Sharon White, the CEO of Stephenson Harwood, started her career as an accounts clerk, doing basic audit and accounts work while she studied for her A levels. “I took a slightly unusual path, though I knew I wanted to be a lawyer at that stage,” she says. After she completed her A levels, she went on to study law at the University of Essex. She trained at a small firm before moving to Stephenson Harwood when she was two-years qualified—and she’s been there ever since. “I joined the corporate team, and as time moved on, I became a partner in 1997 and then held various managerial roles,” she says. Before being appointed CEO in 2009, Sharon assisted with trainee recruitment, heading the trainee panel at one point; consulted on premises options at various stages; and briefly sat on the supervisory council before becoming head of the corporate group.
Who helped you the most on your career path?
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had quite a lot of people—both men and women—who have supported me and given me a push throughout my career. In the small firm I was with, for example, I worked quite closely with a partner who was very much the sort of person you could discuss anything with. I will always remember, and be grateful for, the help and advice he provided. In one instance, he helped me explain a matter to a client without drawing attention to my inexperience. That stayed with me as the way to support people.
Were there any moments early in your career that surprised you in terms of how you were treated? What struggles did you encounter and how did you overcome those roadblocks in your career?
Things have changed a lot over the last 30-plus years. In my early career, I don’t remember having a woman client, even at the junior level. All my clients were men, and it’s probably true to say that they weren’t used to having a woman as their lawyer. But the majority were just interested in the quality of advice, and once comfortable with that, they never questioned me.
As an M&A lawyer, I spent lots of time sitting around waiting for documents to arrive, often late into the evening. After I had my son, it wasn’t desirable to wait in the office late into the night, so I installed a fax machine at home, where I could spend that waiting time more productively. It wasn’t without its issues. The only place for the fax was in my bedroom and I recall at least one occasion when the machine went off at night! Flexibility makes a big difference now.
What has most surprised me are the close bonds I’ve ended up forming with clients. If you look objectively, you might wonder what we have in common. I’m not into sports so that’s not something to talk about with clients, but you find ways through working with them and being interested in what they are doing to find common links. Some of the clients I’ve been closest to have very different interests but that feeling of being in the trenches together is a great one.
What has been your greatest challenge as the CEO of Stephenson Harwood? What keeps you up at night?
Originally, in 2009, it was the recession; it was quite a tough time to take on this role. We had enjoyed a successful period and I wanted to continue that, but the recession brought challenges. We’ve risen to those and have been able to continue to grow.
Now, as a country and a profession, facing Brexit is a challenge because no one can predict the outcome. And it’s challenging in our roles to support our clients because there is not yet the clarity to be able to move forward and address the changes.
How important is it to your law firm to have women in leadership?
I’m a believer that you can only be what you see. It’s important that women see that there are senior women and have the confidence that there are possibilities for them. There are some women that don’t want to advance to partner or other leadership roles and some that do, so seeing that the firm is a fair and diverse place is right. We continue to work hard in this area and have more women in leadership roles now than ever before. We’re breaking down barriers and offering support and encouragement to everyone, no matter what their role. To do that, it’s important to show that this is a place where anyone can progress.
How do you or your organization help women advance in the workplace and the legal profession?
I’m really proud of our female career progression program, which launched in 2014. It’s not just about making partner but about making the best career choices, tackling challenges and gaining new insights. As a result of that initiative, we are better at having open conversations about progression and any challenges or roadblocks that might be there. We do not have a one-size-fits-all approach; people can and should progress at different paces. It’s great to see that program develop and become a part of what we do at the firm.
We also have a number of initiatives on wider diversity. We’re working with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged young people, broaden their understanding of the careers available at a law firm and help them to gain access to opportunities they might not otherwise have access to. Through the program, students visit us and get to see for themselves what we’re doing and see what they can aspire to.
What advice would you give to young lawyers who desire to become a partner in a law firm?
Retain your personality. Don’t be tempted to fit in with the work environment; be the person you are. We’ve all seen it happen when new people join and they’ve written in this terribly formal way how they think a lawyer is supposed to write. There may be less pressure on these things now, but in my early days, a number of women you’d encounter were fearsome in ways and behaving in that way never sat comfortably with me. I’ve always acted in a way that feels natural and comfortable for me. You don’t need to have a professional persona that’s hugely different from your real persona.
Form really good relationships with your peers, senior colleagues and clients. I’ve had really good working relationships with partners from an early stage in my career that went beyond working with clients, including discussing what I wanted to get out of my career. Forming good relationships is important.
Don’t be afraid to let people know what your aspirations are. There’s a time and a place for these conversations, but don’t be afraid to say and ask for advice for moving toward that goal.