The Big Interview: Claire Armstrong, Scotland managing partner at Dentons

Claire Armstrong is Scotland managing partner at Dentons – which says it is the world’s largest law firm, present in about 80 countries.

In February 2021, Dentons said her appointment to the role completed its all-female Scottish leadership team, and she said at the time that she was looking forward to helping take the business forward “on its journey from Scotland’s oldest commercial law firm to Scotland’s leading global law firm”.

The organisation has been celebrating its 150th anniversary north of the Border, via Maclay Murray & Spens (MMS), which was the first commercial law practice to be set up in Scotland. It became part of Dentons in 2017.

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Ms Armstrong, a corporate finance and investment funds lawyer, who is a partner in the firm's asset-management practice, in 2011 joined what was then MMS. She was in 2021 recognised in the Legal 500 as being “very knowledgeable and key to running complex projects”.

'I want Dentons to continue to be a high-profile Scottish business in an international firm,' says the corporate finance and investment funds lawyer. Picture: Neil Hanna.

Her current leadership role also seems to have been written in the stars – as she was born at the Simpson maternity hospital on the site where Dentons’ Edinburgh office is now located.

You became Scotland managing partner just under a year ago – can you characterise how the first few months have been, and what you aim to achieve in what was a newly created role?

It’s been an incredibly busy and exciting time. The purpose of my role is partly to remind people that we’re a home-grown Scottish business at heart, doing lots of positive things north of the Border, but as part of a very successful and inspiring international firm.

In the past 150 years, we have advised Scottish clients on their most important legal matters and we continue to do so. We haven’t lost our roots and we’re about being everywhere our clients need us to be – and I’ve a big focus on engaging and building our team in Scotland.

The executive believes 'talented, committed and progressive' woman should feel they have opportunities in law and business. Picture: Neil Hanna.

How are you leveraging the firm’s presence in Scotland, where Dentons aims to be the leading international law firm?

Again, this comes down to being a home-grown business with an international presence. We work with clients across Scotland, from well-established brands and household names to start-ups. We also introduce global companies to Scottish opportunities.

To what extent has the pandemic brought challenges and opportunities – both for Dentons but also its clients in Scotland?

The pandemic has undoubtedly brought both challenges and opportunities for our business and our clients. There are the well-documented challenges of home working and ensuring our teams are well looked after in terms of their health and wellbeing.

We have also put great time and effort into helping our clients address challenges and identify opportunities by putting them front and centre.

In terms of opportunities, we have seen huge amounts of capital deployed by investors and corporates into merger-and-acquisition and investment transactions, including real estate, which was less expected.

In dispute resolution, we successfully embraced virtual hearings. We created a virtual courtroom in our offices for our clients, counsel and lawyers.

You head up the firm’s all-female leadership team north of the Border, while MMS in 1917 hired Madge Easton Anderson, who became the first woman in the UK to qualify as a solicitor. What is your view on how women are progressing in the top ranks of the legal sector – and what can be done to increase this?

For me it’s about looking at more than just the top ranks. We need to keep women in the business at all levels. Talented, committed and progressive females should feel they have opportunities in law and business.

It’s very much about the future of law and how we can provide an excellent service to our clients, while allowing people to have a family or caring responsibilities or simply make life choices.

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If we’re not keeping women in the business at earlier stages, we cannot promote them into senior roles. We’re seeing more females stepping into CEO and managing partner roles now, which is great. You can see that in our business, we have a number of strong female leaders, including Lisa Sewell, our managing director for the UK and Middle East.

I think we’re now doing well on diversity in the gender sense, but we need to look at other areas, such as ethnicity and social mobility, and ensuring we have diverse management structures and teams. It is about making sure we have a business and a culture that attract and retain all talent.

Dentons has previously noted that the legal landscape has undergone “considerable” upheaval, facing changes in the procurement and delivery of services as well as the advent of technology, for example. What is your view on this – and what are your expectations for further consolidation in the industry in Scotland?

The use of technology in legal businesses is definitely growing, particularly around artificial intelligence and automated systems, for example document automation, verification platforms or live financial reports. This trend is being welcomed and it’s not about replacing the human lawyers, as clients still need their advice.

We’ve seen a lot of consolidation in the legal market, but I believe there’s still some more to come. In Scotland there have been a number of mergers of the bigger firms with international firms and other consolidation at national level, which has seen a few companies push a focused Scottish agenda.

I believe those Scottish firms will remain much as they are as their unique selling point is around being Scottish. But they may bolt on smaller businesses to add to their services. I suspect we’ll also see consolidation of smaller firms to create medium-sized ones.

You led the merger of Murray Income Trust Plc with Perpetual Income & Growth Investment Trust Plc – can you give more details on your role in this, and was it one of the most pivotal moments in your career?

I had just completed that deal when I was appointed Scotland managing partner, but I’ve worked on many significant transactions in my career. I wouldn’t describe any one deal as pivotal as so many have been important.

Being at Dentons has widened the scope of the work I do. I’m an investment funds lawyer and I’m no longer just focused on this sector in Scotland and England. I’ve redomiciled funds to Bermuda and I’ve set up new ones in Abu Dhabi and Dubai through their international finance centres.

What attracted you to study law – and how did your career progress?

I’m a languages person, so it was a natural progression to move from the subjects I was studying at school to law. I really enjoyed my time at law school. I was always someone who was going to be a lawyer at the end of law school, rather than doing it as a degree to move onto something else.

I like the transactional nature of law, working for clients and the buzz of doing a deal, working with the client to get it over the line and learning about their business in the process.

I trained at a medium-sized Edinburgh firm. I had always wanted to be a corporate lawyer so moved into a role in that area with Biggart Baillie where I stayed for eight years. I then moved to London where I joined international firm Fasken Martineau. I was made partner. I joined MMS when I moved back to Scotland in 2011 with my now-husband.

Dentons has announced initiatives to help staff with their mental health, while it has its own head of people, reward and mobility practice in Scotland – Alison Weatherhead – who is highlighting issues such as the menopause. Why is the firm taking such an approach?

We want to have an engaged and committed workforce, while genuinely ensuring our business is human and understands that we all go through different things during our careers. We want to create a safe environment that makes people feel comfortable in their working life. A lot of our initiatives are not only UK or Scottish-focused; they are global.

Social mobility is a big thing for us, and we have various initiatives. We have an apprenticeship scheme in England – the Solicitor Apprenticeship – which is a six-year programme aimed at post-A-level students, paralegals and chartered legal executives. We’ve been speaking to the Law Society of Scotland about introducing a similar scheme here.

It enables those who are not in a position to go to university to access a career in law. It’s also important to point out that there are other careers in law firms other than being a lawyer. We recognise their role in the success of our business.

If we look ahead to International Women’s Day in March 2023, about two years since you took on your current role, what would you like Dentons in Scotland to look like then?

We celebrate International Women’s Day and see it as great way to raise awareness of successes and any issues. There’s a connection between what has been going on in recent years and the increasing number of females in senior positions in business.

Where I would like Dentons to be in the context of women in 2023 is to see things as business as usual for everyone and celebrating people’s achievements, rather than differentiating between genders.

I want Dentons to continue to be a high-profile Scottish business in an international firm assisting clients to reach their goals.

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