Legal Voices: Vanessa Allen, Executive Coach

Learn who your fellow community members are and share in their journeys.

The Centre for Legal Leadership

Interviews: Legal Voices Series on 15/05/24

We look at how Vanessa's career has developed from a real estate solicitor to an executive coach working with people from a broad range of professional sectors at different levels of management. 

Vanessa shares her insights on the private practice/in-house transition, her biggest in-house challenges and advice on becoming a coach.

Why did you decide on a career in-house after your training contract?

When I was about 2 years’ qualified and working in private practice, I was on holiday which gave me an opportunity to step back from work and assess what I wanted to do in the mid to long term. I realised that I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my career in a city law firm, not just for lifestyle reasons but also because I found myself becoming increasingly specialised in a narrow area of the law and I enjoyed lots of different types of law. I felt that a generalist in-house role would suit me better, and it would also give me the opportunity to get closer to a business and work with people in functions other than law.

How did you find the transition from private practice to in-house law?

My first in-house role was at PepsiCo where I was responsible for the Walkers business. I was very fortunate to have a fantastic boss who took the time to explain and role model how a successful in-house lawyer should perform and behave. I enjoyed the dynamic atmosphere, the different types of people and the projects that I worked on. One of my first tasks was to draft the contract for Victoria Beckham to advertise Walkers “Sensations”!

When you started in-house did you find there was support for soft skills development?

There was no formal soft skills training but I learnt a lot from observing other colleagues in action. I had to interact with people in many different functions and at different levels of seniority. I learnt the importance of respect, humility, diplomacy, courage and a good sense of humour!

What was the biggest challenge you faced as an in-house lawyer?

I moved from PepsiCo to help set up the legal team in a private equity owned business. I found this challenging as I had to convince the business people that I was there to help them and not hold them back. Some of them had worked for 20 years in the business with no lawyers and they were sceptical about the value that we could add. I had to spend a lot of time building relationships and really understanding the needs of the business. Then I had to decide how to prioritise and organise the work and not feel overwhelmed by the task!

From your MBA studies was there any particular factor that took you in the direction of psychology?

A number of the modules that I studied as part of my MBA had a psychology element which I found very interesting. My dissertation was about the factors that help and hinder innovation in law firms and I discovered that innovative behaviour requires a particular mindset, including a willingness to take risks, be creative and manage failure. This led me to investigate how mindsets can be changed which is how I first discovered the value of positive psychology and coaching. I decided to further my knowledge in this area by doing a masters, and that cemented my decision to move away from practicing law and into coaching.

What do you enjoy most about coaching?

I feel very privileged when a client is sufficiently comfortable with me to share their hopes, anxieties, frustrations and challenges. I don’t take that responsibility lightly and I am always conscious of maintaining that trust as coaching simply doesn’t work without it. My job is to act as a thinking partner for my client, so they work out the way forward for themselves. I am always so happy when a client has an insight that unlocks their progress towards their goals.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about becoming a coach or getting help from a coach?

A lawyer who becomes a coach needs to switch their mindset from problem-solving to listening without judgment, and this can be difficult after many years in the law. They need to be genuinely interested in people and their stories.

I believe that everyone can benefit from having the time and space offered by coaching to reflect and be stimulated and challenged to move forward in a positive manner. It works best when someone feels sufficiently psychologically safe to open up and be a little bit vulnerable. This depends on the strength of the relationship between coach and client, so it is really important to feel comfortable with your coach.

What do you like to do in your down time?

I have 2 dogs and I love going on long walks with them around where we live in Surrey. Keeping fit is really important to me - I think it’s true that exercise is the best medicine although sometimes it’s the hardest to take. The whole family enjoys spending time in N Ireland which is where I am from originally.

What is your favourite book/film?

I’m an avid reader so I can’t pick just one favourite. Books that I have particularly enjoyed include The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Vanessa is currently offering a special rate for CLL members.  Please contact her via LinkedIn ( to discuss how coaching could benefit you.


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