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Sarah, congratulations on winning The Lawyer ‘Regional Firm of the Year’ Award last month. How does it feel and how important is it to the business?
I am so proud of the fact that we took the title of UK Regional Law Firm of the Year at The Lawyer awards last month…it is a great endorsement of every member of staff and their commitment to delivering the best service they can to our clients. The judges’ praise for our ‘client-centric vision and putting the customer at the heart of everything they do’ puts our service delivery in the spotlight. It is a privilege to be entrusted to act for our clients, some of whom may be instructing us for the first time, often regarding a matter of huge importance to them. I hope we never undertake that responsibility lightly. Excellent client service has always been crucial to our success and this award is the icing on the cake, a validation of the way we work.
What do you think sets Wright Hassall apart from its competitors?
Obviously our heritage has shaped the practice you see today but what makes us different from our competitors is our approach. We understand that when clients buy legal services they are looking for solutions – for them it is a business transaction and they want their lawyers to mirror the way they work, not the other way round. I believe we are breaking the mould by thinking differently about how we deliver our service and asking ourselves tough questions about what the client wants to achieve and how we can help them. We need to ask, every time, what does ‘great’ look like from the client’s perspective? And where can we add value? Our approach means we are always looking for innovative, creative ways to work with our clients.
Can you tell us a bit about the firm’s FAIR values and how they impact on the business?
Given our ambitious growth plans, the senior leadership team was very aware that there was a danger that the firm’s distinctive culture and values, which make it such a great place to work, could be gradually eroded as we got bigger. Therefore, we asked a working group to capture our vision and values and present them in such a way that every member of staff would instantly recognise them as the essence of Wright Hassall. The result of this exercise was the encapsulation of our core values into the FAIR principles: flexible, ambitious, inclusive and respectful. These principles drive the way we behave; the working environment we create; and the way we deal with the opportunities and challenges with which we will, undoubtedly, be faced.
The Wright Hassall Charitable Trust was recently launched. What is it and what’s its aim?
We have always played an active role in the creative, sporting and charitable life of our community and part of this has involved fund raising throughout the year by staff, both in and outside work. In common with many organisations, we used to nominate an annual charity for which staff actively raised funds throughout the year.
However, it became increasingly clear that many members of staff had charitable causes that were very close to their hearts but which didn’t qualify for any of the funds raised. By setting up the Trust, staff now have the chance to apply for grants for a charity with which they have a personal connection or for which they volunteer. Since its inception, we have raised money for an astonishing array of good causes, both local and national, and it has really given an added boost to our fund raising efforts.
In 2016 you became the firm’s first female chief in its 170 years plus history. How have the first 18 months been?
Good fun – if hard work! I became managing partner having been responsible for setting the firm on its growth strategy. This was a great way to focus the mind and really get into the nooks and crannies of the firm. Obviously as an equity partner I already had a good overview of the firm, but taking on this role has given me the opportunity to work much more closely with a cross-section of staff from all disciplines, both lawyers and support staff, on a range of different projects. There is certainly never a dull day.
The firm is famous for its equality and diversity statistics with women accounting for a higher proportion than men of solicitor, fee-earner and business support roles. How proud are you of that?
Although Wright Hassall isn’t perfect, over half of our lawyers (including partners) are female which broadly mirrors the population at large. But what is particularly pleasing for me is that 42% of our partners are female, a major achievement when you consider that the average percentage of female partners in the top 100 law firms is only 25%. We have made great efforts to keep our senior, female lawyers and those efforts are paying off. I fully expect our partnership to be fifty/fifty in the next couple of years. I don’t want people thinking they have to choose between work and family. Flexible working and working from home is common place among our staff and this is helping to keep a talented pool of women. We actively encourage and support women who take a career break to raise a family, to return to work when they’re ready. Not doing so would mean that not only would we waste a considerable amount of talent, we’d also lose out financially.
Do you see yourself as a role model for young female lawyers?
My job as managing partner is to instil in our junior lawyers a sense of ‘can do’ and encourage them to apply for promotion even if they feel under-qualified in certain areas. The number of talented female lawyers coming through is impressive so it is only a matter of time before more women take up senior management positions. So, yes, I hope that our junior female lawyers see what I have achieved and think ‘yes, I can do that too’.
What career advice would you give to your 21-old-self?
I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer and even after many years I can’t imagine doing anything else. As a litigator, the enjoyment which comes from resolving a problem for a client is difficult to replicate. I have been fortunate: I have found a profession I love, I have managed to bring up a family along the way; and I have had the good fortune to work alongside some really talented people who have taught me to listen, to be straightforward and to be objective. If I was to tell my 21-year-old self anything it would be to enjoy the moment and stop trying to look beyond the next bend in the road.
Who has inspired you most in your career?
Entrepreneurs inspire me – and not just those who have taken the world by storm. Over the years, I’ve met and acted for many entrepreneurs who haven’t necessarily created vast business empires but have, over time, built up a business which serves them, their family and their community by sheer hard work, dogged determination and an ability to learn from their mistakes. As lawyers, we’re naturally risk-averse but, as a manager of this business, I have tried to take a leaf out the entrepreneurial book by relying on a combination of meticulous planning and a willingness to take a leap of faith. So far this strategy seems to be working!
What career ambitions have you got left?
It will probably come as no surprise that, having won Regional Law Firm of the Year, I now have ‘Law Firm of the Year’ in my sights which, given what we‘ve achieved to date, I believe is a perfectly realistic ambition. I am determined to make sure that Wright Hassall continues to be a great place to work and continues to attract great people and great clients. Last but not least, my personal ambition is to win a case in the Supreme Court. Now that really would round off my career nicely.