The ACC General Counsel Summit, to be held September 10–11 at the Intercontinental in London, will focus on the legal and business issues at the heart of the practice of general counsel and chief legal officers working for multinational companies. The two-day conference will feature several acclaimed leaders in the legal profession who will facilitate round table discussions covering such topics as effective integration after a cross border acquisition, talent management and leadership of the modern global law department and crisis management — to name a few.
One of the acclaimed leaders at the table will be keynote speaker Cherie Blair, founder and chair of Omnia Strategy, LLP. A top barrister with more than 35 years in practice who specializes in public international law, human rights, employment law, arbitration and mediation, Blair is uniquely qualified to speak to this elite group of law practitioners. In today’s business climate, general counsel are tasked with protecting, advising and leading their companies in matters of business as well as law. In her speech, Blair will address how today's general counsel can best serve modern business.
In advance of the summit, Blair spoke with ACC about her career, the current state of the legal profession and the women working within it and in the business arena as whole — and offered advice for those entering the field.
Background and legal career
ACC: CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), founder and chair of Omnia Strategy, Queen’s Counsel (QC) and a foundation founder: Please tell us a little about your background that led you to wear so many distinguished hats.
Cherie Blair: I have certainly come along way from growing up in Liverpool in a single parent family. I was brought up by my mother and my grandmother, and their influence has been enormously positive. I feel that there are very strong links from my early childhood right through to my career today.
I was an avid student and I was always keen to get involved with current affairs from an early age. In the end it was law and not public service that I pursued. I certainly don’t regret that turn of events, not least because I was able to advocate causes that I believed in through my legal work, like equality, women’s rights and freedom of religion. I have had the privilege of supporting these principles, amongst others, before not just the highest courts in England and Wales, but also before the European Court of Justice, as well as working as a Recorder and arbitrator.
My latest career change has been to establish Omnia Strategy. My role within the firm allows me to work on the issues that I am passionate about, like dispute resolution and human rights — albeit bringing a new angle to the provision of legal services.
Omnia Strategy is a new kind of law firm offering not just pure legal services, but also expertise in policy, diplomacy and strategic communications.
More women barristers
ACC: We have observed a trend toward more women in GC positions within legal departments. Have you observed an increase in the number of women entering the legal profession, and if so, to what do you attribute this trend?
Cherie Blair: I was lucky, coming into the legal profession in the 1970s in Western Europe at a point when there was a step change in relation to the position of women in the law. All of a sudden it was possible for women to hold positions in law firms, as barristers, or in companies as general counsel.
When I started in the legal profession, only 10 percent of the lawyers were women. However, my daughter has just become a tenant as we call it, in a barrister’s chambers here London, and in her law class, 50 percent of the entrants were women.
There’s been a huge influx of women into the legal profession, which obviously is very positive. In fact, the Law Society statistics show that 48.2 percent of solicitors today are women and this figure is expected to reach 50 percent in 2017.
It’s a cause to celebrate, the fact that women have come into the legal profession and they’re not faced, as I was, with comments like “Women can’t be trial advocates because their voices don’t carry far,” or “We don’t take women in our legal practice because the clients don't like it,” or “we do take women, but we’ve got one — so we wouldn't want two.” That attitude no longer exists. What you do find, however, like in many other professions and businesses in general, is the glass ceiling effect. So 50 percent of solicitors in England and Wales are women, but when you look at the gender mix at the partner level, while 43.3 percent of male solicitors become partners, the figure for women is only 19.2 percent.
At the Bar, the QC divide is worse: in 2014 there were 1,404 self-employed male QCs, but only 215 female QCs (fallen from 248 in 2011).
I believe that one consequence of this disparity at the senior levels in private practice is that women are looking for more congenial places to work, where their talent is recognized and the environment is sustainable, with flexible working, support and mentoring. More often than not, the private sector is ahead of the curve on these matters, which might be why women are gravitating toward roles in private companies and corporations, and are attracted to roles such as general counsel.
The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
ACC: Did any of your own experiences as a woman working in law inspire the focus of your foundation, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women?
Cherie Blair: In 2008 I wanted to do something for women in the developing and emerging markets — I believe that a woman should have control over her own money and have the power to make choices. Therefore I wanted to do something to help women entrepreneurs. So we set up the foundation, which helps women build up their capital, their capacity in the sense of business and financial literacy training, and also their confidence.
Economic opportunity is an important driver of lasting cultural and societal change. Enable a woman to start her own business and you empower her to lead an independent life and support a family on her own terms.
Studies have shown that when you empower a woman, you empower an economy, and indeed a nation. This is because women invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities, which benefits both their immediate society and the wider economy.
The Foundation and Omnia perform complimentary roles: one helps women achieve great things from humble beginnings, and the other ensures that multinationals respect the rights of the workers on whom they ultimately rely.
The General Counsel SummitACC: At the ACC General Counsel Summit, your keynote address will focus on how today's general counsel can best serve modern business. What are the top two or three things a commercial lawyer must know or do to be successful today?
Cherie Blair: I think the key to any business, law firm or corporation of any kind is innovation. You have to be innovative in today’s fast changing world.
Law firms, especially when they’re working with companies, need to innovate. The lawyer needs to be the person who assists them to do that, rather than the person who always tells them what they can’t do. Just as the GC is now an integral business advisor in the company, if the commercial lawyer is to offer value, they need to develop the skills to cater to this broader role.
I think commercial lawyers have a lot to learn from the business-oriented role and policy-orientated role of the general counsel if they too are to offer flexible, innovative advice to their clients.
All lawyers must appreciate the legal and non-legal elements to their company (or clients) and understand that these areas often overlap. To achieve this, they must develop a broader strategic understanding of their company (or clients).
Keeping an open mind also helps lawyers, including GCs, to anticipate problems they may face and to devise creative solutions. Not only solving legal problems, but also helping to position a business to achieve its strategic aims should be the goal of the commercial lawyer.
--- Read the rest of the interview in the November issue of ACC Docket and find out more about the GC Summit here: www.acc.com/education/gcsummit2015. Find out more about the Cherie Blair Foundation here: www.cherieblairfoundation.org.