You joined the firm back in 2008. In your opinion, what’s changed most since then?
A&O has seen significant growth in Germany since I joined. This is certainly the most relevant change as it has meant that, as a firm, we had to design and implement more elaborate structures and processes to manage a larger number of people, clients and often more complex, more cross-border or cross-practice matters. In part, this is true for the legal market as a whole: While the market as a whole has not grown as much as we did, in the market segment we work in, project management, technology, managing huge amounts of information and large groups of people from different areas of law or even outside of law working together has become more normal. Also, an increasing degree of professionalism and even standardisation has enabled us to expand into new areas. For example, a lot of our business now includes a more forward-looking and often strategic dimension. This includes anticipating complex regulatory trends and advising clients on how those changes will affect their businesses and how to best respond – at an early stage.
The number of female partners, let alone managing partners, at law firms in Germany is still shockingly low. In 2016 you became the first woman to be part of the firm management in Germany. What advice do you have for women in law?
Go for it! Don’t let yourselves be deterred from what you want to do and what you enjoy doing by what you think other people might say. In an ideal world, the best talent will be recognised and supported. But in reality nobody gets anything, unless you clearly communicate what you want to achieve. This does not mean that you have to shout loudly or pretend to be someone you are not. A lot of women – and men as well by the way – don’t feel comfortable doing that. And it probably will not work, if that is not your style. But if you don’t ambitiously pursue your goals and believe deep down that you can actually do it, others won’t do it for you either. One thing that seems to have worked well for me is not to worry too much about the ‘what ifs’ and ‘whens’ and instead just do. This might sound difficult at first, but if you think about it: As an excellent lawyer you don’t have much to lose.
What advice would you give in general to the next generation of partners ready to rise the ranks?
I would advise younger colleagues to keep a very open mind. Be curious, take an interest in your clients’ industry and strive to look beyond legal matters from early on in your career. Ask yourself why your client wants to do something. What might affect a transaction, and why? Often, being perceived as a trusted advisor is not just about providing the best legal advice, but it is about helping your client navigate through complex situations with a multitude of options. If you always keep in mind that the people you advise depend on you as they will be responsible for their decisions they take upon your advice you will be able to better build relationships. This level of commitment is different from delivering an anonymous service. Clients will value it. And the same is true for your partners and the firm as a whole. Take an interest, take on responsibility and offer a view. I regularly try to find an opportunity to hear from younger colleagues and partners what they think. The views offered in such discussions are extremely valuable to help me take a fresh look.
Does your firm have any specific diversity initiatives? What are your firm’s policies on diversity and inclusion?
Diversity is one of our strategic business priorities. Our aim is to build an environment where everyone feels supported and comfortable in being open, and where the differences between our people create opportunities, not barriers.
Globally, we have two strategic priorities: to achieve better gender balance at the top levels of our organisation; and to promote greater LGBT+ inclusion. Much of our wider diversity programme focuses on promoting inclusion and equality at a local level because the issues and ways to remove barriers can differ from country to country.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since becoming managing partner?
When I started this job I, somewhat naively, hoped that it could be tackled like any client matter. Identify the tasks, think about solutions, organise those well and execute one at a time in a very structured way. But it does not quite work that way. Unlike client work, there are no specific assignments that someone has asked you to solve. Instead you need to look ahead, anticipate and offer strategic choices – and then, you have to convince and engage a large group of very smart people to move in the same direction, all while they don’t want to be distracted from doing what they do best: advising their clients.
Another challenge of course is to combine management work with client work which I like so much that I would not want to give it up – and which helps me to better understand what makes sense for us as a firm. In practice M&A negotiations, my field of expertise, don’t always respect the time set aside for the weekly management meetings. But so far, it has always somehow worked out.
What’s the main change you’ve made in the firm that will benefit clients?
Important changes are usually the result of team efforts across the partnership and the firm. One topic that is very dear to my heart is developing our talent and bringing in the next generation. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary in Germany this November, which means that we do not yet have a long tradition of handing over from one generation to the next generation. Therefore, it is important that we identify who our most talented people are and bring them into the client relationships so early that our clients continuously have their trusted relationship team. As we focus on long-term relationships, while servicing our clients in more than one area of law and in a considerable number of jurisdictions that is particularly important. And I believe that it is good for us to continuously inject new brain power and new ideas from our own people. For example, we have set up a more structured way of continuously looking at our internal partner pipeline over a longer period of time and we are creating opportunities to involve the next generation in strategic business development discussions. Another topic that we have pushed forward is efficiency. In our transaction support unit we now pool standardised services, transaction management and application of legal tech.
What are the biggest challenges facing firms in Germany right now?
The boundaries between legal advice and management consulting, be it organisational, financial or operational advice, are blurring. As lawyers, we used to be set apart, working on our own independent workstream. Now, often the client expects us to feed into other workstreams or deal with input from other workstreams. As someone who believes that our work as lawyers must always be creative and aim to find solutions for new challenges, I would like for us to be an original thinker that defines and drives holistic solutions for our clients. In order to achieve that we have to ensure that we, individually and as a firm, have a broad skill set and are able to coordinate the whole package for the client. I think in that, Germany is no different to other mature markets. In Germany, however, the Big Four already have a strong market position in parts of the legal market. So a special challenge is for us to make sure that they do not eat too much into our field of high end complex legal advice just because they can also offer consulting and other services.
What have you found is the best way to retain talent – both at partner and associate levels?
I fear I might sound a bit like an article about the next generation written by what is now called a ‘Boomer’ (which, I believe, I am just not anymore), but I do believe it’s a lot about providing our people with a sense of purpose and participation. Of course, in a group of 220 lawyers and more than 500 people at A&O in Germany not everybody can always have their say. It is, however, important that everybody understands and buys into where we are going and why – and has the opportunity to contribute their own ideas and views. This applies to younger colleagues in particular, as does the desire for more flexible working styles. To the latter we have already responded by introducing iFlex, to name but one initiative, our informal flexible working scheme, which enables our people to work remotely to better integrate work with other areas of their lives. We find that our employees highly value this flexibility.
What do you think are the top three things most clients want and why?
Tailor-made advice and access to our experience and knowledge as a global firm, efficiency and pro-activeness. Legal is often perceived just as a spend item and it is not apparent at first glance why good legal advice taken early might eventually be an asset. Therefore, we have to make sure that the people who authorise our bills can justify to their management that they have invested the money well.
In your opinion, how will technology impact the legal profession in the future?
The digital transformation has clearly reached the legal industry. We have seen the demand for new technology and legal tech rising fast on the agenda of our clients in recent years. As a firm globally, we are determined to play a leading role in this change to our profession. This is why we came up with Fuse, our innovation space, and with Advanced Delivery & Solutions. In the direct context of legal tech, we have a team of more than 50 experts who help our lawyers and clients to work on matters in the most transparent and efficient way. This can be the use of a tool-supported project management approach or exploiting our clients’ data with AI based data extraction tools. Sometimes it is a great help to visualise a complex structure. For instance, in Germany, with our RegGateway, we have developed an easy-to-use online solution which provides our clients with a good view of upcoming legislative changes in prudential banking law.
Is there anything else that you think sets your firm apart from others?
We have always had leaders who encourage others to take on responsibilities, to step up even if they are still comparatively young or not the same as existing leaders. I might not have become managing partner if our former senior partner David Morley had not very early after I joined A&O mentioned taking on management responsibilities as a possibility. We even have a Leadership Academy that offers training specifically aimed at gaining leadership skills. I believe that has enabled us to embrace some of the changes quicker than others and to be more professional about organising ourselves. It also helps us be better advisors to our clients because we are continuously challenged to think about more than the law.