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From the archives: Geraldine Atlee and her quest for balance

We are going to be taking a tour of the archives and sharing our reflections on some of our favourite episodes. First up is Geraldine Atlee. Geraldine (at the time of writing) is Head of Business, Scripted Content at the BBC. In this podcast episode she shares her journey to the BBC, why she had too much personality to stay in private practice, and why she was one of the first in her industry to seek work-life balance.


Our reflections on the episode


Listening back to one of our earliest podcast episodes was an absolute delight! What stood out vividly was the infectious passion of our guest, a woman driven by a series of passions. Her love for film, sparked by her father and cultivated at university, radiated through our conversation. The BBC held a special place in her heart, having been a part of it three times, and she recognised the important role it plays both in the national cultural psyche and in the film industry more broadly. 

 

Amidst all this, her dedication to family shone brightly. Whilst Geraldine tacitly accepted the need for compromise and is aware that she can’t have it all, she appreciated that she needed to be a strong working Mum role model for her children, particularly her daughter. 

 

Geraldine truly exemplifies the modern working mother and the juggling skills that are required to create an all-round balanced working and family life.

 

There were also some lovely career tips during the conversation too. The importance of bravery and being fierce when you want to get something important to you. Collaborating within your organisation, as well as seeking support and input from those more widely in your industry.  Finally, an understanding of the importance of being in the room as much as possible to get the most out of what you are doing at any particular moment in time, be that at work or at home. 

 

This episode doesn't just make for a great conversation; it's a treasure trove of insights for anyone in the legal industry (and beyond), offering valuable clues on how to navigate both professional and personal opportunities with finesse.

 

You can listen again here, or read the transcript below, enjoy!


Transcript of the podcast

 

Claire Rason 

Welcome to The Lawyer’s Coach Podcast. My name is Claire Rason, and each episode will feature myself or Oliver Hansard, both of us coaches and former lawyers, trying to find out what makes lawyers tick. We'll be hearing from various guests and experts and then at the end of each episode, we will both be reflecting on what they said. Geraldine Attlee is Head of Legal and Business Affairs at BBC films. In this interview she talks about her journey to the BBC, why she had too much personality to stay in private practice, why she was one of the first in her industry to seek work life balance, and, to kick-off with, why she became a lawyer.

 

Geraldine 

I had a father who was very entrepreneurial, which was inspiring but also slightly scary. There were too many occasions when he came home announcing that he'd re-mortgaged the house! So I think more than anything, I just wanted security. I knew that I wanted a profession, I wanted something dependable and reliable and a qualification that would enable me just to do a regular job; I didn't want to run my business in the way that he'd done.

 

I also knew that I wanted a family. From the age of puberty, I knew I wanted kids. So I figured that having a profession would allow me that sort of flexibility. Ultimately, any sort of psychometric test I did, every time I went into one hoping that it would tell me I'd be a great florist or ballet dancer, it would always come back that I should be a lawyer.

 

Oliver Hansard 

An excellent florist, as well?

 

Geraldine 

I'm sure there's a niche there for a sort of floral of dancing lawyering type career! I instinctively I am organized, conscientious and I have a strong sense of fair play and justice. So I think, you know, my sort of basic qualities meant that I was kind of suited to the role.

 

Oliver Hansard 

And so did you do a law degree? Or did you did you do a conversion course?

 

Geraldine 

I always knew that doing a conversion course afterwards was an option. So I actually did a geography degree strangely. Just because I enjoyed it was and it was my favourite subject at school. So I did that. But I knew all along that I wanted to go on; I just figured that I'd rather have three years of messing about at university, followed by a bit of hard study than three years studying law. So did a degree, did the CPE conversion course at the College of Law, and then finals as they were then. And then had my training contract or articles as they were then with a small media firm in the West End in London.

 

Oliver Hansard 

And how long did you stay there before you decided to go in house?

 

Geraldine 

Not long. I qualified in 1993, which was during a recession. So there wasn't really any media work.  I had a long time in their media department having two seats, and loved it. But when I qualified, there wasn't really any immediate work. Not long after qualifying, I was made redundant from the property department. So I then made a conscious choice to hold out to get a position back in media law. And I also consciously sought out roles in house partly because I'd really enjoyed the business aspect and I wanted to be posted at the coalface of the business.

 

Also, I was told by one of the partners in my last appraisal that I probably had too much personality to succeed as a solicitor. Being a law firm at that time was very much providing a service as opposed to being involved, so I just wanted to get more involved in the business side.

 

Oliver Hansard 

Have you always had a passion for film as well, because since then, you've pretty much focused on the film industry?

 

Geraldine 

It has always been in there since I was a small kid. That was the thing that I did with my dad, we loved films; we had regular trips to the cinema but it was also linked to his business. So I watched films endlessly at home. Also, when I was at university it was pretty much all I did with my spare time. I didn't even put two and two together and twigged that I could make a career out of it. And to be honest, ending up with media firms was more by accident than design. It hadn't been conscious choice.

 

So I just ended up with a law firm that happened to have a media department but it's a very happy accident because as you say, since then I've I moved in house to BBC Worldwide, and I've literally only worked in the film industry. I was at Polygram Films that was then taken over by Universal Studios. I worked at a small indie; I've worked at UK Film Council; I spent a long time at Channel 4. And now I’m back at BBC.

 

Oliver Hansard 

Of all the films and projects you've worked on, which one stand out for you.

 

Geraldine 

Probably “12 Years a Slave”, because it was so exciting being involved in something from the very beginning, and you walk through the whole process, and then to see it winning multiple awards, it's incredibly gratifying. So, yeah, that was the most exciting probably.

 

Oliver Hansard 

So you've been at the BBC twice. When you went back, had it changed much, or was it still very much the BBC that it had always been?

 

Geraldine 

Actually I’ve been there three times! I started at BBC Worldwide as it was then, which was the commercial arm. When they were trying at that point to convert TV programs, and any successful feature length drama, they were then converting for theatrical release after the event, which was a nightmare job, because it meant going in and obtaining clearances from the talent after the fact.

 

A colleague I worked with there said they might launch their own film division, but it just didn't seem to be happening quickly enough. So when I got an offer to join Polygram, I moved there. BBC films was subsequently launched; I moved there in 2003. And I worked there for five years, which was fantastic. But then I got another good opportunity so I moved on again.

 

Now that I'm back, I think the BBC is, is in a very interesting space at the moment. I think especially after the Coronavirus, it's proved to be ever more important to the nation. And you know, the public sector nature is absolutely crucial. But it's no secret that we are under threat; the fact that the streamers are building most younger audiences. In particular, we now expect them to consume all of their content online on demand. So we are modernizing quickly. It’s a very old organization and that inevitably brings all sorts of certain issues.

 

Oliver Hansard 

What role do you think BBC film will play in that organization?

 

Geraldine 

I joined a few years ago as part of a new team and we were brought in to shake things up a little, because BBC Film’s output had always been great, but it was kind of safe, it played to a particular type of audience. And I think the BBC had become aware that it needed to start attracting a younger demographic. So I joined as part of a team that had a bit of a track record in terms of attracting younger talent, more diverse talent. So that's what we're doing at the moment, it's very much about working with new writers, new directors, and with, I don't want to say R&D, but we're very much working with new voices building for the future.

 

Oliver Hansard 

I love your title of Head of Legal and Business Affairs. Are you more a lawyer? Or are you more of a business person?

 

Geraldine 

I think the emphasis is much more on business than legal. My role involves a multiple of things, strategic decision making. It's the negotiation of deals, but I do have a very small team. So I do still review and draft contracts. But it's not that I don't deal with legal issues at all. At this stage in my career, though, it's much more about identifying legal issues, and then knowing how to outsource or delegate or collaborate, which is easy in an organization, the size of the BBC. I've got many colleagues who are much more experienced in particular areas of law such as fair dealing, so I think with me it's more about having the experience to recognize a problem and to know what sort of specialized advice I need to get.

 

Oliver Hansard 

So when you say outsourced, you outsource within the BBC, or do you outsource to law firms?

 

Geraldine 

It's pretty much always within the BBC. You know, it is it is public sector so we don't really have the resource to outsource to firms, unfortunately. We do occasionally, but it's quite unusual for that to happen.

 

Oliver Hansard 

You've got all the different types of specialisms you need within the BBC?

 

Geraldine 

Pretty much and, the UK independent film industry is a very small industry in which most of the practitioners know each other pretty well. So I often tap up my peers for free advice, you know, outsourcing. It's just phoning other lawyers to say, what would you do; I think we all operate on that basis. It's a very, very small field. So it's not so much outsourcing as getting free tips!

 

Oliver Hansard 

Brilliant. I like that. So you've got a family, you've got two kids? How have you managed to balance your legal career? Because I can imagine the film world has its late nights, just like any other any other legal role? How have you managed to balance those demands on your legal career yet bring up a family?

 

Geraldine 

It's an elusive balance, an ongoing work in progress! Being a working parent is hard, although possibly easier now than it was when I first had my kids. But I think whether you're a working mum, dad, whatever, it's all about endless compromise. My first was born in 2000 at which point I had the very first job share scheme within Universal Studios, which at the time employed 1000s of people; literally I was the first to ever ask for job share. And how much has changed in the meantime! The fact that in the last 20 years, it's now the norm is fantastic. It's a huge improvement.

 

It would mean that for the first few years of my children's lives, I ended up with a selection of job share or part time roles when they were very young, which was good in some ways, you know, it meant that I got to drop them at school every day, and I was home for bedtime. But I felt that I was missing out at work, because it wasn't necessarily that interesting. And I didn't feel that I was growing enough.

 

So when, when my eldest started secondary school I took on a much bigger job. The career became much more fulfilling, but then I missed out on certain things domestically. The kids were absolutely fine but I missed out on parents’ evenings. But you know, it's endless compromise. And the same is true for any working parent so it's ultimately about setting boundaries. Even now that they're grown up, if I'm coming home, it's all about engaging fully in whichever sphere you're in. So, for example, no phones at the table, that sort of thing. If I'm with the kids, I'm with the kids, if I'm working, I'm working.

 

Oliver Hansard 

Was it bravery, or necessity that led you to develop that part time career?

 

Geraldine 

Bravery, I think that when you have children, you become fierce and suddenly your priorities shift. And I knew that I wanted to spend time with my kids, but how do they want to compromise? The career and their wishes are built up until that point. So I think I just happen to be one of the pioneers in that, for the generation of women before me, they'd had to juggle it all on a man's terms. Whereas I think things were changing at the time that I had kids. So I was able to go in and make certain demands, which, surprisingly, were met.

 

I don't think I would have had the courage to make the requests that I did prior to having kids but as I say, once you have kids, your priorities shift. I was in the right place at the right time. So I was working at a company, it was in the middle of a huge takeover, and I was the last surviving lawyer as everybody else had left. So they were desperate to hang on to me on any terms. So I was just very lucky. I played it well.

 

Oliver Hansard 

And would you say, looking back that you've got the balance right then between your family life and the working life.

 

Geraldine 

Yes, I think my career was in the slow lane for a while, yet, I feel particularly connected to my kids. So I think since they’ve been older I've been much busier with many more late nights at work, I think that's been good for them. I think that they genuinely benefited from having a mother with outside interests. I’m a role model for girls in particular; I love the fact my daughter sees what I do and thinks “Yeah, that's what I can do”. It's not an issue.

 

Oliver Hansard 

Obviously, the UK film industry has been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic, what do you think the medium and long term future for it is going to be?

 

Geraldine 

It's rather worrying, it's been hit very dramatically. I mean, all production work has ceased and 1000s have been furloughed or made redundant. That means an industry that's comprised primarily of freelancers. So we've had to work incredibly quickly to try and deal with recovery. We've been busy introducing new sorts of health and safety protocols. We're still facing issues such as insurance; we're lobbying for enhanced tax credits while the industry gets back on its feet. Let’s see how things will pan out long term. I think we've got challenging times ahead.

 

I think the UK film industry is sort of distinct. There is independent film and there are studio films; I think the studio films are in a healthier position because you know, they're a bigger budget. They're funded by studios. So, even though they're shooting in the UK, they're often funded by studios. So they're likely to be able to soak up the costs that have arisen as a result of health and safety protocols in a way that an UK independent film might struggle a little. What we're facing acute additional costs as a result of Coronavirus. So it's yeah, it's challenging.

 

Oliver Hansard 

Is that hitting your workload as well?

 

Geraldine 

Yes, very much. So I've been very heavily involved in various industry task forces and working groups as we're looking at how to address things. And then in the day job, the bread and butter is very busy as well. I think there's currently a lot of emphasis on development, which is script writing, that sort of thing, stuff that can be done at a safe social distance. So it's been an incredibly busy three months, it's been a very steep learning curve as well on the fact that I've had to get up to speed with stuff like furloughing and the sort of stuff that normally I wouldn't have had to deal with.

 

Oliver Hansard 

Has coaching played any part in your career?

 

Geraldine 

Yes, very much so. Not much at the moment. Not for want of opportunity within the BBC, where there's a strong coaching culture. But I'm very lucky in that at the moment, I've got a great gig. It's constantly evolving, it's never boring. I've got very supportive colleagues. So at the moment, I'm not actually looking for answers.

 

But in the past, I've yeah, I've used career coaches, often provided by my employer that, for example, when I was at Channel 4, I faced a few challenging management situations. But Channel 4 was fantastic in terms of offering independent career coaches, who really challenged my perspectives and methods and maybe approach things in a different way. I also approached a senior colleague at Channel 4, whom I admired greatly to ask if she'd be happy to mentor me, she worked in a very different part of the business. But I'd sort of learned a bit about mentoring and just to prove to this woman because I thought she was rather fabulous.  

 

I think it helps whether it's a mentor or coach having an objective bystander’s viewpoint is incredibly helpful. Especially, the higher up the ladder you climb. It's one thing when you're hanging out with lots of junior lawyers, and you can compare notes. But one can be kind of isolated, so it's essential to get third party opinions on occasion.

 

Oliver Hansard 

It has been absolutely fascinating talking to thank you very much for sharing your perspectives on the BBC today and your career. It's been brilliant. Thank you ever so much for your time, really appreciate it.

 

Geraldine 

My pleasure. Nice talking to you.

 

Claire Rason 

So that was Geraldine Atlee, Head of Legal and Business Affairs at BBC films, talking to Oliver. And Oliver is with me now, Oliver, really fascinating to hear Geraldine’s journey. And one of the things that really struck me from her interview with you was the idea of that no individual can do it all on their own.

 

Oliver Hansard 

I think that was really well observed Claire, it's almost as if the collaborative process that she's experienced, to create and produce films, she brings to the way she operates as a lawyer, be that getting the deal done, or seeking out help within her organization on particular points, or even I love that notion of, of just going outside into the broader film community to try and get solutions to any challenges you might come up against.

 

Claire Rason 

I'm sure you've had similar conversations with your coachees, that notion of not doing it all on your own is one of the things that lots of people often fall foul of; they feel like, particularly when they've reached a certain point in their career, that, it's perhaps a sign of weakness to reach out and ask people for help, or perhaps to have a network and to tap into. I thought it was a really important message, just to say actually, no, sometimes I don't know everything, and sometimes I do need to go out and ask other people, and that's okay. And that makes me stronger, and it makes me human.

 

Oliver Hansard 

I think that's true. And it was also good to see that thought process applied when she used coaching, how she was facing some, some specific problems in the workplace, and use that external sounding board to try and explore new ways to solve the things that she was confronted by.

 

Claire Rason 

And really fascinating also, to hear her journey. I'm a mum of four, so I reflect on just how much things have changed over the years. It will be interesting to see what happens in another 20 years when my children are at work what that will look like.

 

Oliver Hansard 

It was that comment, “motherhood made me fierce”. It's such a shame that she had to become fierce in order to succeed and have a career and be a mother at the same time.

 

Claire Rason 

That left me reflecting as to whether I've become more fierce since I first became a mum. And I think one of the things that I have become more protective over certainly is how I spend my time.  I've always worked full time, I went back to work with all four of them, when the children were very young, so I only had three months maternity leave for the first two, and then with my twins I did shared parental leave with my other half and, and also took a very small amount of time off.

 

But I think you do become more aware when you're working that you could be somewhere else and you could be with your children. So I think it makes you much more disciplined or certainly it's made me much more disciplined when I am working. And perhaps that does sometimes come out a bit as being fierce too, because you want to be efficient, and you want to get things done. And I think true, I suspect of all parents and links back to that original reflection of you can't do it all on your own.

 

I think oftentimes, what you see is the person who's juggling a family, you see the person who's you know, doing very well at work; what you don't see is that network that sits behind, so you don’t see my parents who help out with the kids, you don't see the childminder that I have on the day, you don't see the people that you tap into, in the work environment. So I think it's really important that people remember that no one can do it on their own. And actually, it's having that really strong network is really important.

 

Oliver Hansard 

I also thought Geraldine had a great coaching tip, which was to be in the room, wherever you are, be in the room as a parent, and be in the room as a worker and really focus on what the job in hand is. And I think that's a really great lesson for any worker, make sure you're getting the best out of whatever it is you're doing at that particular point in time.




 

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