“The key thing is to make sure we attract and retain the best talent and promote a diverse set of people into the partnership and into leadership positions. It’s important to have role models, and it’s important for people coming in to look up and see diverse role models. I want everyone across the firm to feel this is a place where you can be successful based solely on talent, hard work and your ability to get the best out of people. That your success is not affected by whether you’re male or female, the color of your skin, your background or anything else.”
The law tends to attract young men and women on a 50/50 split but sees the gender balance shift to 80/20 at more senior levels. Is she a role model? Or does her success make her blind to the problem? “I’m careful about using the term ‘role model,’ but I do talk to a lot of women who want to discuss how to get the right balance. We have a target of at least 40% of our new partners each year being women, which we have exceeded over the last two years now. And we intend to keep that trajectory up.”
Traditionally, top firms have picked clever people, worked them hard and promoted them to oversee a next generation ready to stay in the office all night like they did. Is that the only way? “People want to enjoy their work and, if they’re not enjoying it, they’ll go somewhere else.”
There is a degree of pragmatism in her answers, almost as if she has had to rehearse these arguments with more skeptical colleagues: “You invest an awful lot in your talented people and in training, so it’s just a smart business decision to try hard to retain them. And if that means you need to provide more flexibility, you do.”
There is, of course, the money. Newly qualified lawyers at Linklaters earn more than £100,000 a year. In the war for talent, US firms lead the competition to pay the highest starting salaries. But Comiskey has a wider doctrine of reward: “Of course they care about how much they get paid. But they also want to work somewhere that contributes to things they care about, from climate change to social impact to being a responsible business more generally. We want our people to be proud of where they work.
“When people or firms profess to have values, the real question is how do you apply them when it hurts you, when it costs you money? Actions speak a lot louder than words and you have to be prepared to put your money where your mouth is. Some people might say that’s not very business-like, but you don’t want to take a short-term view on things that people care about, I want people to come to us rather than any other firm because we walk the talk. We’re high-performing—who doesn’t want to be high-performing?—but we also care. Some may consider that a bit wishy-washy, but I think it’s true.”
Wishy-washy? Not coming from her, for under the laughter and warmth, there’s clearly a fearsome ambition, the kind of drive that gets deals done: “When you’re training, you want to qualify. When you’re an Associate, you want to be a Partner. When you become a partner, you think: ‘OK, what’s next?’ And actually, the top job is Senior Partner, so that’s something to aim for. But I wanted to do it because you can bring about change. You can try to make a positive difference. And that’s what I intend to do.”
Kim Fletcher is a Partner in Brunswick’s London office. He was formerly Editorial Director of the Telegraph Group.
Illustration: Thomas Fuchs