Interview with Laura King / Clifford Chance
Laura King has been a lawyer at Clifford Chance for more than 20 years, initially based in Canada. She later moved to London, where she practiced capital markets law and was promoted to partner in 2001. A few years later, however, her career took an unexpected turn. The firm adopted a centralized approach to HR and asked King to lead the effort as a member of its global management team. And that’s why she recently found herself working on a book showcasing some of the firm’s top women lawyers. MCC interviewed her by telephone and email. These communications have been edited for length and style.
MCC: What are some of the rewards and challenges of your role as global head of people and talent at Clifford Chance?
King: Challenges and opportunities often go hand in hand. There’s real impetus behind our people strategy because our colleagues are highly engaged and committed to achieving the best outcome for clients. We think the best teams are inclusive. People excel when they are supported in broadening their skills and experience as well as in developing their resilience. I find it very rewarding to contribute to the firm’s success at a strategic level.
The same commitment drives us constantly to innovate and improve, not least in relation to HR. For the foreseeable future, a key part of this will be finding ways to work as smartly as possible. To deliver the best possible service, we need to be agile in the way we work. We need to invest in the right technologies and empower our people to use them effectively in collaborating with colleagues and clients. Change like this is always challenging, but the challenge is a positive one.
MCC: Gender diversity is an area that law firms and corporate legal departments have been discussing for many years. In your opinion, why hasn’t the profession made more progress toward closing the gender gap?
King: There are a number of reasons. First, when you look at the structure and legacy composition of law firms – particularly of large partnerships – it’s a long-haul proposition to equalize the gender balance. Moving the needle is difficult, just mathematically, because of the limited number of partners we can make up annually against an existing pool of legacy candidates. For example, in our case we have more than 550 partners globally.
Other reasons may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some places, there are recruitment issues with fewer women coming out of the local law schools, obviously affecting the pipeline. In Western nations, the graduation numbers are more balanced. But there may be attrition issues, where we lose women partway through the pipeline, usually as mid-level associates, because they either seek other roles or (more often) accept an offer from one of our client organizations at the request of a general counsel. Finally, there are pipeline issues at the very top. Here we look at unconscious bias and whether women are getting stretch assignments so they can develop the skills needed to become a partner.
So while it is true that these factors have combined over time to reduce the pipeline of available promotions, it is also true that a number of firms have worked very hard to address the underlying issues. For example, bias awareness training can help us identify high-performing female associates and ensure that they’re getting the right messaging and support. We also focus on providing great role models and mentoring programs. And some development programs, offered to both genders, are specifically aimed at redressing imbalanced messaging.
These efforts have had an impact on our numbers. Our global firm has increased the percentage of women partners from 14.5 percent to 19 percent in the past five years. We’ve also played a role in policy-level lobbying around issues like child care and the gender pay gap. We obviously have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction across a wide front.
I’m also gratified to see firms getting together on these issues, even though they are otherwise competitors, and sometimes in direct competition on the issue of gender diversity. Notwithstanding all of that, firms are working jointly on a number of initiatives around gender diversity, and I believe this is helping the profession overall.
MCC: What are some of the important keys to recruiting and retaining top women in the legal profession? What matters most to them?
King: Women need visible role models within the organization. These don’t have to be limited to women. A diversity of role models who share these values is even better. This benefits all recruits, not just the women, and the reason is simple: When you broaden your talent pool, your people need to be able to envision themselves succeeding and developing. When they look ahead, they need to see different people taking different paths. That’s important for all recruits, but particularly so for women, because we’ve historically had fewer role models for women and more homogeneity in our leadership models.
MCC: Clifford Chance recently published a book, “Advice to My Younger Self: Reflections of Successful Women Lawyers.” Can you tell us about the book, the process for developing it and some key things that you discovered by publishing it?
King: It started when our Americas marketing director came up with the idea of featuring stories from 20 of our women attorneys, including partners and associates as well as our fantastic alumnae, many of whom remain connected to the firm in their current roles. We asked them to talk about their time at the firm and the key decisions that shaped their careers. It was fascinating to get their insights on the issues you and I are discussing right now.
When I look at the book overall, it’s interesting to see the diversity of career paths and choices that enabled each of the participants to leverage her own development and take a next career step. We are sharing their insights with lawyers at in-house teams of clients around the world and in our recruiting efforts – especially at U.S. law schools.
MCC: Can you share some of the feedback you’ve received internally as well as from clients?
King: The feedback has been tremendous on the substance and style of the book. One client is using it to help junior lawyers realize that everyone is living the same challenges, and to share the great messages for young women. Another person who just attended a women’s leadership event at William & Mary in Virginia remarked that the book should be required reading.
We also heard from our own lawyers. They were grateful to know that they weren’t alone – that no one knows everything and that it really is daunting to look ahead when you’re just starting out. The primary messages – being courageous, pushing boundaries, being true to yourself, seeking mentors, focusing on the business of your practice and, of course, doing the work – came through naturally during the course of 20 separate interviews. It’s really compelling when you look at it that way.
On top of all that, we’ve had requests for copies from the careers section of a law library in Dublin and an all-girls high school in England!
Laura King is a Clifford Chance partner and its global head of people and talent, based in London. Formerly a partner in the capital markets practice specializing in securitization and structured finance, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read “Advice to My Younger Self: Reflections of Successful Women Lawyers,” please click here.