In conversation with Elizabeth Noone, Christina Blacklaws reflects on her new role as deputy vice president of the Law Society, and discusses effective leadership and pressing issues for the profession
I am delighted and honoured – and more than a little daunted – by my new role as deputy vice president of the Law Society. It carries much responsibility, and I take that very seriously. I don’t think anyone puts themselves forward if they don’t have the energy, passion and commitment to bang the drum for the profession and ensure that all our key values, goals and aspirations are upheld. Working closely with the other office holders, council members and Law Society staff, I want to move swiftly forward to make sure we continue to make a positive difference.
I started my career very much as a campaigning lawyer. My first job was in a women-only community law firm in Brixton – and this was on the heels of the ivory towers of Oxford. My desire to do something over and above the call of duty, to give back something after all the good fortune that has come my way through my education and professional career, is very strong. I went into law because I gained a fairly early understanding of its huge significance on all of our lives and that if the justice system doesn’t work, the impact can be catastrophic. It is something so precious that we must uphold it, and through it we can achieve a lot of good. This is why I went into family law early on – specifically, the representation of children. For me, this was the most obvious way of being able to make a real difference for very vulnerable people.
The ability to effect change is always something that has motivated me, and I don’t feel that I have lost that passion. In terms of access to justice, there have been a number of blows to the profession and, more importantly, the impact has been devastating on those whom we serve. But there have also been a number of small but significant successes in the courts. This keeps me focused and motivated.
I will be the fifth female president of the Law Society. By the time I get there in 2018, there won’t have been a female president for six years, so it’s probably about time! Roughly two-thirds of those entering into the profession are women. But even though approximately 65 per cent of people training to be lawyers are female, that falls to about 40 per cent once they reach 35-plus, and only around 19 per cent of partners in private practice are women. So the dropout rate and underrepresentation of women at higher levels are big issues to be addressed. Cultural change is critical but fiendishly difficult. Sadly, we also have a long way to go in terms of equal pay in our profession. The pay gap in the UK is about 19 per cent, but in the legal profession, it’s significantly more than that and the higher up you go, the worse it gets.
For a merger to be successful – and I have been involved in many of them – you’ve got to be absolutely certain that it will work. Test your business plan to death
There is a clear business case for equality and diversity – we need to build on the work to get that accepted. That might sound a bit hard-nosed – I perhaps take it for granted that everyone accepts the moral case. The financial imperative needs to be understood and accepted by the business. If firms are reducing our talent pool, either through unconscious bias or – highly unlikely – conscious practices that are causing women to leave or not progress in the way that they could or should, then we are really cutting off our nose to spite our face.
It is also a huge business risk if we are not addressing diversity and making sure we have an even playing field in our firms. There is a lot of research, although we know it intuitively anyway, that women – or any other diverse or protected group – bring a very different perspective. This research unanimously supports the contention that bringing diversity to the workplace and the decision-making table makes for better quality of decisions.
For legal businesses that have corporate clients, many of the in-house lawyers they will be dealing with are women – I believe about 33 per cent of female solicitors work in-house. These are often powerful women making decisions about the legal spend of their business, and they quite often want to have some mirroring of the way they are doing business in their legal firms’ teams. So I think there can be a very helpful push from clients to have more diversity, which goes straight back to the business case.
We are often attracted to people who are like us, but if you get a kind of cloning effect in any business, it can be very dangerous. People who have different ideas or ways of thinking have additional value to bring and awareness of this can give your firm a competitive edge. So I do think there is a really strong business case to be made for diversity. Indeed, if we align the issue of equality and diversity with the strategic and business objectives of a firm, as opposed to seeing it as an HR issue, then we will start to get some real traction.
I was extremely fortunate to have become a salaried partner in a firm almost immediately upon qualifying, and then not too long after, I became a managing partner. Managerial and leadership responsibilities are something I have always had, really. Now that I am solely focused on the business of law, I do sometimes miss client contact and the rewards of being able to make a difference to one person’s life. But what you are able to do in moving away into a dedicated leadership role, is to effect change on a larger scale.
I would distinguish management from leadership because the skill set is actually quite different. To be a good leader, you need passion and vision. You need to have the drive to achieve goals and to bring people with you. It’s all about engagement and communication. You have to ensure you have the right people around you and that you empower those people to get on and do their job.
Effective delegation is key: you need to have transparency, clarity and accountability, and my personal style, I believe, is to do this in a very collaborative way. It is so important that people are acknowledged for the contribution they make. Everyone I know works very hard and with great good will. There is inevitably an awful lot of stress in this profession, so there needs to be that community outlet, too – injecting lightness and fun and levity into what is otherwise a very serious, and sometimes demanding, working life.
Leadership is also a lot about listening. Leaders have to be decisive – you have to make decisions, but you always need to do that on the basis of the best possible information. Active listening is vital: for example, senior partners having a series of informal lunches, or more formal staff engagement using surveys, focus groups etc. There are lots of different ways to hear and take into account what people’s experiences are. We also do a lot of ‘you told us, and so we are…’. Even if you have a platform for people to tell you something isn’t working, it is pointless unless something is done to fix the problem.
Given the nature of our work, stress management and emotional resilience are pressing issues for the legal profession to tackle, and both leaders and line managers play a vital role. Most importantly, they must be aware of it. There are still huge taboos around these issues, particularly when they manifest themselves in mental health problems, substance abuse and so on. There is sometimes a tendency to look the other way, and some may find it embarrassing to deal with, but it is absolutely vital to provide colleagues with support and help. We must continually challenge ourselves to do better.
Many firms have built a supportive and caring, non-hierarchical structure. It’s said that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their line managers, and I think that’s very often the case. Sometimes a linear approach just doesn’t work, so at Cripps we have an open door policy, and a very ‘flat’ culture. It is not uncommon for staff to come to senior management to talk about issues that are affecting them, and, in fact, we welcome it.
People issues are also key elements in effective attraction and retention of talent. At Cripps, for instance, we are working towards a much more flexible and agile approach. If the culture of a firm enables a level of choice and variety, that’s very attractive to people. But you need variety of work and compelling remuneration packages, too. These things are all interconnected. As leaders, we ignore any one of these parts at our peril.
At Cripps, I was brought in to support strategic change management following a major merger. Mergers are a big trend, and I think that in terms of strategic direction, all firms have to have it on their agenda. There is no room for complacency or arrogance. All law firms need to be focused on driving themselves into the future. Consolidation is still a very significant part of the future landscape – as we saw in the Law Society’s Future of Legal Services report. Clients understandably want more for less, so economies of scale must be of interest to any firm.
My view on mergers is that it’s a bit like when someone has their first baby. They are so focused on the birth that once they have taken the child home, they don’t know what to do next! It’s all in the implementation, management and communication of the change programme. Quite honestly, the lawyers will sometimes be too busy to manage those projects, so it does need some specific management time. This is another area where leadership is required. You don’t need to bring external expertise in, but you need a degree of discipline in terms of thinking about what needs to happen, which is where I think firms sometimes come unstuck. That’s where it starts to get tough in the post-merger environment.
For a merger to be successful – and I have been involved in many of them – you’ve got to be absolutely certain that it will work. Test your business plan to death. Just as important as the business fit is the cultural fit: you might be able to train people on systems, but it can be very difficult to bring about cultural unity.
At Cripps, we have had double digit growth year on year for the last three years, which objectively reflects our success. I think there are a number of factors that have helped us achieve this. The merger was very successful, and just before that, we had a new managing partner who had a lot of vision and determination to change. As a result of the merger, we spent a lot of time looking at our brand, and not only from a visual perspective, but also at the ‘why’: what are we doing here, why are we doing it, and how do we want to do it? That led to a very different approach to our work and people.
I think the key has been the willingness to embrace change. We had a very traditional structure and it was successful, but we could see that we could do things differently and better, leading to an improved experience for the client and for our people.
We are now in the process of implementing some large set-piece change projects. We are upgrading and replacing all of our IT software and moving on to one platform which will mean the delivery to our clients will be very different. Clients will be able to choose how, when and where they access our services.
We are also changing various aspects of our operating model. Whereas before, we had a traditional structure, we now have centralised teams, providing consistently better service delivery across the board. This includes specialist, trained document production, client services, paralegal and project management teams. These are areas that are critical to the business, as they support our solicitors in focusing on the needs of our existing and prospective clients.
Enabling people to choose the way in which they work and the way that’s best for their team, is important, especially in the context of change. There’s no value in micro-managing: as long as it works for us most of the time, that’s fine, and it means we can be more open and collaborative. Agile working for me is a matter of when and how, rather than if. But unless you have the IT support, it is hard to work in an agile or remote way; once you have that as a bedrock, you can develop the model out.
In May this year, I changed role at Cripps, from director of client services to chief operating officer, and in July, I became the deputy vice president of the Law Society, so exciting challenges lie ahead! I am extremely lucky to have a really great team around me, and supportive managing and senior partners. I am very used to juggling – I have four kids – and Cripps has been very encouraging, appreciating the importance of my external roles. With my Law Society role comes many additional responsibilities: a lot of evenings and weekends are taken up, and I think that will only increase. But I find it rewarding and highly motivating, and seize it with both hands.