‘Gender never mattered a whit’ in driving Brodies’ common purpose

If two individuals can share a single look of polite tolerance it was evident in one of the Atholl Crescent conference rooms of Brodies last week.
Brodies partner Joyce Cullen, far left, and her successor as chairman, Christine ONeill. Picture: Ian RutherfordBrodies partner Joyce Cullen, far left, and her successor as chairman, Christine ONeill. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Brodies partner Joyce Cullen, far left, and her successor as chairman, Christine ONeill. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Joyce Cullen, chairman of the firm since it became an LLP in 2004, has now formally handed over to her successor, duly elected by the partners, Christine O’Neill. In a week of the appointment of women to senior and leading positions in several Scottish law firms the inevitable if unsubtle question was whether their position on the Brodies bridge indicates something gender significant for the Scottish legal profession.

Cullen drew on her 30-year perspective in the firm. “Being a man or being a woman isn’t a factor that is taken into account here. It’s who you are, the lawyer you are and can you clear the hurdles – high hurdles – that indicate your capacity to become a partner.”

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With 13 years in the firm, O’Neill added: “Gender has never mattered a whit since the day I arrived. It’s a meritocracy. That’s what matters.”

At Brodies, women make up 30 per cent of the partners, 55 per cent of the associates, and 59 per cent of the trainees. The age profile of the partners indicates parity is unlikely to be far away. And in her foreword to last year’s annual review Cullen reported, in meritocratic terms: “More than a quarter of our employees were among the first generation of their family to study at university and 78 per cent attended state schools.”

But the legal profession is results driven and none of these statistics would count for much if the business was merely marking time. In fact, during the period of the Cullen chairmanship turnover rose from £16.6m to £42.8m. In 2004, they had 257 staff, including 35 partners. Now the figures are 534 staff, including 78 partners. They report a five-year compound annual growth rate of 7 per cent.

So what has been Cullen’s role as chairman in that period of expansion? “I think it has been several things. It is an external role, as the public face of the firm in certain situations; inside it’s seen as a leader, looking after professional values and morale within the firm, that type of thing. The managing partner, Bill Drummond, is running the firm as a business. The chairman, along with the board, supports the managing partner in fulfilling the strategic plan that we review on a three-yearly cycle. The relationship is very important. But it’s an 80:20 role – I’m still lawyering for 80 per cent of the time.”

O’Neill adds: “It’s not just about relationship with the managing partner but also with the non-lawyer colleagues as well, in business development and HR, marketing and PR. It’s quite a nice role to be a conduit sometimes for the views of partners and staff, and thinking about the wider picture while the managing partner is focused 100 per cent on the business. It’s the partnership’s job to futureproof and business plan. That has always been characteristic of the firm. The strategic planning meeting we have every three years is a very participatory event. All partners are required to prepare for, contribute to and think about all sectors, not just their own. The chairman is the focus but everyone has to contribute.”

The chairman of Brodies has a three-year tenure. Cullen had three terms, and right in the middle of that was the banking crash and consequent economic downturn that has proven terminal for several law firms as they either went out of business entirely or sought survival in merger. Bluntly put by an accountant recently, there remains a stark reality that Scotland has too many lawyers chasing too little work.

Cullen says: “Even in the depths of the depression when nobody knew what was round the corner with the banking crisis we were able to move staff around into areas that were still advancing. In 2008 we had just completed our 2007 review, when things looked very promising. But looking over the whole period we still did most of what we said we would do, including the move into Glasgow and Aberdeen which are now major areas for us.”

That all sounds just hunky dory, then. But in nine years did Cullen never fall out with anyone? Is it credible that voices were never raised and anxieties never erupted? “I can’t say that. However, four of our partners retired last week and three of them had done more than 30 years so I think it hasn’t been too bad. One of the roles of chairman is crisis management. That is one of the things I have been involved in. It isn’t always comfortable but it is easier when there is a sense of confidence within the firm.”

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O’Neill says: “Joyce is underplaying her own contribution to that. The truth is that all younger lawyers look to older lawyers for examples on how to conduct themselves. I am sure Joyce has fallen out with partners in nine years but I would never know. No other partner or colleague in the firm will know. She has been involved in crisis management but it doesn’t adversely affect the rest of us in our work. The way we treat one another is very important and I think that filters down in terms of morale. I think that is what leadership is about.”

“Paddling like fury under the water,” says Cullen, passing on the baton, “but sailing serenely on the surface.”

In addition to her imminent enhanced profile as chairman, O’Neill’s lawyering, predominantly in public law, has also placed her at the centre of public debate about the legal implications of prospective constitutional change in Scotland.

“We have a range of clients who have different views on what the outcome of the referendum will be. We spend a lot of time explaining the process and how issues will be resolved,” she says.

What sort of things are they worried about? “Clients see the matter of membership of the EU as a central issue for them. For oil and gas clients, they are interested in matters of decommissioning tax relief. They are thinking a decade ahead. And most recently, of course, is the issue of currency. What are the options for Scotland, but what will each of the options mean for the particular clients we are talking to?

“For the last decade we have been advising clients on how devolution has evolved. It has never been a static process. Businesses have been investing in Scotland throughout that period. There are lots of more unstable parts of the world than Scotland. We are a mature and stable democracy. There is uncertainty about the result of the referendum but whatever the result is, on its own, it’s not an issue that determines investment in Scotland. One of the things I’m most proud about is that when we do go to brief clients they say how refreshing it is to get insight into the process in a way that isn’t political.”