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Helen Thomas: Without a planet, all this tech is pointless

Eversheds Sutherlands’ European managing partner talks about her new role, continental growth, cultural alignment, and challenges facing the real estate world

What are you planning to focus on in your new role as European managing partner?

This is a really exciting time to take on this role. Eversheds Sutherland is going through a period of growth and investment across our European business. For example, in Germany and the Netherlands in the past six months we have added fantastic new partner talent in IP, litigation, tax, corporate M&A, and real estate. Continuing to build on this platform working closely with colleagues around the world and leveraging our US combination to deliver on our client’s needs will be a big part of my strategic focus.

How do you expect your involvement in client-facing work to develop on the back of your new role?

My role as client relationship partner for our biggest global client means I am working extensively across continental Europe already and this new role allows me to spend time on the ground, working face to face with colleagues every day. Balancing client work with management ensures I keep close to the issues that most affect our ability to deliver a consistent client experience whenever and wherever they work with us. I also think maintaining and developing strong client relationships alongside management ensures you stay connected to the day to day issues.

How have things bedded in since the US-UK merger? And what are the next strategic priorities for the firm?

We are really encouraged by how quickly our US combination has ceased being something new, but is just who we are as a firm now. Culturally, we are very aligned with our US colleagues and this was one of the reasons we felt that legacy Sutherland was a good ‘fit’ for us. This has been borne out by how fast we have come together and focus on developing global client relationships. In the past two years we have been appointed to over 30 global panels and our global revenue has increased by 15%, and feedback from our clients and our people has been fantastic.

Our 2020 strategy is to be a leading global law firm and we feel, by many measures, we have achieved that and we are now considering the next iteration of our strategy. We also said that we would grow the business in London and, in my area, in Continental Europe. We have seen significant progress in both these areas and indeed in the US where we have opened two new offices in the past few months. In total, we have opened nine new offices worldwide since the combination, and we are now the fifth biggest law firm in the world by number of offices.

What are the biggest challenges facing international firms like Eversheds Sutherland?

Many of the challenges are the same for any major international business; globalisation, an uncertain macro-economic and political environment, the impact of AI and technology, the future of work, the war for talent, social movements, and climate change. The list goes on, it is true to say that we live in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous).

For international law firms, specific challenges come from the increased competition from the Big Four and ALSPs. Creating an inclusive and diverse workplace is also a challenge, though not unique to law firms of course.

Has your firm recently rethought its approach to diversity and inclusion?

Our diversity and inclusion approach is personally led by our CEO, Lee Ranson. He is a passionate advocate for equality and has won a number of awards for his work. Earlier this year he appointed Diane Gilhooley as diversity and inclusion partner sponsor to support him, Diane is also our gender champion.

So, yes, we have rethought our approach in terms of the level of executive support and visibility for our commitment to this area and have increased the size of the D&I team. On a personal level I have always felt very supported by the firm and have never felt that opportunities have not been made available to me. There is always more to do, but we have made good, positive steps in the right direction.

What do you think are the top three priorities for clients – and why? And how are these priorities changing?

Clients are becoming more sophisticated and demanding buyers of legal services. Whilst they expect law firms to be responsive and to deliver top quality advice and value for money, these are increasingly treated as a given. We are seeing growing demands for:

  • a deep understanding of the client’s business priorities and underlying sector issues. Why? Because clients want advice that is relevant, commercial and useful, not academic and abstract.
  • consistent service wherever the client needs it. Why? Because organisations are increasingly operating on an international level and need to feel confident they will receive the same quality of service in every country.
  • clear evidence of value-add and innovative services. Why? Because clients want their law firms to partner with them, help them work more efficiently and anticipate key issues. They no longer want a mere supplier of legal services

What does innovation mean to you, and what are the key factors changing the way legal services are delivered?

For me innovation is simply finding a way to do something better, from small adjustments to the ‘every day’ task or process to major step-changes which redefine an industry. And everything in between.

We have a long-standing reputation for being innovative which has been driven by a hunger to find a better way to provide our clients with what they need. For me, the key question which should underpin any innovation is ‘does this benefit clients?’ It is easy to go down a rabbit hole chasing the latest new thing, but if there is no clear client benefit then it’s fool’s gold in my view.

What are the biggest challenges in the world of real estate?

Every single challenge human beings face affects real estate, but I would single out changing demographics, the technological revolution, climate change, infrastructure, and (within the profession) the need for diversity.

Populations are ageing everywhere. We urgently need senior living real estate solutions to house and care for them. Most of the developed world is urbanising rapidly, amidst chronic housing shortages. So we need to build millions more homes of every tenure.

Technology is revolutionising the way we shop, work, and live, and real estate must respond. We need to re-invent retail by making it an integral mixed-use part of leisure, e-commerce showcasing and residential. 5G and AI will make our offices forums for the internet of things and hyper-computerised work hubs. We need to reconfigure them to be ready for that revolution.

But if you don’t have a planet, all of this is pointless. So our buildings and the use that we make of them must constantly be greener. And we need to invest in sustainable infrastructure to connect us: electric cars, new intercity train lines, wind, wave, and solar power – because infrastructure is the sinew of any successful economy.

These challenges demand the widest possible range of ideas and solutions. The only way we will achieve that is to recruit the most innovative, creative, and energetic people we can find – regardless of social class, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. The real estate industry must recognise that there is no challenge a truly diverse team can’t solve.

What advice would you give to the next generation of partners ready to rise through the ranks?

Spend as much time as you can talking to your clients and your people. Make continued investments in developing the next generation of talent and challenge to themselves to build teams that are diverse. My other top tip to them would be to get a reverse mentor, this is a great way to get close to junior talent. In short, listen more, spend as much facetime as possible with your clients, embrace change, and actively seek out different ways of doing things and above all, don’t’ forget to enjoy it!

What have been your greatest personal/professional achievements to date and why?

I joined legacy Eversheds in 2000 and have been part of the most amazing period of the firm’s transformation from the integration of a series of UK firms to becoming a major top 20 global law firm that posted revenues of $1bn in 2019.

My greatest professional achievement has been to grow with the business, taking every opportunity I could, from roles such as an international sector head to head of global corporate real estate and now European managing partner. Personally, my greatest achievement has been balancing this career alongside raising my family.