Lawyers: play to your sectoral strengths and develop your network

BCKR is an organisation that encourages lawyers and their firms to have greater involvement in the outside world.

They help lawyers of all ages to take boardroom roles and in due course, to create a fulfilling life after law, through a portfolio career or otherwise.

Through regular breakfast events hosted at JM Finn’s offices in the City, the aim is to highlight the obstacles often faced by lawyers when presenting themselves outside of the context of their legal role and show how they can be overcome.

The autumn term of events kicked off with a talk by Suzanna Taverne. Suzanna started her career as an investment banker at SG Warburg after which she moved into Finance and Strategy Director roles at Saatchi and Saatchi and then at Pearson. Her next move was in to the public sector when she took on the role of Managing Director of the British Museum, overseeing the Millennium Great Court project. This in turn led to a role at Imperial College, in what was effectively a COO role.

Her portfolio went on to include Nationwide Building Society where she was on the Board during the Financial Crisis; NED at Ford Credit Europe; Serving on the board of the BBC Trust; Chairing the board at Marie Stopes International; and serving on the board of Age UK.

When looking for a role she hoped that her previous board experience was a strength but soon realised that head hunters like to target candidates with a strong functional or sectorial skill set. With her mixed career experience, she didn’t necessarily tick all the head hunter boxes, but she was steadfast in her approach in only pursuing organisations that had a clear sense of values.

What has she learned about NED life? Suzanna stressed that the key is to work out your strengths, what you enjoy doing and to check that the purpose and values of the organisations you work with are in line with your own. It is also essential to have a good working relationship with the Chair.

She found it important not to spread yourself around too thinly, and that it helped her to have an ‘anchor’ role (2-3 days per week). She has really enjoyed taking on Chair roles, which allows you to help shape an organisation.

As a trustee, playing to your strengths is important. You need to work out what you can specifically contribute. Be strategic. Your conversations with other board members outside the board room are equally as important to the meetings themselves. It is also important to work out how your sectoral experience can help.

When asked how to get the roles Suzanna was unequivocal: networking is essential but she also had a variety of insights to remember once you’ve found your roles:

  • All the things you gain from your full-time job you need to replace in your portfolio life. It wasn’t obvious to Suzanna where you got your personal development from which can be taken for granted in the day job.
  • The portfolio life can be a lonely business and you need to approach it in a deliberate way. Suzanna took to reading the papers much more seriously to keep abreast of current affairs and the business world.
  • Surround yourself with people whose brains you can pick and talk things over with, such as recent events in companies etc.  Don’t be afraid to put forward a hypothesis and see how others react.  You will learn through that experience.
  • Be purposeful with your diary planning.
  • Lack of infrastructure can be challenging i.e. arranging your own travel, managing your diary and the lack of IT support.
  • Think about what your network can do for you.  They are most likely to be the source of your next job.  Every interaction is of value to both sides.

Overall, lawyers embarking on a portfolio life need to play to their sectoral strengths, develop their network and get good hard experience thinking as principals.

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