5p Coffee with Arthur: Sharon Turner, Executive Director, European Climate Foundation
As I enter Carluccio’s, fifteen minutes early, Sharon Turner is already sitting at a table next to a glass wall. My heart is beating quickly since I’m about to interview one of the first environmental lawyers in the UK. It will also be the first interview I have ever done.
The brick monolith of Tate Modern looms over us, but doesn’t cover the bright sun. This is not the usual side visitors see Tate from, but it is beautiful nonetheless.
Sharon grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. The traditional convent girls school she attended didn’t encourage its pupils to be societal leaders. “Although I loved my school the expectation was that you would go on to be a nurse or a teacher, and while both careers can be deeply rewarding my school never encouraged me to explore the world or to see myself as an agent of change in alternative fields.” She wasn’t inspired or encouraged by anyone to study law. No one in her family had links with law.
I hope you’re expecting she chose it out of inborn passion towards the subject.
“It was for reasons unrelated to the subject. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a small town, and the only degree my local university didn’t offer at the time was law. Doing law was a way to persuade my parents to let me go to Dublin.”
I hang on to that thread. Sharon is candid on why she went on to study law. In a time when you have to demonstrate burning passion for everything you apply to, from university personal statements to graduate scheme applications, an honest answer like that would put a person at risk of no opportunities today. But I am not bamboozled — there is frequent talk among students on how much you need to inflate your passions when applying to full-time jobs for the first time — while never working at the company before. It seems not much has changed.
I ask if law was interesting to her. Sharon fires back: “Law didn’t really become interesting to me until I did my postgraduate degree.” She was always interested in broad social justice questions but didn’t really come across teaching that ignited her excitement about law until she met academics who were more like activist lawyers. That said, her time in Dublin gave her access to bigger city life and an exposure to a much wider range of experiences.
“Darling, you need to get a job,” is what her dad told her after postgraduate studies and an article she published on how tough life at the bar is.
One of her former professors said Queen’s University Belfast was looking for academics. She didn’t know what being an academic involved, but she wanted to carry on writing and the idea of teaching law appealed. Her first decade at Queen’s was, however, extremely difficult. “I was not made to feel welcome. I was one of the first Southern Irish to work for the law school, a position that was compounded by being female in a then deeply conservative and inward looking law school”. Why did she stay? “I was determined to make a success of what I had. I found myself unwilling to be forced to leave.”
At the time Northern Ireland was a fossilised society, emerging out of conflict. “It was both a completely alien culture to me but also a fascinating place to teach law.” Some members of her inaugural first-year class never met a protestant or a catholic before. The law school wouldn’t let her co-teach family law, her postgraduate specialization, and she was instead allocated to the European law team.
Sharon was then asked by a colleague to write about EU’s then emerging environment law and policy. She enjoyed it so much she asked the university to let her create an environmental law module.
While teaching herself environmental law, since it didn’t exist when Sharon was a student, the university let her create and teach the module but the Dean strongly advised that “I should stick with European law since it is a bigger, more established field. How wrong they were!” says Sharon.
She quickly went from teaching 5 to 80 students in the third-year optional module. Sharon later pioneered the first specialized postgraduate degree on environmental law on the island of Ireland and one of the first in the UK.
In the meantime, the devolution of Northern Ireland was happening, and the first power-sharing government of Northern Ireland was established. The Northern Ireland Assembly was created. “They [Northern Ireland’s government] poured huge investment into building up their environmental policy capacity,” says Sharon. “Years of neglect had created chaos and exposed the UK to extensive liability due to poor implementation of EU environmental rules in Northern Ireland. Friends of the Earth had made extensive complaints to the European Commission about the situation and the new Northern Ireland government needed to act quickly to manage the situation.”
Since there was no one better qualified than her, Sharon was invited by the Department of the Environment to take a secondment to become their senior legal adviser on the environment, so she left Queen’s for 2 years to work for the new administration.
“Although several of my academic colleagues urged me not to take this opportunity as it could be a distraction at an important time in my career, our then Dean — Professor Stephen Livingstone — encouraged me to take up the opportunity and I have to say, those years as a government lawyer were amongst the most exciting and rewarding in my career.”
Stephen was later the same colleague who urged her to come back to Queen’s to write up and share her experiences, which she did for several years. But ultimately Sharon’s appetite for the world of action lured her out of the university again and so she left to join the NGO and later the philanthropic community to carry on working as a lawyer in the field of the environment. Sharon explains that “what first seemed like a big career risk, turned out to be a horizon broadening experience and the opening of a new chapter in my career journey”.
Our coffee is excellent. Sharon has a cappuccino, I sip my latte.
How should students see their careers? Sharon believes a career is a lifetime’s project, a series of chapters rather than something defined from the outset. Retaining a sense of openness while focusing on the current episode is important.
The first job you take will most likely define your focus for the next two years. But don’t feel it defines the rest of your career. See it as an experience or an experiment — try it on for size and don’t worry changing your job every two years until you find a fit that suits you. This is reassuring advice, especially because millennials are accused of being jumpers.
People who move roles quite frequently aren’t seen as undesirable by employers, particularly if you can explain those decisions at an interview. “How you tell your story is important”. In other words, it’s unlikely to impress if you just explain that you get bored quickly or you didn’t like the people at your previous role — but if you explain that you felt you were suited to a wide range of possible roles and wanted to experience a few of your top choices to understand the fit and the career path — that demonstrates you’re someone who takes their career seriously and has a strong sense of agency about finding the right role and employer for you.
I am eager to ask about the anxiety students are feeling today about jobs. Was it any different in her times?
“No, I can definitely understand.” But, I ask, is it not worse now?
“I worked hard as a young academic, but my young academic colleagues nowadays work even harder and with more pressure than I did at their stage,” says Sharon.
“But, anxiety at the start is universal,” she adds. “ Indeed, I think some element of anxiety is a relatively constant part of career development. It’s just that young people are more affected by it because they have less perspective on the journey.”
Getting comfortable with uncertainty is a key life skill because it reduces anxiety and also keeps you investing in change and in yourself — both of which are essential to finding the right career fit rather than just finding a permanent job and staying put. And the right fit can change over time so keep flexible about the future.
What advice would she give to students wanting to get into the environmental NGO sector?
It’s a fascinating and rewarding field. The problem is that demand can outstrip the supply of good roles: especially for lawyers. There are too few environmental NGOs in Europe that employ people because of their legal qualifications.
“Try Client Earth or the European branch of the Environmental Defence Fund, which has opened up recently,” she says, stressing that graduates of other disciplines should also check those organisations out. And like working in the private sector branch of environmental law, working at an NGO large enough to employ lawyers will almost certainly require you to move to bigger cities — London, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw to name but a few.
She would also recommend philanthropy as a potential career path for students interested in the environment — London is home to several large foundations like the European Climate Foundation, which are responsible for working with NGOs to develop strategies aimed at solving the world’s greatest problems, against which grants are made to civil society. “You help build civil society, you work with inspirational people on issues that make the world a better place. You can have real impact.”
Sharon is on European Climate Foundation’s (ECF) executive management team as the Executive Director for Governance and Law. How is it being a woman in a position of power?
ECF has recently employed a new CEO, who is a woman. “I am the only other woman at the top of the organization and was one of comparatively few female professors at Queen’s University Belfast,” says Sharon. “It can be a rather lonely position”. “A lot of women at the top don’t treat one another terribly well,” she adds.
Why? Sharon seems unsure for the first time in the interview. “I don’t know. A lot of women had to work so hard to get there that they had almost become ‘like men’. Like a particular type of man. But women are also well suited for leadership positions because they can more easily combine high professional competence and outstanding interpersonal skills that transform morale and consequently the output and effectiveness of organisations.” Sharon is optimistic, pointing to the fact that “There are many inspirational women out there, and with the new CEO there is now a hugely inspirational woman at the helm, who I’m sure will bring on many others into senior roles in the organisation.”
A colleague approaches Sharon, and she greets her. The interview is finished, and as we say goodbye Sharon tells me her next meeting is on improving climate policy. And just like that, Sharon rushes away.