Gill Hunter with her dog

Empowering Resilience: In Conversation With Gill Hunter

Uncovering the inspiring journey of Gill Hunter, Managing Partner at Square One Law…

Gill Hunter is Managing Partner and a Commercial Lawyer at Square One Law – a northern firm with offices in Newcastle, Leeds and Darlington. She has been on quite the journey; from her unique way of finding her feet in law, to her battle with cancer, her recovery and her resilience in building herself back up again.

Every obstacle that has come Gill’s way has held a valuable life lesson, and she is the person she is today because of all of those things.

It might sound cliche to say ‘no day is the same’ when it comes to her life, but if ever there was a way of defining a saying, in this case, it would be through
Gill. By day she runs her own commercial law firm, and by night she may be at a heavy metal gig with her daughter. One day she’s heading up meetings at the British Chambers of Commerce, the next she’s campaigning for LGBTQ rights in the workplace and community.

Gill Hunter

How it all began

We’re fascinated by the fire within her. In order to uncover Gill’s journey, it makes sense to start at the very beginning.

“I grew up in Gateshead and was an only child and the first person in my family to go to university. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do upon graduation – so
everything I’ve done, I feel, has been down to luck or circumstance, rather than having any great plan.

“I did geography at university because that was what I was best at at school. Also, when applying for university, the geography field trip was to Barbados (!), so naturally, I thought: ‘that sounds great, I’ll do that!

“I didn’t find out that names were pulled out of a hat until I got there, so it wasn’t quite what I imagined, and I ended up in Oban digging pollen samples, but never mind!

“I finished uni and had no real idea what I wanted to do, so went into the careers service. And this was back in the early 90s when there were no computers or systems in place to help guide you. I’d missed all of the deadlines for graduate jobs so just got a pick of what was left.

Gill Hunter

“There was an application for an accountancy firm, one for an insurance company, and the other was an application to do the common professional examination, which was the law conversion course at that point in time.

“So, I went off and did that for a year, and actually, once I started doing law, I loved it because it’s really just about stories and people’s lives. I found it quite natural to connect with. I decided to stay and complete my studies which took another year. However, I didn’t realise this at the time but you need to secure your training contract to become a solicitor two years in advance and because I’d only converted to law a year before, I needed to act quickly.

Getting into law

“I contacted every legal firm in the North East of England. One of them wrote back and invited me in for an interview. Once I did the interview, I got offered the job there and then – which took me a bit by surprise! I accepted the job, but at the same time I got accepted onto a work placement scheme at one of the regional commercial firms.

“I told them I already had a job lined up but wanted to go along for the experience. They decided to offer me a job too, so I ended up with two offers and had this moral dilemma. I went with the commercial firm in the end which ended up being a really good decision.

“I did a bit of litigation and a bit of property law, and it wasn’t for me. Following this, I moved into commercial law and worked with a lawyer who did IT and intellectual property law – which was a relatively new area at that time. This was totally fascinating and it appealed to me because it was evolving and still is to this day, especially with AI. This was in the late 90s and it was really starting to take off.

“I had to teach myself because at that point in time tech was in its infancy in business, but it really took off because of the rise of the internet and web technology. In the late 1990s businesses were installing PCs, experimenting with websites and e-commerce and email took over as the main form of communication. This led to lots of new legal issues including how to be active online within the scope of the law, which had never anticipated the arrival of the internet. I was fortunate to work with One North East, who were the regional
development agency at the time. They wanted to be the first regional development agency to go online, so I worked with them for about three years, helping with all of the legal issues they faced in building their online offering.

“That was really good experience. Because there were very few tech lawyers in the region, I ended up doing all sorts of things from managing brand licensing, creating bespoke contracts for website building services and grappling with data protection issues. That’s one thing my career has given me – variety and the opportunity to work on innovative and interesting projects – from licensing deals with Disney, to recording contracts for pop artists, I did all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

Time for change

“Fast forward 20 years and I’d grown the team from just me to 13. But I’d got to the point where I was missing a bit of a challenge.

“I got headhunted by a national firm as their Head of IP/IT; and I thought, ‘if I don’t go for it now I never will.’. So I made the move, which was the right thing to do – I was ready for a change.

“I handed in my notice in February, left on 30 April and I was diagnosed with cancer on 5 May. So, that wasn’t the best of timings.

“It meant I couldn’t start my new job but I eventually did and was there for a couple of years. The majority of the work was in the public sector and it really wasn’t me. I had watched Square One Law take off since its establishment, and I knew it would be successful because Ian and Alan, who founded it, were great business people. It was nice to see some new entrants as the legal market was getting very static.

Gill Hunter

“I joined as Managing Partner in 2018. In early 2022, after the founding partner’s departure, we initiated a significant cultural change programme in the business. Post-Covid, the world changed significantly. It was time to advance the business to its next stage of development.”

Leaders have the power to shape the culture within their business. Throughout her time at Square One Law, Gill has worked hard to put things in place to make a difference. She is big on ‘doing the right thing’. You can see that in her personal life and values, and in turn, that runs through the business.

“Just because you’ve got a nice, supportive culture, it doesn’t mean you can’t make difficult decisions. But you can make those decisions with kindness. There are real benefits to creating a good culture within your business. Not just making sure people feel like they can fit in, it’s about making them feel like they belong. In doing that, we’ve seen an increase in financial performance and engagement, but we’ve also seen a drop in attrition.

“We’ve had some lovely feedback from people about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. You’re never going to please everyone all of the time. It’s just about being true to yourself and having integrity and authenticity.”

An unexpected battle

That brings us up to speed with Gill’s path and her journey to ‘the now’. But what really is inspiring is Gill’s spirit and determination, and the ability to show
up, even with a whole load of challenges and hurdles thrown in.

“My cancer diagnosis was a real turning point,” she says.

“And I don’ t mean to sound cliche, but naturally, it brought big changes and helped me reflect.

“When I was first diagnosed they thought it was going to be easily sorted out. But then my diagnosis became more complicated. My priority at the time was protecting my children. I did all sorts of things like getting my eyebrows and eyeliner tattooed on, and scalp cooling which freezes your head to stop your hair falling out, to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible for the kids.

“I wasn’t well enough to work, I was having weekly chemo. This meant I had to delay starting my new role for six months, but then when I’d only been at work for eight months or so, my cancer came back and I was re-diagnosed. It had spread so I needed more treatment and operations. Co-incidentally at the same time, I discovered I’d also broken my back.

“I couldn’t have my back operated on because of the risk of infection that chemotherapy brings. So, three weeks after my chemo finished, I had a back operation. It was quite an intensive period!

“Throughout all of this, I kept working, which was really challenging at times – both physically and mentally. Managing all of that was one of the hardest periods of my life. But, you learn a lot about yourself. People say things like, ‘you’re so brave’ – but I don’t believe that because you don’t choose it. What I did learn is that you’re stronger than you think. And actually, for me, when I was diagnosed with cancer, the fear subsided. I just had to deal with it.

“People say things like, ‘do you live each day like it’s your last?’, but no, you don’t because life has to go on.

“I did, however, re-evaluate what was important and made decisions about what I really wanted out of life. That is why, shortly after I had recovered from my back operation, I realised that my old job wasn’t right for me.

“Cancer has had an impact, but my mantra now is, ‘until somebody tells me otherwise, I’m alright!’. And that’s the way I’ve approached it.

“When you face your own mortality, you realise how little time you have to make
an impact. For me, I just wanted my impact to be as positive as possible. That has taken lots of different forms, but it has centred around people. I think part of that is because I get my strength from the people around me.”

A strong support network; whether that’s in business, at home, in friendship circles or in community groups, is key when it comes to recovery, Gill tells me. People need people. From family life, business, hobbies, interests, and voluntary work, Gill’s life embodies this approach in all aspects.

“We’re pretty resilient as the human race,” says Gill.

“We can come bouncing back from these things. There are going to be good and bad times, but on the whole, the good times will outweigh the bad. If you’ve got the right people around you, the bad times can still be a positive experience.

Becoming an advocate

“Through personal experience, I am acutely aware of how inequitable our society is, particularly around disability and neurodivergence. I’m passionate about disability rights. I’m Vice Chair at Disability North where we support disabled people through benefits advice and recruitment of personal assistants and payroll management. That work is really important to me.

“I’m also a trustee at the West End Women and Girls Centre. Social mobility is also a subject close to my heart. The work they do makes a real impact on the lives of people within the local community. It provides a safe space and opportunities for those that would otherwise struggle to find them.

Gill Hunter

“I am heavily involved with the Chamber of Commerce, I sit on the Regional Council and I co-chair the digital forum because I’m passionate about tech as an enabler for people and business. I also chair the British Chambers of Commerce’s flagship Workplace Equity Commission, which is a year-long
project looking at how we can create fairer workplaces for all. We will produce a report which will hopefully influence government policy makers.

“Being part of the LGBTQ community, I’m also keen to support people who are making a difference to the lives of other LGBTQ people. Showing allyship to all marginalised communities is key for us as a business – the firm is made up of people from all walks of life and our client base is similarly diverse – it’s important that those stakeholders know we will support them and do what we can to showcase their achievement and interact with them in an empathetic way.”

Outside of work

When Gill isn’t working, volunteering or sitting on boards, life is very much about keeping busy and challenging herself. By her own admission, Gill gets her energy from from involvement in a variety of things, and that’s what drives her. In her ‘downtime’ she enjoys an eclectic mix of hobbies and interests.

“I absolutely love music – particularly heavy metal. I go to at least two gigs a month – up and down the country. I’ve seen Iron Maiden over 20 times. I love live music because it’s invigorating and it doesn’t fail to move you.

“To switch off, I read every night – I’m in a book club, which I enjoy. I love travelling – my son and I are going to Borneo this summer. He adopted an orangutan last year, so we’re going to see it!

“I also love food and cooking. I’m in a baking club and love getting out to enjoy the fantastic restaurants that we have in the North East. One of my favourite places to eat is The Roxburgh in Whitley Bay. It’s a set menu, you get what you’re given, but it’s always got a little twist. When you go in, you pull back a little red velvet curtain and it feels like an intimate speakeasy. It’s really
creative and reasonably priced. There is also places like Pani’s Cafè on High Bridge in Newcastle. I’ve been going there since I was at school. It’s always served authentic tasty Sardinian food in a relaxed and comfortable environment. Riley’s Fish Shop (not the Fish Shack on the beach – too weather dependant for me!) in Tynemouth is another favourite – the food is always fresh and innovative and the service is great.

“I’ve got a lot of interests. I’ve actually got a list on my phone of all the activities I want to try, so that if I ever fancy doing something different, I can have a little look at my list and get some inspiration. There’s everything on there from candle making workshops, to learning how to crochet. I’m rubbish at anything crafty, but I quite like having a go.

“I’m not very good at saying no, but I’ve found that by saying yes and giving things a go, I’ve got so much more out of life.

“It’s all about memory making. And I know it sounds a bit corny, but those are the things that are more meaningful to me rather than the material things.”