Interviewed by Tessa Robinson
In this interview, colleagues and friends Olivia Sinfield and Victoria Parry discuss their different pathways into the field of law, the value of strong interpersonal relationships in the workplace, and the traits they value most in leaders.
You are both Partners at Osborne Clarke (OC) in the UK. Could you both describe a little about what attracted you to the field of law and your career journey until now?
Olivia: Initially, I was attracted to a career in law because I wanted to make my dad proud; he has always been a huge influence on my life. And then it became more of a personal challenge because I didn't get the grades to study law at university, so I had to switch to history instead. From that point on, I desperately wanted a career in law, not only to make him proud but because I had something to prove to myself: that I could be a lawyer. There's nothing like a setback to make you more determined! First, I trained at a city law firm, where I had the great pleasure of meeting another of our current colleagues, David Cubitt. He came to OC first and I followed quickly. I then had three children, and that led to a five-year career break after which I had a serious case of imposter syndrome and thought that there were too many obstacles to return to a career in law, so I started thinking through other options. But I remember clearly again, my dad, on a holiday in Portugal, questioning how I could possibly have invested so much in a career to think about walking away from it. He told me, “Olivia, you've just got to put your game face on and get stuck back in”. And I did, and the rest is history. My dad and I sometimes talk about that moment and how things could have been different if we hadn't decided to have that one last piña colada…
Victoria: For me, if I'm honest, I don't think that I particularly chose law. The school I went to was in the north of England and it was very much the view that if you had higher grades and you were arty, you were doing law; if you were good at science, you were doing medicine; and that was kind of it. I went with the current and in fact, if I had my time again, I probably wouldn’t do a law degree, because I think that you get a little bit more out of doing something you absolutely love at university. That said, my law degree gave me the employment law option, which I did love, and I came out of university certain that I wanted to be an employment lawyer. I've got the best job in the world: I always say we get paid to kind of be a little bit nosy in people’s lives and act as a strategist at the end of the day.
Later I migrated down to London and joined Linklaters, which was great for my career and very enjoyable. But back then they didn't do employment tribunals and my dad, also influential, said to me, “There's no point chopping the trees down in the wood if you're in the wrong wood”. So I made a brave decision to leave Linklaters and went to a boutique law firm where we did lots employment tribunals for the banks in London, and it was there that I met David Cubitt. We left the firm together soon after and went to another law firm where we met Olivia. We were delighted when she joined us. Shortly after I had my first child I came back to the firm, where I was one of the first people to work part time. It was a long time ago, so there weren’t any iPhones or laptops or anything. I went on to have three more children!
You have been colleagues and friends for over twenty years now. What has your relationship taught you both about solidarity between female professionals and the importance of a strong network?
Olivia: I've been lucky in my career because I've had Vic (Victoria) as a friend, colleague, mentor and role model. Between us, we've experienced some key critical moments, both professionally and personally, having gone through marriages, promotions, highs and lows at work and having our children. We've both got four kids. I actually went into labour with my eldest daughter at Vic’s house and she got me through it by feeding me chocolate chip cookies! Because of that, there's a huge amount of trust between us and, I think, mutual respect underpinning our relationship. That's important to me: she’s someone who understands me and who will be totally honest with me. Sometimes that means delivering tricky messages. Vic’s on our executive board and does all our reviews. Her feedback is always frank and honest, but from the heart, and I value her opinion. I might not like it, but I always listen!
The sense of solidarity between us brings fun to our days, which is important since we spend so much time in these four walls together. When you're in your career for the long run, like we both are, I don't think you can underestimate the importance of really enjoying, really loving what you do and who you do it with. I'm very lucky in that respect.
Victoria: I think that over a lifespan, as a female and as a mum and as a lawyer and as a friend, every now and again you meet people who you consider to be truly talented: someone's in your life for a reason!
Olivia and I started off just as colleagues, but we’ve faced lots of challenges and we see that there's lots of competition out there. For us, it's important to be collaborative. As Olivia says, sometimes that means giving tough messages to each other, but it’s always done with love. I think that's helped us build a relationship based on trust, respect and empathy. As Olivia said, we've got four kids each, so there are always going to be curve balls-and that's just on the night job! In the day job, there are plenty of curve balls too, but what’s important is that we navigate our problems together.
When you're in your career for the long run, I don't think you can underestimate the importance of really enjoying, really loving what you do and who you do it with.
You both have over fifteen years of professional legal experience. Looking back over this experience, what, if anything, do you wish you had known at the start of your careers and why?
Olivia: That it's okay to dance to the beat of your own drum! When I started my legal career over 20 years ago, I had a preconceived notion of what a lawyer should be like and look like. And it was much more LA Law than Ally McBeal. I can clearly remember going into Jigsaw and buying my trouser suit in three colours and then wearing that same trouser suit day in, day out. It’s taken time to realise how important it is to bring your real self to work, which is something that's really encouraged at OC. That’s what clients and colleagues can relate to. I do think you become a bit more fearless with age and less concerned about what others think. So, if I were speaking to my younger self, my message would be to make your own footprints in the sand rather than trying to tread in somebody else's.
Victoria: I still remember a time when women weren't even allowed to wear trousers at work! Although it sounds like a 100 years ago, it was actually only 30 or so. My boss took me aside one day and she said to me something along the lines of, “We have really intelligent people at this place and that's great, but our clients need you to stop pretending to be geeky and start being yourself and more down-to-earth. What we don't need are more rocket scientists. We need people who can talk to clients. Not everyone's going to like it. Some people will hate it. But you don't need to be all things to all people, just be yourself and enough people will like it to build a career.” I think that's probably one of the most important career conversations I've ever had. I was newly qualified, and as lawyers we're very good at praising or criticising work. But often we forget that there's a human being behind that. Everybody is high achieving in this profession. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But we need to allow people to be themselves. I'm very grateful for that conversation because it has stayed with me for 30 years.
If I were speaking to my younger self, my message would be to make your own footprints in the sand rather than trying to tread in somebody else's.
Victoria, you are an active participant in Osborne Clarke’s Corporate Responsibility Programme. Could you explain what attracted you to this and why you are motivated to be involved in the programme?
Victoria: Everybody feels passionate about different things and it's important to find your own passion and be true to that. For me, diversity is most probably my passion because of my experience as a working mum. I spent the first five or six years pretending that I didn't work part time, sometimes not admitting that I was a working mum. Now I want to be an advocate for change on that. I am delighted with the journey that OC has been on in this regard because we're up there with the brightest and the best on this issue. That's the legacy that I want to leave my daughter, so that when she reaches the world of work, she won’t feel that she has to be all things to all people. I want her to feel that it's okay to make her own choices.
Olivia: Vic really is an advocate for that. Just to give you an example: I'm a part time Partner, so I work four days a week, and if I'm not working and my out of office isn't on, Vic is always the first to ask me why not. So, yes, she does very much walk the walk on that front.
Everybody feels passionate about different things and it's important to find your own passion and be true to that.
Olivia, you often advise clients on issues relating to the Future of Work and help them to adapt to changing working practices. What would you say are the greatest challenges and opportunities for organisations right now, and what do you think the next five years will hold?
Olivia: I think the biggest change we've seen over the last 18 months concerns people. I sometimes hear that referred to as ‘human capital’ and I have to say I absolutely hate that term! We’ve seen a real shift regarding employees’ expectations and the stakes have been raised in terms of what people are looking for. They're looking for alignment around their personal values; they're looking for places that have great culture, where there's an opportunity for them to advance and be creative and have a voice and play their part in the wider business. I think there’s a real opportunity for businesses to look at how they can meet these expectations and become workplace destinations of choice with positive working environments where people are really engaged and invested in their own future. That's a fantastic mix. The flip side of that, and where there are challenges, is getting the balance of power right: ultimately work must be done, it must be properly supervised. As a result, you've got a little bit of a seesaw going on now. It’s slightly up and down and I think that most businesses are now just waiting for it to settle and working out how to find a happy equilibrium. Regarding the future, I'm going to be succinct and say this: the future is a metaverse. But the metaverse is worthy of a whole different conversation itself...
We've seen a real shift and change around employees’ expectations and the stakes have been raised in terms of what people are looking for.
Finally, what trait do you both value most in a great leader and why?
I've got my three role models here and I'm going to call all of them out because you don't get many opportunities to do that. Vic, of course; David Cubitt, who is our fellow Employment Partner; and Ray Berg, our Managing Partner. These people deserve all sorts of praise because all of them embody the qualities and the traits that are important to me.
The ones that I value most are, first and foremost, authenticity: leaders need to bring their real selves to work and be true to who they are. There are two parts to that. First, it's about allowing your strength to shine and encouraging others to shine as well. Second, it’s about being open and honest about your own vulnerabilities too, and just being human. So that's the first value I’d highlight. The second is being value-driven in everything you do. That goes hand in hand with authenticity because it’s inspirational and something you really want to follow and be part of. The third is the simplest one: just being kind.
Victoria: Leaders need to be visionaries, to know where they are going. I also think it's important to lead with humility. Times have changed. Today it’s more important than ever to be led by people who we want to follow. Teams need to understand where leaders are going and why, which requires them to be open. We're all on this journey in life and there are many paths that we can follow. There's no right or wrong way, but we need to be straight up with people. People will spot a fake. Most people in this world are doing the best that they possibly can every single day. We need to make it okay for people to get it wrong, to make mistakes, to feel that they're valued: as we always say at OC, we back the racehorse, not the race. The leaders in this business need to make it psychologically safe for people to follow others and to want to follow; to be kind and to have fun along the way. I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who are truly talented and who value others for who they are.
Times have changed. Today it’s more important than ever to be led people who we want to follow. Teams need to understand where leaders are going and why.
Video edited by Juliette Gill