Sally Davies on rising through the ranks to make Mayer Brown’s first female London managing partner
Last month’s virtual Legal Cheek event offered a unique opportunity to hear from Mayer Brown’s London managing partner, Sally Davies.
Drawing on her experience, which includes being the first female managing partner in the firm’s London office, she gave an overview of her career journey in law and offered her insights on the industry. She also discussed how she guided a global law firm through the coronavirus pandemic and laid out the type of workplace culture that she is creating.
Davies started out at Mayer Brown, or what was then Rowe and Maw, in 1992 as a trainee in the property practice. She immediately set about implementing her “mission” to get to know the partners of the London office in order to understand their vision for the future of the Firm. This remains an ethos she applies in reverse now that she finds herself in the role of managing partner for London, where she is known to be an advocate of encouraging the trainees to interact with colleagues for chats, advice, or to communicate ideas, enabling them to “get more out of their own careers”.
Leading the Firm’s construction and engineering team, and as Mayer Brown’s first female London managing partner, Davies was asked about making it to the top in a predominantly male industry. On the record as having said before that she responds best to people in the workplace as individuals and not with reference to their gender, Davies further explained that she had never aspired to be at the top of the tree, but came to learn, through mentoring and advice, that her skills “could make a difference”. Encouraging both herself and others, colleagues and clients alike, to fulfil their potential for growth and high performance led naturally to finding herself wanting “to give back what I had, and support people in their careers, like I had in my own career”.
Guiding a global law firm through the pandemic
The current public health crisis has presented somewhat of a challenge to Davies, a “people person” who seeks to maintain “real relationships with clients”. She spoke candidly of some of the leadership challenges she had to address, and despite her decades of experience, admitted feeling stressed at the prospect of steering a global firm through the pandemic.
“I didn’t sleep, I found it really shocking to be in that situation, and to not have the answers when people are looking to you for guidance. What will our people do, what will our clients do, when will it end? I didn’t know and was nervous about what guidance to give. For the first few weeks I was so stressed out. It was really tough for a lot of people.”
So how did Davies, and Mayer Brown, go about overcoming the crisis? She insisted that staff “pulled together”, held “regular updates and chats”, and highlighted that listening to the needs of other people provides a means from which “you can learn… so much”. Further, she praised the firm’s “phenomenal” IT team and complimented their “desire to help”.
Davies also gave insights into the effect of the pandemic on Mayer Brown recruitment policy. While Davies remarked on restructuring and insolvency as areas into which hires have recently been made, she emphasised a focus on roles operating across international hubs, whether it be in London, New York, Chicago or Hong Kong. “Our lateral hiring has been focused on adding strength to our global platform”, she explained, adding:
“We have been growing in London, and some of our European offices, and becoming even more aligned with our global clients … seamlessly acting for the same clients, same level of service, same core values, growing and deepening those relationships.”
A key part of Davies’ leadership persona is about promoting a diverse working environment, which she says is more likely to result in both personal and commercial success. In her view, a diversity of backgrounds, experience and opinions only serves to create a working environment more conducive to innovation and modernisation. Davies is not a leader that simply wants to stand still and manage the status quo. After all, a truly global firm would do well to be global in its approach to appointments and workplace culture. Thus, diversity and inclusion are two strands that, as London managing partner, Davies has been keen to foster.
Early on in her appointment, Davies directed diversity-related initiatives, notably energising the firm’s internal inclusionary networks, and expanding them in order to collaborate with clients. Perhaps a marker of Mayer Brown’s and Davies’ successful efforts to increase workplace inclusivity is their place as one of only eight law firms to have received the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) 2020 UK Gold Standard Certification for integration and promotion of women to the highest leadership positions in the firm, in June last year. Yet, symbolic of Davies’ upward-punching persistence, she commented:
“Whilst we are delighted to have once again received the WILEF Gold Standard Certificate, which serves as a useful benchmark of our progress, we are not content with this. There is more to do, and we look forward to continuing with our programme of work to extend the levels of diversity and inclusion that we have achieved.”