Rebecca Maslen-Stannage
Rebecca Maslen-Stannage: ‘Clients suddenly thought it was OK [for us] to not be in the office . . . it opened up opportunities for lawyers to be more creative about [their time]’

The first female chair of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills said the Covid-19 pandemic convinced her to take on the top job and had led to better conditions for lawyers to juggle work and family.

Rebecca Maslen-Stannage was elected chair and senior partner of Herbert Smith Freehills last year, becoming part of a wave of women breaking through law’s male-dominated top ranks to lead some of the world’s most powerful firms.

In 2020 Georgia Dawson became the first woman to run “magic circle” firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in its almost 300-year history. Aedamar Comiskey became Linklaters’ first female senior partner in May last year and Karen Davies was elected to lead Ashurst, which has more than 1,600 lawyers.

Maslen-Stannage will take one of two top jobs at Herbert Smith Freehills, which was created by a merger of UK-based Herbert Smith and Australian firm Freehills in 2012.

She is based in Sydney and will run the firm with Hong Kong-based chief executive Justin D’Agostino.

She said that being grounded during the pandemic was a factor in her decision to run for the top job. “Ironically the pandemic [helped] because of the fact that in the first year I wasn’t going to need to travel . . . so that was significant, having had the absolute bonus of time at home with my children [during the crisis].”

She added that Dawson’s election at Freshfields was the “inspiration to have a go, take a risk and put my hat in the ring”.

Women outnumber men as new entrants to the legal profession in England and Wales but just 35 per cent of law firm partners are female. Herbert Smith is aiming for 35 per cent of its partners to be female by next year, up from 29 per cent last year.

Maslen-Stannage is one of Australia’s most prominent corporate lawyers, having acted on deals including TPG Telecom’s A$15bn (US$10bn) merger with Vodafone Hutchison Australia in 2018 and David Jones’s acquisition by Woolworths South Africa.

She said the firm’s new working policy unveiled during the pandemic had given women and lawyers with caring responsibilities more flexibility over how and when they work. Herbert Smith asks staff across its 25 offices to be in the office for 60 per cent of the time on average.

“The critical change was that clients suddenly thought it was OK [for us] to not be in the office, and working somewhere else . . . it opened up opportunities for lawyers to be more creative about [their time],” she said.

However she emphasised that more senior female representation was needed to encourage women to apply for promotions and leadership roles, as well as better take-up of policies such as shared parental leave.

“It’s challenging to have young children and do what we do,” she said. “I can still feel the stress of a client call with small toddlers in the background . . . There are still societal issues in some cultures, where it’s assumed that women will take on the caring role.”

Flexible working policies have become a new front in the war for talent, along with pay. Last week Herbert Smith told staff it was raising pay for newly qualified UK-based lawyers by 14 per cent to £120,000.

Maslen-Stannage said pay was “obviously important . . . We’re one of the leading firms in the market.”

Maslen-Stannage takes over at a crucial moment for the firm, which suffered a fall in profits in the 2019-20 financial year due to high operating costs but recovered during the pandemic to surpass £1bn in revenue for the first time.

The firm has launched a strategy aimed at targeting new clients in the private capital and technology sectors, as well as doing more work advising clients on cyber risks and environmental, social and governance factors.

Maslen-Stannage said Herbert Smith had “another very strong year” in the year to the end of April 2022, although factors such as surging inflation and supply chain issues could weigh on demand.

“We’re realistic about headwinds we’re facing but not going to be overconservative and turn away from our ambitions for growth,” she said.

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