You were Browne Jacobson’s first female partner and were recently elected its first female senior partner. How have the attitudes towards women in law, and women leaders, changed during your career?
There is no doubt that attitudes towards women in law have changed dramatically since I qualified as a solicitor in 1984. As part of our celebration of 100 Years of Women in Law, one of our solicitors posted an extract from the 1973 edition of Glanville Williams’Learning the Law – a publication on my university reading list. Mr Williams opined that, ‘practise at the Bar is a demanding task for a man; it is even more difficult for a woman’, that ‘an advocate’s task is essentially combative, whereas women are not generally prepared to give battle unless they are annoyed. A woman’s voice, also, does not carry as well as a man’s’, and that, ‘notwithstanding these disadvantages, some women succeed’.
Apart from taking our collective breath away at Browne Jacobson, it does make you realise how far the profession has come. The days when I attended Law Society events as the lone woman amongst 50 men have long since gone and there is much more gender diversity. Of course, much remains to be done as there are still too few women in senior leadership positions, but the tide does seem to be changing in that regard.
With that in mind, how would you define Browne Jacobson’s culture?
Our clients say that we are approachable, pragmatic, down to earth, and clear. We expect to treat our people in the same way, whilst operating on an ethical and inclusive basis with a renewed focus on corporate sustainability.
What are the biggest challenges facing the UK’s legal sector?
There is a long list! In the short term, Brexit; in the medium term, the economy; and in the longer term, the lack of diversity in the broadest possible sense. Researchers at Harvard talk about the benefits of ‘acquired diversity’or diversity acquired from experience. If law firms are to succeed in the future, they need to embrace both diversity and acquired diversity.
What are your firm’s policies on diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing?
Rather than having policies, we believe that it is important to embed diversity and inclusion (D&I) and wellbeing in everything we do. In terms of D&I, we are working hard to create an environment where everyone can thrive and succeed. D&I is constantly evolving so it is important to create a space where everyone can learn and share information.
We are currently celebrating LGBT+ History Month and everyone is encouraged to get involved through Yammer, posting contributions and suggestions, as well as promoting events in our offices such as baking rainbow treats!
We have a range of wellbeing initiatives, all proposed by our people, from plants in our office areas, yoga, and circuit training, to talks on topics such as the menopause and the menopause for men.
We’ve seen several high-profile ‘MeToo’stories hit the legal sector over the last few years. How can firms better guard their staff from the unacceptable behaviours we’ve read about?
Firstly, I think firms need to set standards of behaviour and make it clear that everyone is expected to adhere to those standards. However, it is equally important for firms to let their people know that if the line is crossed, there is a safe space where they can ‘call out’inappropriate behaviour.
What do you think are the top things most clients want and why? Have these changed over time?
I don’t think that our clients’key requirements have changed over the years. Clients have always wanted speedy, good quality, and cost-effective advice. What has made a difference is improved technology which has increased expectations in all three areas.
What does innovation mean to you and how can law firms be better at it?
For me, innovation isn’t just about having the latest gadget or software, but about genuinely thinking differently and not just accepting tried and trusted ways of doing things. The difficulty is that many senior leaders have not grown up with technology or the different approach to learning that brings. Firms need to find a way to involve people outside that senior leadership group to provide diversity of thought and approach.
What’s the biggest change or innovation made in the firm that will benefit clients?
As we are about to launch our new strategy I don’t want to give away any trade secrets…
You lead the firm’s retail and logistics sector group jointly with Sarah Parkinson. What key trends have you noticed of late?
For some time now, there has been talk of the ‘death of the High Street’. I don’t think the High Street is dying, but consumers are now spoilt for choice and are shopping differently. Brands that haven’t been quick to embrace change are failing. Today’s shoppers are also much more socially aware and sustainability has become a serious concern. However, it will become increasingly difficult to reconcile sustainability with convenience.
What have you found is the best way to retain talent – both at partner and associate levels?
I think there are two elements to this. First, you need to recruit people who are passionate about the firm. People who care about the firm are far more likely to stay with you and will want to ensure that the firm and its people succeed. Second, it is important that people at every level feel valued. Feeling valued is a very individual thing, but if you are able to give people a choice of options, they have more control over their career.
This March we celebrate International Women’s Day. What advice would you give to the next generation of women partners and law firm leaders?
I see so many potential women leaders who talk about their lack of confidence that I would give the same advice I gave to my 11-year-old niece recently – to be brave and to believe in yourself. I firmly believe that law firms of the future will have to create an entirely different working environment. As women have, by and large, been unable to shape the current environment, they are likely to view things differently and are therefore uniquely placed to make the necessary changes – along with their male colleagues.
Finally, what’s surprised you most about being senior partner?
I guess I’m surprised, but also delighted, that our people feel that they can contact me directly with their ideas around diversity and inclusion, corporate sustainability, and innovation, or about issues that concern them. When I look back to the start of my career, the senior partner was a distant figure and I would certainly never have spoken to him unless he spoke to me first! The position is now very different and we need to be prepared to listen.