Women come into their own in law - Susan Bright

To mark International Women’s Day, Susan Bright, Hogan Lovells Managing Partner for the UK and Africa, spoke to Africa Legal about the challenges women face at the top of the game in law. Susan has built her international reputation as a global leader in antitrust and competition law in a career that started in 1989 with the law firm.

What is it like to be a female Managing Partner covering such a large remit?  Has it become easier for women to hold such a position?

I really enjoy my role as Managing Partner for Hogan Lovells for the UK and Africa.  We have around 2,000 people across these regions so it's a challenging role with great variety and has given me the opportunity to develop my own leadership style.  There have been opportunities for women to rise to senior positions for quite some time and it's good to see more and more women in management roles at law firms and in business generally.   

Is there something at the heart of Hogan Lovells that sets it apart for you?

I have spent my entire career at Hogan Lovells, having joined the firm as an "articled clerk" back in 1989 and apart from a brief period on secondment to a US firm in the mid-1990s.  Law firms are all about people. It's my colleagues at Hogan Lovells and the clients for whom we work which have always set this firm apart.

During your career you have dealt with the usual issues that working mothers cope with and stayed at the top of your game – how do you maintain a work/life balance?

The key is choosing the right partner, particularly if you want to have a family!  My husband has always been supportive of my career and we have flexed over time in how we care for our family of three.  To be honest, I've never managed to have my work and life in balance.  Rather I try to weave my work and home life together in whatever way works best at the time.  I used to think I could get more done just by working harder; I now try to work smarter.  I focus on having energy by ensuring I sleep enough, eat well and keep fit.

What are you doing to champion women in the workplace generally and in your African offices?

I am passionate about seeing women succeed in the workplace, partly driven by the fact I am one of three girls and my parents brought us up to believe we could do anything.  When I got this role, I wanted to make a difference – to help more women to progress both at Hogan Lovells and in the profession generally.  I discovered that there is no magic wand and change takes time.  My focus is on changing working practices to enable the women (and men) joining the profession to be successful, so looking at how we allocate work, embedding agile working and ensuring that women also have sponsors to help develop their careers.  I also ask more junior people to mentor me – to help me to understand better the challenges they are facing.

International Women's Day has a growing profile; do you think the day is even more important to African women, if so why?

The numbers of women in senior roles within Africa are very impressive.  International Women's Day is an opportunity to celebrate this and to build on the work already done to support the talented women of the future.

What would be your top tips for women coming into law now?

It’s a really exciting time to be joining the legal profession.  My key tips are: (i) build your network from the get go - being a great lawyer involves building relationships; (ii) take on the most challenging work since that is how you learn; and (iii) find sponsors to help you progress your career by putting opportunities your way and advocating for you.  And, (iv) finally, never forget to reach out and help the women coming up behind you.

There is sometimes negative press surrounding women leaders with the perception being that they have to be seen as "tough" or "difficult".  How would you recommend that women mutually support each other to effect positive change in the workplace?

It's interesting how the same word can be positive when associated with male leaders and negative when associated with female leaders.  Many years ago, I vividly remember being told that I was very "ambitious"; the comment was intended to be (and felt like) an insult.  "Gosh, he's ambitious" comes across very differently when describing a man.

In my experience, women tend to be strong, collaborative leaders, and often have great empathy.  I seek out like-minded women (and men) in senior roles to share ideas and to work together to make change.

Is there a part of Africa you favour – where you might choose to live?

I love Namibia; the wide open spaces, the Skeleton Coast, the game parks and the sand dunes. Swakopmund holds a special place in my heart since that is where my husband proposed to me.

According to the World Economic Forum the gender gap will not close until 2186.  What efforts do you think law firms should take to more effectively change senior female representation and the pay gap?

Hogan Lovells published our gender pay gap data in the UK last year and I am pleased to say that, at partner level, unlike many firms, we had a pay gap in favour of women.  That does us no harm in attracting women to the firm!  In my view, embedding agile working, work allocation and sponsorship of female talent from an early stage are all critical to ensuring that more women come through into senior leadership roles.  As you become more senior, it actually becomes easier to set your own schedule and to be more flexible about when, where and how you work – and that's worth bearing in mind in those early years.

Could you give us a little insight into how you relax?  Are you a big reader and, if so, (what sort of books)?

I love to be outside and active.  In recent years I have got off my (London) train at an earlier station and walked for half an hour every morning along the south side of the river and across the Millennium Bridge towards St Paul's, come rain or shine.  It really sets me up for the day.  I also walk or run whenever I travel, which is a great way to get to know different cities.  At the weekends, I relax by going for long cycle rides, which is when I do most of my thinking.  I also love reading and have a pile of novels on the floor by my bed -- but I admit that I find it challenging to read more than a few pages at night before I fall asleep.

This article was first published on www.africa-legal.com

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