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How waitressing helped me succeed as an international competition lawyer

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Herbert Smith Freehills’ Veronica Roberts — who’ll be speaking on Thursday at ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently: Legal Cheek live, with Lord Neuberger’ — on her journey from the local comprehensive to global law firm partner

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I think it’s crucial that we operate diverse teams comprised of lawyers with different backgrounds and outlooks: it helps us to ensure that we always provide pragmatic solutions for the range of issues our clients come up against.

I remember vividly my first day at Herbert Smith Freehills. Nervous about starting my training contract with such a large firm but also, as a newbie to London, trying to get my head around all the more practical changes like my new flat share in north London (found through an ad in Loot, quickly changed to sharing a flat with a fellow trainee!), travelling by Tube and so on. Would I be any good as a trainee? I had done a bit of legal work experience, but had usually had to fill my holidays with part-time jobs, like waitressing and on the production line in a greetings card company.

I had been to my local state comprehensive and sixth form, and I was worried that I didn’t seem to have anything like the confidence that some of my fellow trainees showed in our first few days of induction. And for the first time I now wondered if I really should have applied to study at Oxford or Cambridge (I hadn’t wanted to at the time, because they didn’t do the four year European law degree that I had just enjoyed at Warwick and Lille Universities).

I really need not have worried. At the end of the day, so much is down to the people you work with and for: I realised that very quickly and continue to remember that now as I lead different teams, including trainees. Within weeks of starting Margaret Mountford (of TV’s The Apprentice fame), then a corporate partner with Herbert Smith Freehills, was congratulating me on receiving my first “thank you” letter from a client and suggesting that I frame it as the first of many more to come.

Very quickly the people around me boosted my confidence and made me realise that actually I could do it and my contribution was valued. My partner supervisor in my second seat took me on a business trip to India to interview a huge number of potential witnesses in a fraud case and I learnt that as well as developing my skills as a lawyer and forging links internally it was also important to build strong client relationships. The people I interact with on a daily basis (both within and outside the firm) have very different job roles and backgrounds.

My part-time student jobs had really helped me to get on naturally with people from all walks of life and I only realised when I got to the firm that those skills would help me hugely with my role here. I loved it. By the time I went to our Brussels office in my third seat I was getting much more confident and thrived on more responsibility being passed my way, always carefully supported by various supervisors.

I qualified into our competition group and was based in our Brussels office for around eight years, before moving back to London. The way I learnt was by watching and doing — being involved in some key mergers and competition investigations with senior partners involving me fully and always asking for my opinion and input. This all helped me realise that my contribution was helpful and valued.

I also got involved in other “extra-curricular” activities to help me with my confidence. The firm’s graduate recruitment partner took me, as a newly qualified associate, back to Warwick University to give a talk on competition law in practice. Interesting insights, I thought as I listened to him talking about all the cases he had been involved in over the years. “Right, you’re doing that next time” he said to me as we were packing up. I couldn’t believe it, in fact the thought absolutely petrified me.

Who would be interested in me talking about my competition experience, with only just over a year of post-qualification experience under my belt? But I did give the talk (after lots of practising!) and the students loved it. In fact, I have been back to Warwick University most years since to give guest lectures and I have always encouraged associates to do so as well.

Male mentors have played a key part in the development of my career. Sometimes they may not even have realised that they were mentoring me, but wise words of encouragement at the right time helped me on my journey to where I am today. I remember being surprised when a senior partner told me I had what it takes to become a partner. ‎ All the partners I knew seemed so self-assured and confident and I just couldn’t see myself in their shoes. But it helped when my male mentors were honest enough to tell me about their own insecurities and worries, and I realised that not everyone (in fact, hardly anyone) is infallible. I have been with Herbert Smith Freehills for nearly 21 years and a partner in our competition practice for nearly 12 years. I am also now the lead graduate recruitment partner in our London office.

If I am totally honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to manage having children as well as my very busy job. But thanks to the support of my family and others around me, it has been a real joy. I can’t say it has been plain sailing all the way, but those more difficult moments have always helped to give me more resilience as well as more confidence to try and do things my way. As my three daughters are now growing up, although I know sometimes that they (and I) would prefer me to be at home at particular times, they are really proud of what I do when I hear them talking about my job with their friends. It also helps me to have a healthy perspective on the challenges I end up dealing with at work: there is (virtually) always a solution to any client issue.

My own experience has shown me that you get so much more out of people when they are engaged, given responsibility as well as understanding the overall context of a deal or investigation and feel entirely comfortable in the team dynamic. It also makes it so much more enjoyable, for them and me, and I think clients end up getting a better service and both notice and appreciate that.

My key focus always is to act as a positive role model, for male and female colleagues alike. For me, that means acting with honesty and integrity at all times: if colleagues and/or clients stop respecting you, things will start to unravel. As a partner, not all the decisions I and/or my fellow partners make will be popular within the firm, but I still think that communicating with people honestly and openly makes a big difference. And working with diverse and varied teams, with each member feeling comfortable with and enjoying their own role, can only lead to better client service.

Veronica Roberts is a partner in Herbert Smith Freehills’ competition law team. She will be speaking this week at ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently — Legal Cheek live, with Lord Neuberger’. Apply for a free ticket to attend here.

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