A legal leader not afraid to speak out
When the Law Council of Australia was selecting its keynote speaker in launching its most important report in years, Sharon Cook was the only choice.
Lawyers Weekly exclusively broke the story yesterday (30 April) that Cook was standing down as the head of Henry Davis York at the end of the year, with her replacement due to be elected in August.
Cook has done a fine job at HDY. She has been the driving force behind the expansion of the firm’s reach and service offerings, with her stewardship of the firm instrumental in HDY reaching the $100 million revenue mark for the first time in 2010-11.
She also, correctly, noted that HDY’s long-term future would be better served remaining as an independent firm, and she has knocked back many overtures from global suitors.
HDY still does high-end work for many key corporate clients such as the Macquarie Group and the big four banks, with its status as a domestic blue-chip banking and financial services firm proving to be a nice counterpoint to the global firms operating in the same space.
Despite her being so closely associated with HDY, it is Cook’s wider contribution to the Australian legal profession that she will be remembered for.
Cook used her standing as a managing partner to not only change her firm but also try and change the profession.
For much of her time as HDY’s head she was the only female managing partner of a top 30 Australian law firm.
Cook herself was horrified that this was the case.
“There are clearly many other competent women out there who could do the job very well at other firms, so I think it is a sad indictment of the profession that I am currently the only one,” Cook told Lawyers Weekly in 2012. “It is indicative of the fact that there are obstacles to women succeeding in the profession.”
Cook was heavily involved in the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession report released by the NSW Law Society in December 2011 and was also a leading figure in the set-up of the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) by the Law Council of Australia this year.
When the report was released at the Canberra Press Club in March, Cook was a fitting selection to deliver the keynote address.
As a prominent legal leader, Cook has regularly spoken out about how the law is failing women and has championed flexible work options and the promotion of a more inclusive workplace.
The appointment of a flexibility manager at HDY has greatly assisted women returning to work after maternity leave and helped all staff to have viable flexible work arrangements.
“In many offices the work ethic is measured by hours in the office and that plays into the hands of ambitious males,” she said at a Women in Law Leadership Summit last year.
Cook and HDY have also been rocked by the other significant issue confronting the profession – depression.
By far the most difficult thing she has had to deal with as the head of HDY was the suicide of the young lawyer James Plummer in August 2010.
Cook disagrees with Lawyers Weekly that timesheets are a contributing factor to the high rates of depression in the profession, and indeed HDY still adheres to the billable hour.
Yet Cook is a strong supporter of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation and has introduced direct measures at HDY to try and address depression, such as an Employee Assistance Scheme.
“We lost James, and that taught us a lesson that you always need to be working on this and be sure you are doing the right thing by your staff,” she said in 2012.
Cook has been a powerful and eloquent spokesperson for much needed reform in the profession.
The influence and contribution she has made to the profession was recognised when she was awarded the Lasting Legacy Award at the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards in October last year.
In speaking to Lawyers Weekly yesterday, Cook said she is still deciding what she will do next year.
It is certainly hard to imagine her getting back on the tools and resuming practice at HDY after being the firm’s managing partner.
It is more likely that she will be looking for a fresh challenge outside of the law, and it is not hard to see her excelling in an advocacy position with public sector bodies such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
Whatever the future may hold, when Cook closes the door to her office as HDY’s managing partner for the last time on 31 December, she will leave behind a powerful legacy.