And then they have to work together to give a piece of advice. When you work for a business, you’ll often get more of a generalist because the lawyer working in that business has to turn their hand to lots of things. And then what you’ve got with Halebury, where people who had done both and who were additionally able to pivot and change and work in different industries. So they would bring fresh perspective to each role by working flexibility on projects, in a business for a period of time, and then going to another.

Sue: [00:07:27] It is certainly becoming more required in these uncertain days that we all are experiencing. And is it when you were in Sky that you had the opportunity or it appeared so that you could begin to do some presenting? Tell us about how did you move into being a presenter?

Denise: [00:07:43] Yes opportunity is the key word there. I like to think of it as preparation and opportunity, which created a lucky moment and the preparation wasn’t deliberate. As in, I wasn’t deliberately seeking a presenting role. I was very happy being a lawyer, working at sky. It was fulfilling all of my needs in terms of flexibility and career development. However, going back to why I do lots of different things. So I thought investing in myself, I would pay for a one day television presenting course that I’d found just for the hell of it. So I did that for fun, really enjoyed it. But at the end of the day, they said, Hey, if you want to pursue a career, Do X, Y, Z. And I said, well, I don’t want to pursue a career in TV. I love my lawyer job. This was fun. And self-development so I could be more confident in presenting lo and behold, a few months later, a poster went up on the wall at work, which said, can you cut it? Do you think you could be a presenter? Enter our workplace competition. And so I entered the competition in the spirit of fun, and the universe seemed to be presenting me this opportunity, but with no expectation, I ended up being through various rounds, making it to the top 10. And the top 10, they sent us for a weeks training at the national film and television school.

And interestingly out of that top 10, four of us had all attended that same one day course not knowing about it at different times. So that’s why I say preparation opportunity. We did, none of us knew why we were doing it. At that time. This opportunity came up the skills we had learned we’re relevant and it got us to that stage. And eventually I was voted by my peers as one of the top three. So they had to watch a show reel that we created. And that opens up this opportunity to present for Sky News and become a weather presenter. And at first I said no to that opportunity. Because I was a lawyer and it was just ridiculous in my mind. How can a lawyer I’ve trained for years, I’m fairly serious. I’m very credible. How could I be a weather presenter? When I know nothing about weather, physics, geography? The head of weather at the time explained to me that the job was actually about storytelling and presenting information in a digestible form, taking in a lot of information that could be quite technical and then digesting it and boiling it down and communicating it.

And he said, I think you are good at that and I thought, yeah, I think I’m good at that. And actually my legal skills have prepared me for that. So, but then I thought, well, I can’t be a presenter because I have a mortgage and I have a salary and I can’t leave my job. And then they presented me with the opportunity to do as a secondment for six months and then go back to my job. So there was no downside. I kind of assessed the risk. There was any upside. I discussed with my nearest and dearest. It was a challenge to step out of a role that I’ve been focused on for a long time and see myself in a new perspective, which was too delicious to ignore. There was a lovely safety net.

So I was able to go back if it didn’t work. And in terms of my credibility, I insisted that I got some actual training in meteorology. So I spent a week at the Met office in Exeter doing the broadcast meteorology course and invested in lots of books and trained a lot at home, brushing up my geography.

So it was good, fun. And that’s how I started in TV once I was in, I loved it. And what happened is I never went back. They offered me a full-time role. I left my full-time legal position became a full-time weather presenter, and then explored what else can I do while I’m doing this? So I got work, doing travel presenting. I worked for sky news, got an agent. And eventually I worked for the BBC on escape to the country, which is a  property show about the countryside. So it was fantastic. And it was in that time when I was doing that, that Halebury was born. That’s when I had that moment, when I thought, well, I miss law. I miss problem solving, how can I problem solve and present at the same time, I’ll set up a framework and work flexibly,

Sue: [00:11:31] Its a lovely  story, describing that transition. And it seems to me, there was something about when any of us are presented with opportunities. How do we believe it is possible? How do we believe we can do it? And I am wondering, at that moment when you were deciding whether to say yes or no? If you were looking back on it now, what do you think you’ve learned about yourself as a result of going through that process?

Denise: [00:11:54] I’m curious about that moment as well, because it was such a major life shift. And the question I asked myself was what would make me believe this was possible. So what exactly what you were saying? What I needed at that time was to believe one that I wouldn’t lose something. It’s not true, but it was my thought process. What I know now is that you’re never losing anything. You’re just moving into something new and trying something new. There’s no possibility hope could have lost something, but that was what was in my mind. At that time I will lose credibility. I will lose this career that I’ve worked so hard for by going off and trying something new. And what I created for myself was the illusion of a safety net. So I called it a safety net, but. It was just a thought I needed the comfort of that thought that I can go back if this doesn’t work out, which in all honesty I always could. So it was kind of coaching myself into what do I need to believe to take this step? Because I knew it was such an amazing opportunity and I felt that was something I wanted to do and that I needed to rationalize in my brain how I could do it.

Sue: [00:13:00] Hi, it’s me again. Remember, you can keep up to date with all the news from access to inspiration, by connecting with us on social media. You’ll find us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, just type in access to inspiration and let us know what your thoughts are on the podcast so far.

So having rationalized it in your brain, taking this step. And of course it being all upside as you’re describing, did that help you when it came to the next risk, if you like that you were taking and setting up Halebury

Denise: [00:13:33] absolutely. Because as you say, as I retell the story and I’m conscious of this, it does always sound all upside because that’s the way I tell it. And that’s the way I genuinely feel. I feel it. I feel in retrospect, I always look back it it’s a little, the upside I see in truth. I did give up my career. I did stop being a lawyer at a pathway. I was on where I could have maybe progressed within a company. I did give up the salary that I was on and the perceived safety net of that salary and pension, et cetera. And became a freelance in the presenting world. And what I learned was that it was all okay, that the bottom didn’t fall out. And that actually, I felt more in control than I had ever felt before, because each next step now I was taking responsibility for as owned by me, as opposed to a notion that I was an employee of someone else.

My next steps were determined by whether I was given a promotion or someone else allowed me to make a step. And my thought process when I stepped away from that was one I’m not only a lawyer, I’m not defined by that title and everything that came with it. I can be something else or do something else quite credibly. And two, I am more than capable of surviving. And creating income and a new career. So it gave me a lot of resilience and self-reliance, and they allowed me to acknowledge what was already there. I acknowledged it. Which then made the step of starting a business, which is all about the unknown and creation and relying on yourself and building from nothing a logical next step. I didn’t have as much fear about that.

Sue: [00:15:05] And I know that you didn’t just start the business necessarily on your own Denise you started it with Janvi Patel as well. I’m wondering whether that made it slightly easier, that you weren’t just going it alone.

Denise: [00:15:15] Absolutely. Without a doubt, we both acknowledge this. So Janvi and I had been trainees at the law firm together during the period where I had stepped away from my full-time nor role. She was also in the process of figuring out what next step for her in her legal life. And actually the Genesis of Halebury  came from an idea with her. So I had my idea for how I want to set up a firm. And then her idea of Halebury was this idea of a consultancy where lawyers were working as consultants and her background was an employment lawyer. So she had been looking  at why couldn’t lawyers work the way other. businesses, or  maybe taking solicitors and making it more like a chambers, a barrister’s chambers. So the two of us came together and in some ways that is how law firms work or other professional practices tends to be partnerships and people coming together to do all those disciplines. So in some ways we were being a little bit traditional. By coming together, but we both acknowledged that having that other person by our side, who was in that almost the same position as the leadership position, sharing the risks together made it easier because there was always someone else to talk to who understood the position.

So that loneliness of leadership in that sense, we didn’t experience as acutely as sunlight because we had each other. And that balances against the other consideration, which was, Hey, we’re friends. We get on very well. What’s that going to be like going into business together? Will that work? Would it last? And one of the promises we made each other at the very beginning is that our relationship and friendship came first. And so we always put that first and that relied on us, looking at each other as a whole and allowing us both to have our families,  our  outside interests and always be working to what was of most importance to us as individuals and listening to each other as to making sure that was always part of the equation. And then knowing if it ever wasn’t. That we needed to course correct. Or maybe do something else. And by being very clear on that, the start, I think that’s helped us along the way on remaining friends, which we still are and being successful business partners.

Sue: [00:17:22] As you’ve grown Halebury over the years and obviously subsequently sold it. What did you learn about being an entrepreneur during that time Denise?

Denise: [00:17:30] Ooh, I learned so much, there was a reason that entrepreneurs  go off and write books because so much learning. It’s a great ground for self-development. And that’s one of the key things. I learned that to grow a business, to scale it, to go through the process, even of sale requires much of you as an individual, you have to be constantly developing and challenging yourself and learning and growing. It’s really good for self-development. And with each step and development of your business, you are required to step up and change. So it’s a lovely vehicle for pushing change within you or creating opportunities for change. But I truly don’t believe you will make it to the next step unless you do that self work. And then move yourself along or you might make it, but you might not be intact. So you will fall over at some point because I did get ill during it, the process, trying to do everything all the time. I mean, I’ve described doing three jobs. I think that the crushing point was just before I then added in having a family and I met my husband to be who’s now my husband, and became a stepmother of a nine and 12 year old overnight.

And then. A couple of years later, I had my son and all of that change plus everything else I was doing, you know, something had to give and I had to start figuring that out. So being an entrepreneur, I think you will push yourself in personal growth more than you ever thought is that I see it as akin to becoming a parent, dealing with this new entity that in some ways has a mind of its own and direction of its own. And you’re always trying to nurture and guide and help it to grow. But allow it to be its own personality as well. And to do that, you have to do a lot of self work.

Sue: [00:19:12] So just picking up on that point about looking at business as being a parent to a child. One of the things that is often talked about as a leader is about leaving a legacy. And I imagine as a parent one leaves potentially a legacy through their children. What do you think the legacy is that you and Janvi have left having successfully sold Halebury to a part of a large global organization.

Denise: [00:19:34] One of the things I am most proud of is empowering others and giving opportunities [00:19:40] to others. The existence of how we did that in a few ways. Firstly, we profoundly had an impact on the legal industry. Flexibility is what we are doing today. It’s now 2021. And the last year of COVID had everyone working from home and remotely and flexibly and realizing that you can deliver your work in different ways. We were doing that. In 2007 at the beginning of Halebury, one of the key messages we were constantly delivering when discussing with potential lawyers and clients was that this was possible to put it into the mix of how things are done. And we weren’t saying was the only way we’re just saying it could be legitimately part of the mix that would give you a richer, more diverse workforce.

And provide some balance to people’s work lives if handled properly and wisely. So making that impact and showing that that was possible, I think has definitely made a difference in the legal industry. And lots of them are catching up with it. Now, then the team that we worked with, the lawyers who worked with us, many of them have actually gone on to create their own versions of how Brie or their own businesses.

And I love that we were looking for people with that entrepreneurial spirit. To take that on. I see that as a legacy, that they have felt the confidence to take their own creativity and their own spin on things and to do that. And then thirdly, in the sale to the larger organization, what we built within help re continues and that.

Business in the year that we stayed with the U S business, we took on their equivalent service jumping. And I ran that together globally. And we doubled the size of both the legacy health group, businesses, that business, and it continues to exist and grow now, even in these challenging times. And the employee team that we’d put together, transferred across with us and they have stayed and we helped them develop into the next levels of their careers.

So if they became directors or able to work more globally or work on bigger accounts and get some more training and development, and that was something we’ve really wanted to do. So in those three areas, I’m supremely proud of what we’ve done.

Sue: [00:21:36] That’s quite a legacy to leave in different ways. Denise.  in terms of what’s next for you with all of this free time though that you’ve sold your company. Do you just sit home at your feet up or you got other plans?

Well, I had planned like much of the world. I had plans for 2020 and they involve traveling and spending lazy often means having long lunches with friends and family and people. I hadn’t spent as much time with during the, the years of building and growing the business. As we went into the global pandemic and lock down in April, 2020. Travel and do all of those things. I did get to spend quality time with my family, particularly my seven year old son and homeschooling. It’s just been challenging, but also very enriching. And I was so grateful. I had that time where I wasn’t working to really focus on him and the family. However, what the pandemic also threw up were inequalities. Injustices. It was all very much in the spotlight. It has been, it continues to be, and a couple of things resonated with me the most and I’ve got the most enraged about them.

And so I’ve gone into my usual mode of what can I do about it. So there are two projects I’ve been working on in particular. One is to support children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families in navigating the legal structure around education. The second is in relation to race and discrimination.

The murder of George  Floyd in  America was a catalyst to spotlight on the Black Lives matter movement. And after a period of upset, anger and grief, my reaction is to found something that empowers black people to do something that can create change for themselves. So I founded something called the black founders hub again with two other co-founders and that is. A peer networking group from ambitious black founders of professional services, bringing them together, allowing them to collaborate regularly and to take their businesses to the next level. I started looking at the data there and it’s woeful that the average black owned business in the UK and only 25,000 pounds per annum. And that’s according to a diversity survey by the British business bank. So we want to help those businesses go from there to six figure turnover and then to seven figure turnover. And to leverage the knowledge and wisdom of each other to do that. So that launched in December, 2026. I’m very excited about that. So those two projects have been my non-profits and I will be launching myself into whatever new for-profit business I take forward for myself in the summer.

I think, well, it sounds like you’re going to be busy with all of those activities. Denise, as you sit here today, just reflecting back on your career, as we have been. I’m wondering if you could tell your 16 or 17 year old self, some advice about the journey that was going to be ahead, what would be that advice you would give to your younger self?

I would advise myself to enjoy the journey and one of the mantras, I now enjoy it that I would say is everything is working out for you. Everything is always working out for you. And something that I’ve always believed in last year with other friends is that our life is a story. And we don’t know the next chapter. So even when the chapter is quite a dark and tragic and awful one, you don’t know what the next chapter is. So that allows me to have some perspective when I’m going through difficult times. I like to think all this will make a really interesting chapter in my book when I’m, whenever, when you’re looking at the end life cycle, Hey, this dark moment will be that point in the book where wow, what happens next. And as dark as it can be is as light as it can be. So have a bad, it is in this moment, the equal and opposite can be true on the other side. So you’ve just got to hang on in there to keep taking the next step. I would tell myself that I, within that therefore enjoy the journey. Don’t get so hung up on what has happened and what might happen. Just enjoy where you are.

Well, that’s a lovely point to end us on our journey in conversation today. Today, it’s been fantastic to talk to you and to hear your insights about your career as an entrepreneur presenter and a lawyer. If people want to find out more about you and the activities that you get up to homemade, they do that on social media.

Denise: [00:26:01] So social media, I am most active on LinkedIn in the professional services space. And so that’s just Denise Nurse. That’s my LinkedIn profile. And on Twitter, I’m at, at Denise B N. And then Black Founders Hub has launched. So you can have a look at the website there.

Sue: [00:26:20] Brilliant. Well, it’s been great to hear from you. We’ll put all those links on the show notes with this podcast, Denise, thank you for your time today.

Denise: [00:26:28] Say it has been really enjoyable and I have to commend you on your excellent interview skills, listening skills and questioning skills. I’m going to relisten to this and learn a lot from you.

Sue: [00:26:41] Well, thank you. Thank you. Take care. Well, I hope you enjoyed that podcast. And my conversation with Denise, it’s amazing how serendipity plays a role sometimes in how we develop our careers. And the topic of serendipity is relevant for next week’s guest, Karen Espley, who will be the final guest in this series. She might be what would be described as a serendipitous adventurer. Her journeys have taken her to Antarctica, to Ghana and to Australia and New Zealand and plenty more besides. I do hope you’ll join me then.