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Interview

Annette Sheridan
Global Chief HR Officer, Mayer Brown

Law had a reputation for being a law unto itself, a closed shop, an elitist, male orientated realm for the highly remunerated. But the era of budget internet hawkers, eager to exploit any spurious opportunity, plus social pressures for equality, have put pay to all that. The sector had to change, and it is.

Annette, to begin with, give us an idea about your early life and career and what it was that made you decide on a career in HR.  

My earliest ambition was to become a primary school teacher, up until mid-way through university. Certainly, I really enjoyed the teaching experience I’d gained in the first year of my degree, but decided to keep my options open, so continued with a B.A. rather than a B.Ed degree. I then settled on clinical psychology as a career goal and moved from a teaching focus to psychology, but I dropped that idea when I realised how long I was going to have to stay in full-time education. I had a number of jobs whilst I was studying and, by chance, came into contact with some HR departments and observed what they got involved in. In the final summer of university, I saw an opening for a position at St Ann’s hospital in Haringey in London. It was a new role as part of a move to provide local HR support for the hospital. I was successful in getting that role and stayed in the NHS for eight years, following a move to Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospital.

The NHS was a great place to start a career in HR because of the amount of operational change that was going on and I was exposed to a full range of HR areas and had the opportunity to work with a large number of professions, professional bodies and unions. The range of work enabled me to develop strong technical skills, which have been the foundation for my career. There was a lot of employee relations work, but also strategic work. Much of it involved negotiation with unions and the harmonisation of policies, revised terms and conditions and restructuring, local pay negotiations and redeployment of staff. They were quite challenging roles, but they taught me the importance of pragmatism, and to be very creative, particularly within the constraints of limited finances for resources and benefits.

The NHS is a constant work-in-progress and is the top of all governments’ agenda. It’s always adapting and has to put up with politicians with five year horizons. That’s difficult to create any long term planning.  

Yes, but you’re also working with passionate people who are motivated to deliver the best services. It’s a very interesting place to work, when you walk through the doors you get a buzz from all the passion. I enjoyed my time in the NHS thoroughly, I worked with wonderful people and they encouraged me to develop. Towards the end of my time in the NHS, I had completed an MBA part-time and decided it was time to get some experience in the private sector. I joined a dot com business, which was frenetic and full of new ideas, but its future was also unstable, and not long into my tenure it lost its funding. When I left, I took a senior HR role within the asset management business at Citi Bank and subsequently a Director of HR role. The organisation had a matrix structure and it was my first real first exposure to an international business.

An extremely dynamic period for the financial sector, what was the atmosphere at Citi like?  

It was a great time to be working at Citi, but it was also very challenging. Even in positive times there were constant reviews to improve operational and business efficiency. There was a huge focus on incentive and reward, and development of people at the time. Later, my focus shifted to supporting Citi’s preparations to sell its asset management business to Western Asset Management/Legg Mason. I led the team preparing the HR elements of this for the EMEA group. There’s been much debate and analysis of the culture of the financial services industry, but my experience at Citi was very good. It was a very professional business and I worked with a range of bright, technical people, who really appreciated HR’s input, and its role in strategic business planning. Within two months of the sale, I took maternity leave and during that time I was also able to reflect on my career so far and think about what I wanted to do next. When I was approached about a role at Mayer Brown it felt like the right move for me. I was keen to embrace the opportunity to work within professional services and was recruited as HR Director for the London office. After five years in the role I changed roles and became the COO for the London office and, earlier this year, I was appointed to my current global HR role, which is a new position within the firm.

What attracted you to Mayer Brown as a business?  

At my first interview the firm came across as very commercial, with a really clear view about what they wanted to achieve as a global law firm. They were looking for people who had experience outside of the legal market. More than anything, what struck me was that they were keen to get an outsider’s perspective, and I had experience in both the public and private sector. It was clear that in their eyes, the HR Director role was centre stage in what they wanted to achieve, so I didn’t hesitate. First up for me was to really understand how the business ticked and I had some long, in-depth discussions with many of the partners in order to get to grips with how a global law firm operates. My role was pivotal to ensuring that we had the right resources to meet the firm’s strategic business needs, and alignment – a word that is often bandied about, but it is critical to the commercial realities of the firm.

In your current role as Global Chief HR Officer, give us an idea of the scale of your responsibilities.  

Globally, we are just under 3500 people, which includes around 1500 lawyers, of which 600 are partners. The firm is one of the largest international law firm’s in the world, with 22 offices in 11 countries across; the Americas, Asia and Europe, and our largest offices in Chicago, Hong Kong and London. It’s a very interesting and complex business which has gone through a number of changes and mergers over the past decade, so there is a rich and diverse range of cultures globally. That speed of change has definitely been the footnote of my time so far, due in part to the firm’s M&A activity, but also the many changes the sector has experienced, ranging from regulatory and technological to international competition and non-traditional entrants, such as apprenticeships. These changes have had a fundamental impact on law firms’ HR strategy. Historically, people saw law as a vocation and when they joined a firm they stayed with that firm for their whole career. That is no longer the case. Technological advances, changes to people’s attitude to work, coupled with the range of career choices open to lawyers and a willingness to switch firms, has put a huge spotlight on effective talent management. Our product is our people, which means we have to be able to compete for the best talent across all the markets that we operate in, but our work doesn’t stop there. A key pillar of our success today is being able to manage a talent pipeline that is increasingly diverse, changing and commercially aware and attuned to client needs. As a result, our talent management starts much earlier in the recruitment cycle. We also focus on listening to the motivations of our people as individuals so that we can tailor their career support in line with their priorities.

Your responsibility is international, making sure all offices and territories, to a great degree, are practicing up to standard, and you must employ many people locally on the international scale, give us an idea of how internationally, the business has changed?  

It is still early days for me in this role but one of my immediate priorities has been to consider whether we have a framework that fits the needs of a multi-national business. As part of my review, I have been looking at how our HR function operates in each market. Whilst there are differences across our teams, I want to ensure that, where possible, there is uniformity and common procedure, so that no matter where you work, you will receive the same HR support. At the moment, most of my time is spent developing a deeper insight into the global operation of the business and meeting the global HR team. We have offices that are both small and large and I want to ensure that our strategic approach and processes are the same in each office. I am conducting a large review of various HR policies globally and I’m also focused on making our performance management processes more consistent. I have been at the firm since 2006, but I have found the last few months fascinating, as my knowledge of the firm has deepened. I think there’s a real opportunity to enhance the position of HR within the business. As any HR director will tell you, globalisation is the most telling aspect of HR, and I can concur with that.

Now you have an international mobile employee base looking out for opportunities in other firms, that will create some challenges.  

Absolutely, there are so many challenges facing law firms right now. Today’s lawyers need more than just legal training, they have to be commercially aware, client-focused and adept at ‘selling’ the business, not just their area of practice. We call it being a “student of the firm”. In addition to that, we have to ensure that we equip our people with the tools to be able to do their job. That includes keeping up with advances in technology and using this to drive efficiency and deliver a better service to the client. I’ve already talked about the war for talent across the sector. But wider environmental changes also have an impact on how people are recruited and supported throughout their careers. For example, a number of people want to work more flexibly and are attracted to new business models which offer an alternative career route that is not predicated on a desire to make partner, which is the current partnership model across most law firms. Millennials don’t expect to have one career during their lifetime, but several, which means we need to provide new ways to motivate, train and retain younger lawyers. Part of that is providing the vision and capability for them to become partners and having a viable alternative for those who do not want to progress to partnership.

An issue that I personally feel strongly about is improving diversity within the firm, particularly in terms of social inclusion and equality. In London, we’ve introduced a number of initiatives to help broaden the firm’s access to a more diverse talent pool including apprenticeships for school leavers, which were introduced in 2013. This has been met with great interest and we were keen to provide apprenticeships for would-be lawyers, but at that time, they weren’t.