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Meet the Managing Partner: Sue Gilchrist - Herbert Smith Freehills

In business and entrepreneurship, former lawyers are almost a dime a dozen. But Sue Gilchrist’s approach to a career in law is different. “I’m a lifer,” says the regional managing partner (Australia and Asia) for Herbert Smith Freehills.

Her first role at the international law firm was as a summer clerk before her legal studies were completed. It was here, during a stint in intellectual property (IP) litigation, that she not only realised she was in the right field, but the right niche within it. “It felt like the right place to be,” Gilchrist says. She is head of Herbert Smith Freehills’ Intellectual Property group nationwide.

Sue Gilchrist says size matters, but client needs come first. The feeling was confirmed after graduation when, to meet law society requirements, Gilchrist spent time working in different areas of the firm. It meant a year in banking and finance.

“That confirmed my passion for litigation,” she laughs.

Litigation appeals to Gilchrist for two reasons: there’s the obvious challenge of working out what the problem is and finding the optimum solution, but beyond that, she gets motivated by fighting for a cause.

“Sometime those causes are obvious in a social justice sense, where you are acting for a pro bono client. But also, for our commercial clients it’s the same really: in IP we can be acting for a big corporate, but they have invented something, put huge investment into it and provided employment for a lot of really clever, qualified people. Then they’ve patented it but somebody has just copied it – fighting for the cause is very much part of [my] motivation,” she says.

While her management style is seen as “calm”, she suspects her competitors probably see her as determined and aggressive.

“But if your one mode is aggressive, you risk missing the wood for the trees. I do get quite passionate and worked up about particular things on matters – but you have to bring [a sense of being] calm and considered to it. You also have to be really careful that what you are fighting about is the client’s interest, and not just your own competitive nature,” she says, noting that “competitive” is probably a quality most lawyers share.

While her management style is seen as “calm”, she suspects her competitors probably see her as determined and aggressive.

“But if your one mode is aggressive, you risk missing the wood for the trees. I do get quite passionate and worked up about particular things on matters – but you have to bring [a sense of being] calm and considered to it. You also have to be really careful that what you are fighting about is the client’s interest, and not just your own competitive nature,” she says, noting that “competitive” is probably a quality most lawyers share.

Her role as the first female managing partner at Herbert Smith Freehills sees her in a minority position: across the industry women outnumber men in law at associate and senior lawyer levels, but climb higher to partner and management levels and female representation drops to 25 per cent or lower.

It’s a statistic Gilchrist has worked hard to change, particularly through mentoring and sponsorship of female lawyers in her firm. Industry-wide, she says the flexibility which can encourage women to continue climbing the ladder while balancing a desire for a family is no longer a problem for clients: it’s a problem for law firms, often more so than in other industries.

“Clients no longer care where their lawyers work from,” she says. “[But] law firms can often be less flexible than their clients; [there’s] an old-fashioned view that employees need to be in your physical office 24/7, waiting by the phone for your client.

“Clients are way ahead of that: they are trying to access your brain and judgment. They don’t care where you are.”

Gilchrist also believes unconscious bias plays a role in the gender imbalance in the upper echelons of the legal profession.

“We’ve done a lot of work on that here,” she says. “It’s all those little decisions that happen about who you take to a meeting or put on a pitch … So many of those are just habit, and you need an intervention – which we’ve done some time ago and keep doing – to get people mindful about all those little decisions they take, and the impact those have on people’s careers.”


CURRICULUM VITAE

Current position: Regional managing partner Australia & Asia, Herbert Smith Freehills.

Responsibilities: Leads the Herbert Smith Freehills Australian and Asian executive teams and is a core member of the global executive.

She also advises clients on large, complex matters and is the head of the firm’s intellectual property group in Australia.

Education: Combined arts-law (honours) degree, the University of Sydney (1985); master of laws, the University of Sydney (1992).

Additional training/courses: Admitted to practise in the Supreme Court of NSW, the Federal Court of Australia and the High Court of Australia.

Professional associations: Appointed by the NSW Attorney-General to the board of Legal Aid NSW; appointed a member of Chief Executive Women; Workplace Gender Equity Agency (WGEA), Pay Equity Ambassador; former chairwoman Intellectual Property Committee, Law Council of Australia.

Honourable mentions: Lawyer of the Year for Intellectual Property in Sydney, as voted by her peers in Best Lawyers; a “best lawyer” in the litigation and IP categories in Australia each year since 2008 (Australian Financial Review Best Lawyers list).

Strength: I’m told my calmness is good! I’m told that I’m authentic, and respectful and use humour mostly appropriately.

Weakness: I think it stems from my curiosity: I do see how things fit together and I go into solution mode. In terms of volume you can’t go down that path on everything you are interested in. It’s around controlling the workload and letting others then take on finding their own solutions.

Management style and tips: Be yourself: and be open to the views and expertise of others.

Work motto: Be yourself, enjoy yourself and make a difference.

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