Role Models and Evolving Idea of Success

Emma Sutcliffe talks to us about creating our own role models and her ever evolving idea of success.

spotlight series header emma sutcliffe

I am a Partner in the Financial Markets Litigation team (FML), working primarily with banks, asset managers and smaller financial institutions. From an embarrassingly early age I knew I wanted to be a litigator and did two litigation seats as a trainee at Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) but when they were not able to offer me a place in their financial litigation team on qualification, I moved to the FML team at S&S. It’s tough starting at a new firm as an NQ but leaving HSF was probably one of the most serendipitous moments of my life. I’ve now been at S&S for 13 years and in that time I’ve been on three secondments and made partner four years after becoming a managing associate with one maternity leave in between and one as a partner.

My husband hates me saying this, but essentially I’m a single mum during the week as he works abroad so I have full responsibility for my two children. I have a fantastic nanny on whom I rely heavily but you cannot delegate being a parent and I often feel torn between children and clients. Having both forces me to work differently: I squeeze in my BD during the day so that my personal life doesn’t impact on my relationships with my clients, and I work from home one day a week so I can be with my family. I’m also visibly in the office 9 -5 but I am strict about leaving at 5.30pm to see my children. Despite this being pre-agreed I initially felt embarrassed leaving "early" as very few others around me were doing the same and I used to sneak out as quietly as possible. It was only when I realised that despite leaving at 5.30pm every day, my billable hours were just as high (I work in the evenings remotely when needed) and there was clearly no need to feel ashamed. When time is limited, you are forced to be efficient and effective during working hours. Nowadays it’s less of an issue - men quite rightly want to leave at a sensible time as well, and that’s ok.

Idea of success continually evolves

Going for partnership late in my second pregnancy will certainly stay up there as one of my biggest achievements. It’s a rigorous process so there was a bit of concern around being able to keep up while approaching the final few months. But this represented what I had always wanted: career progression but not at the expense of having a family. I get enormous professional satisfaction from successfully representing clients: I recently acted for a CEO of a large insurance firm who was being investigated by the FCA but after my team’s hard work we exonerated him and the allegations were dropped – the client was thrilled. The case was both intellectually absorbing and professionally satisfying and a good example of why I do what I do.

Now I have the opportunity to be a leader at S&S there are other rewards: I have more autonomy and choice over the work I do and how I do it; I have a say in strategy and the direction of the practice; and I see the overall picture of the business including recruitment, management and promotions. My idea of what success looks like has definitely changed at different stages of my career: I probably used to measure success by my supervisor’s feedback and the size of my bonus, but nowadays I consider it a success if my work and family life are balanced (which doesn’t always happen). I am ambitious but I may not present that ambition in the same way as others. I think that both individuals and the firm need to be more open-minded and flexible about how we measure success and recognise ambition - the tortoise isn’t as fast as the hare but ultimately the hare gets there first.

Become the role model you’re looking for

Having a role model can be enormously inspiring but I wasted a lot of time trying to find the woman ten years my senior with kids and a full time career who hadn’t had a nervous breakdown. Belatedly, I realised the right role model isn’t necessarily one person but many. My role models were both female and male and I took inspiration from many people as not one person embodied all the qualities I was looking for. If you have to create your own role model in your head, so be it. If you have to be the trailblazer, that’s ok too.

“Be the trailblazer.”

Empower yourself

It is a concept borrowed from the (in)famous Sheryl Sandberg, but in terms of balancing career progression with personal commitments such as family, I do think women need to avoid "leaving before they leave". Don’t get caught up with what you think you can’t be doing in ten years, or mentally rule yourself out of future promotions; focus on the here and now. Get as much exposure to different opportunities as possible and get yourself into the best position in your career so that when you do take a break, whether that’s maternity leave or something else, you are able to return to a role that is interesting and rewarding.

These concepts apply to our male colleagues too. We should all feel empowered to do what at present mostly only women are doing: leave on time, work remotely and flexibly, take parental leave. I don’t believe a cultural shift is possible by only women doing more of this; it becomes the norm if everyone takes advantage of the same opportunities.

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