The Whole Truth: Sharon Cook's recipe for success

From the first part-time partner to now the first female managing partner, Angela Priestley speaks to Sharon Cook soon after she stepped into the top job at Henry Davis YorkLW: You've

Promoted by Lawyers Weekly 01 August 2008 Big Law
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From the first part-time partner to now the first female managing partner, Angela Priestley speaks to Sharon Cook soon after she stepped into the top job at Henry Davis York

LW: You've recently begun your tenure as managing partner of Henry Davis York (HDY). What are your top management priorities?

SC: Stephen Purcell, who I have succeeded, was managing partner for 10 years and he has left the firm in very good shape. I have a strong platform for my reign as managing partner of the firm. I think HDY is recognised in the market in three areas, and they're the strengths that I will play to.

The first is that we're a specialist provider to the financial services sector and we're pre-eminent in insolvency and restructuring, the second is that we have great relationships at HDY both with our clients and among the staff, and the third is that we are an employer of choice. They're the three strengths that I will be capitalising on as managing partner.

What's high on the agenda for the strategy to move the firm forward?

Our strategy is to focus on the financial services industry and to broaden our focus there. That will be my focus in terms of market sector. In terms of developing the people and the reputation of HDY, my focus will be on developing our expertise.

In terms of the divisions of the firm that you foresee undergoing expansion in the near future, obviously financial services is high on the agenda. What else?

HDY has been involved in most of the major insolvency deals in Australia over the last decade. That is an area that, as I said, we consider ourselves pre- eminent. We're also at the forefront of distressed debt in Australia and that is what we consider to be an emerging market for legal services.

That's the cornerstone of our financial services practice, but a focus of mine going forward is to have a broader focus on financial services, and we're going to develop our funds and superannuation practice. We already have a highly respected team there, we have six partners and 20 lawyers, but we're going to develop that into another area of pre-eminence in the firm.

There are two other areas we are developing. Our public sector practice is one and we have a number of good clients. HDY has a strong reputation with the sector and we intend to develop that. Second, a significant proportion of the partners at HDY practise in the field of litigation, we do it in a number of areas like banking and litigation, general commercial litigation, insurance litigation and planning and environment.

We would have over 15 partners who practise in that area. Another aim of mine is to develop the reputation and the market reach of that sector in our firm. There's a lot to do, plenty to keep me busy!

Are you currently making changes to divisions of the firm in line with the current global economic situation? Are any areas particularly affected?

It seems to me that I'm very fortunate to become managing partner of HDY at this time, because as the economy crumbles our insolvency, restructuring and banking litigation lawyers represent a considerable number of people in the firm. We have nine partners in that area, we'll be extremely busy and they will deliver work to the rest of the firm.

What we're seeing with some other lawyers, is that they're drafting lawyers from other parts of the firm into their insolvency and banking practices with what they expect to be an increase in work in this environment.

We don't have to do that, we have practitioners who have been doing this work for the last 10 years and they will have more on their plate as a result of the economy declining.

It sounds like there certainly are some busy period ahead - so what value does HDY place on the retention of support staff? Are there any particular strategies at work that HDY has for ensuring these staff stay put? <

We don't have a particular strategy in relation to support staff, I just like to look at all our staff as one. We have a very low turnover of support staff and I think that's because of the HDY culture, which is that we genuinely care about and respect and enjoy working with each other. I hope our support staff enjoy working here. The fact that they don't seem to leave would suggest that.

How might your expertise in risk management, compliance and regulatory matters be placed to assist in regulatory changes to the business landscape over coming years?

The skills and abilities and competencies that I bring to being a managing partner are very different to those that made me a good lawyer and a successful partner in the firm.

That's a long-winded way of saying that I don't think those legal skills helped me so much in running the firm, but I have a whole pile of wonderful and talented partners who will continue to provide the same client skills that I did.

HDY has confirmed a commitment to corporate social responsibility by participating in the latest corporate responsibility index. Why is it important for a law firm to improve on its sustainability and participate in community issues? Are there marketing benefits, as well as the benefits of goodwill?

We have done it because we believe it's the right thing to do. As a private partnership we don't have to report on corporate and social responsibility matters. It's something that we choose to do because we think as good corporate citizens it's important. It may have flow-on effects in making our staff happier, but none of that is what motivates us. We are doing it because we think it's the right thing to do.

You started as a part-time partner at HDY in 1997. Did that choice slow your career progression at all?

My answer would be "possibly", but that was my choice. It's about that whole idea of slowing down and speeding up your career at different times and having different priorities at different times. Yes, it did (slow my career), but it did from my own free choice and that's something that I'd encourage all women to think about. There's a time when you want to spend as much time as possible with your small children, and then a time when you perhaps want to focus on your career. That's what I've done and it seems to work for me.

You're the first female managing partner elected at HDY. Does knowing this add to the pressure associated with the job at all?

I think I may be the first female managing partner of any law firm in Australia. The whole girl thing is something that has been picked up by papers and magazines, but it's just not something that has been a focus of mine - and interestingly, I don't think it's been a focus of my partners. One of things that rather disappointed me through that whole vigorous process I had in order to become the managing partner here is that I don't think my partners ever noticed that I was female! There were many questions about my ability and skills for this role, but no one ever seemed to think that because I was a woman I would be better or worse for the role: it just didn't come up, it wasn't an issue.

Is it frustrating to continually be asked about these gender issues?

It's not frustrating. There's a certain amount of satisfaction that it's occurred and I do think I'm important as a role model. When the appointment was announced I was inundated with emails and letters and it was lovely, not just from this firm, but from outside the legal community. Many of the letters came from women around town saying "you go girl", just being pleased that a woman had got this role. I don't underestimate the significance of this for other women, but it's just not something that seems to have affected my mostly male partners.

Will having a female managing partner on board change the priorities in offering staff a work-life balance and improving equality for women in the firm?

Other than the fact that I am a woman and that I am a role model, I don't think that it makes any difference. I don't think it's just women who champion work-life balance and gender equality. I think that enlightened men do, and HDY would not have chosen a managing partner who wasn't a champion of those things.

Have you had female mentors in your career? If so, who?

An interesting question, but the answer is no. There are plenty of women around who I look at and am impressed by, but they have not been my mentors. I have been fortunate in being in a very collegian and supportive partnership. It's one of the great strengths of HDY that many of these partners are personal friends of mine.

I also have a close group of high-achieving female friends, in law, in journalism and in the corporate sector. We meet up once a month and there can be up to 10 of us, and we exchange stories and support each and laugh about the things that happen in our lives.