My Weekend: Julia Wood

Times Online, August 17, 2007

The majority of lawyers interviewed for this column say the same thing when it comes to explaining why they have carved out enough time to pursue a particular passion or interest. Some are more forthright than others, but most agree that their passion is so important precisely because it is so antithetical to the law. In immersing themselves in exercise, or art, or music, or whatever it might be, relief from the stress and rigour of the law is found. It’s as if, for many lawyers, they need to do something that – temporarily, at least – suspends their professional identity.

Julia Wood, a commercial partner with Bond Pearce and avid flat-water rower, is different. Wood handles an array of legal matters as complex as anyone’s, but does not indulge in her love of rowing because she wants to get away from the law. “No, it’s not because it’s an antidote,” says the down-to-earth, likeable Wood. “It’s good to do something to counteract sitting down all day because of work, but I didn’t get into sculling for reasons of stress relief.”

A lifelong sportswoman, Wood gravitated to rowing for two reasons. On the one hand, she was in search of a sport, while on the other, having just returned from a stint working in Hong Kong, she was looking for a social life. “I had just started work with Bond Pearce in the firm’s Exeter office but my knowledge of the West Country was just about zero. I needed to get out and meet people, and someone suggested that I try my hand at rowing. Previously I’d played hockey for Surrey and, for one year, in the national league with Exmouth, and I wanted to take up a new sport rather than slip down the leagues as a hockey player.”

That was nearly 10 years ago, and Wood has been a member of Exeter Rowing Club ever since. Her devotion has survived relocation to Bond Pearce’s Bristol office, for Wood commutes to Exeter to row on weekends. She prefers single person sculling to rowing with a crew, because experience has taught her that work has a tendency to prevent her meeting training commitments. “I don’t like letting team members down, so switched to rowing on my own.”

Wood’s athletic prowess on the hockey field soon found expression through rowing: she is one of a select group of lawyers who can claim that she has represented Great Britain. Typically, though, Wood does not talk this up. “Each year there is a World Masters Rowing Championship with a series of categories by age for Veterans over 28. I rowed in the last event in New York and finished third. This year, in September, the Championships will be held in Zagreb, Croatia. I’m training for this at the moment and going for gold. Technically I am representing Great Britain, yes, but it’s not quite the same as the Olympics.”

Wood’s training takes her along the scenic canals of Exeter, past two pubs of note – the Turf Locks and, in the other direction, the Mill on the Exe. She eschews indoor rowing with ergometer machines – “I hate them,” she says simply – and though she has rowed in the sea is avowedly a flat-water oarswoman: “I’m quite small and lightweight at 5”5’, and most of the people who go gig racing or surfboat rowing are big, powerful men. What I do requires more by way of finesse. I cycle eight miles to work and back each day but otherwise my training happens on weekends, by getting in a boat and sculling.”

The appeal of rowing lies, she says, in “the camaraderie and the friendships I’ve made – I could go to a regatta anywhere in the UK and I’d know someone.” I wonder again whether, at some level at least, rowing must provide an escape from the law. “No,” says Wood, “That’s not it. I’ve always liked to be fit and I’d do it anyway, whatever I was doing for a living.”

Which is as level-headed and refreshing a reason for a weekend spent on the water as you’re likely to hear.