This week we met up with fellow member and fraud fighter: Suzi Sendama. She is a Commercial Litigator at one of the UK’s leading law firms, Mishcon de Reya LLP, and legal guru to high profile tech, luxury goods and fashion industry clients. On the equality front, Suzi is commendably a balanced individual; a supporter of the Association of UN Women and 10 years’ ago she qualified as an FA Licensed Players’ Agent and has advised players on all aspects of their professional career from transfers to contractual issues.
In this edition of ALFIES Folk, we learn how even working in an exciting job at Quintessentially, could not hold Suzi back from pursuing her career in law. With her mum being a leading medical negligence solicitor, Suzi was probably destined to become a lawyer herself. We also discuss the topics of maternity leave and its effect on career growth for women, why traditional interviews do not work for training contract applications anymore and what it means to be a successful working mother.
Suzi, before we start our interview, tell us about your experience of winning tickets to the Carole King Concert in Hyde Park: did you enjoy it and would you appreciate more of the same competitions in future?
Suzi: I was so surprised to win the tickets to the gig having entered the ALFIES’ competition on a whim a couple of days beforehand. Carole King is such a legendary songwriter with an iconic back catalogue and it was incredible to win tickets to her first UK gig in nearly 30 years.
You started your professional development in the entertainment and management world. How did that go?
Following a couple of really fun years at Quintessentially, I decided to make the move into law and applied for a training contract at Mishcon de Reya, – Suzi.
Suzi: I was only 22 when I took the Football Association’s exam to become a Licensed Players’ Agent. Football agency is a heavily male-dominated industry – I think that at the time I became licensed, there were only 2 or 3 other licensed women but several hundred licensed men – and it was definitely an upwards struggle to be taken seriously. It did not help that I was also very young. I did not actually work in football for a couple of years after that – my first job after university was with Quintessentially, the global lifestyle management and concierge service. Following a couple of really fun years at Quintessentially, I decided to make the move into law and applied for a training contract at Mishcon de Reya. I worked for a Manchester-based football agency for a couple of years alongside my legal studies and once I had finished my Legal Practice Course, I moved down to London to start my training contract at Mishcon.
Interesting. So, while working in one of the leading luxury lifestyle concierges, you decided to make the move into law. What made you change your career path?
In terms of our determination, drive and work ethic, my mum and I are definitely cut from the same cloth, – Suzi.
Suzi: I probably have my mum to thank for that. She was one of the UK’s leading medical negligence solicitors in the 80s, 90s and 00s and was a huge inspiration for me. In terms of women who have really made their mark on male-dominated professions, mum is up there. When she founded her firm, Alexander Harris in 1989, she had two children under the age of 8, and somehow managed to balance a home life with her professional one. Many of her cases were extremely high profile too – she represented more than 200 families of patients murdered by the GP Harold Shipman. I still remember how excited mum sounded when I telephoned her one day to tell her I was planning to make the move into law and, in particular, to apply for a training contract at Mishcon. The types of law we both went into could not have been more different but in terms of our determination, drive and work ethic, we are definitely cut from the same cloth.
We note you started life at Mishcon after winning a training contract with the firm. How competitive was it back then as a female to gain a place?
Suzi: I think applying for a training contract is competitive whether you are male or female. It’s definitely getting tougher year over year. At Mishcon, we have now scrapped traditional interviews for our training contract applicants and instead recruit solely through our vacation scheme which is effectively a two-week on-the-job interview: applicants get an opportunity to do the work we do alongside people from the firm and at the same time, we get an opportunity to really get to know the people who are applying. It’s a tough system but it means we are far more likely to recruit individuals who fit well in the firm, rather than just those with outstanding academic achievements.
What qualities do you possess that helped you the most in advancing to your current position at the firm?
Overall gender representation in the legal profession is improving, especially at the trainee and associate levels, – Survey by Chambers Students, 2014.
Suzi: Tenacity, drive and a real interest in my clients’ businesses.
How has becoming a mother changed your life?
Suzi: In every way. Becoming a mother makes you re-evaluate your priorities. Now, it’s all about my daughter.
The decision to have a child and to go on maternity leave is normally seen as a potential issue for women looking to progress in their careers. Do you agree with this statement?
Suzi: I don’t think that having a career and being a mother should be mutually exclusive propositions. However, it can be very difficult for women to progress their careers after having children. Lawyers are expected (by their employers and their clients) to work very long hours. Mishcon, for example, prides itself on providing clients with a ‘Rolls Royce’ service where its lawyers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, where necessary. That said, it also has a number of family-friendly policies for its employees which sit alongside that, including a very good maternity package and flexible working opportunities.
I am buoyed by the fact that women at Mishcon have gone on to become partners after having children but I am not naïve to think that it will not be difficult if I wish to pursue the same path.
What does achieving a balance between your role as a legal professional and as a mother mean to you?
Suzi: Having grown up with a working mother who excelled in her profession and single-handedly put my brother and me through private school but at the same time who missed the school plays and sports days because she had to work, I feel that I really understand both sides of the coin. I want to achieve professional success, not least because I want to inspire my daughter that she can do the same, but I don’t want to look back and regret missing her childhood. At the same time, if I want to provide for her financially so that she can have the best opportunities in life, it is important that I go back to work. It will be a constant balancing act.
If women prioritise time at home with their child rather than their career, inevitably men will be likely to take on the top roles and earn more as a result. Is this outdated in your opinion?
Male partners continuing to earn more at the top level, – The Law Society, 2015.
Suzi: I think more needs to be done to support women returning to work after having a career break, so that mothers feel empowered to take as much time out as they need to raise their children and then return to work, when they feel ready, to progress up the ladder. That way, women could prioritise time at home with their children when their children are young but have a better chance to compete for the top roles a few years down the line when they feel ready and able.
Which female professional role model and mother inspires you most and why: be it a colleague, peer or celebrity?
Babies develop so rapidly in their first year and she is learning new skills all the time. I don’t want to miss a thing, – Suzi.
Suzi: I am hugely inspired by my own mother’s successes but in the world of celebrity, I have always been impressed by Victoria Beckham’s ability to juggle a career and a family. She seamlessly transitioned into the world of fashion (and now beauty) whilst raising four children. Whilst I am not naïve enough to believe that everything we see on social media is real life, she does seem to be one working mother who is managing to have it all.
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