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City lawyer and Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf, tells Pui-Guan Man she didn’t get where she is today by being afraid to ask

The 686th Lord Mayor of London, City lawyer Fiona Woolf, is only the second woman to hold the title in 825 years. When she took up the City ambassadorial role late last year she became not only the first woman in the position in 30 years (following Mary Donaldson in 1983) but also the first female lawyer to hold the title.

But Woolf is no stranger to overcoming professional barriers. She became the first female partner at CMS Cameron McKenna in 1981, having asked to be promoted. 

If she had stayed quiet, the chances are she would not have been made a partner. “I can remember the moment when I asked for [partnership]. I was walking back from having had lunch with a client and one of the senior partners, and we had got within 100 yards of the office when I thought, ‘it’s now or never: once you’re inside you’ll get sucked into something else’. So I said to him, ‘I was wondering when you were going to consider me for partnership?’ His reply was ‘oh… do you want to be a partner?’ 

“It forms one of my messages to other women: don’t be afraid to ask. You get lucky, but make your own luck.”

fiona-woolf-officialOpening doors

Woolf was elected president of the Law Society of England and Wales in 2006, marking a turning point in her 40-year journey to taking up office at Mansion House, Walbrook, which began when she qualified as a solicitor in 1973.

Seated next to then-incoming Lord Mayor, Sir David Lewis, also a senior partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, at a City of London Solicitors’ Company banquet at Mansion House in 2006, conversation turned to the Law Society’s support during the Lord Mayor’s overseas visits. Their conversation clearly made an impression on Lewis, because the next day an email from him arrived in Woolf’s inbox saying that the Ward of Candlewick position was about to become vacant, and that he thought she might like to apply to be an alderman. Woolf became one of the City’s 25 aldermen in 2007, before going on to be elected Lord Mayor in 2013.

Having been on many of the Lord Mayor’s overseas trips during the 1990s, when she chaired the Law Society’s international committee and held a role as World Trade Organisation negotiator, Woolf had gained a sense of how the alderman role opened doors for the UK’s professional services firms. 

“It seemed to me, given my experience with the fantastic door-opening abilities the Lord Mayor had, that it would be nice to give something back by supporting the Lord Mayor in that effort,” she says.

Building a legal career

Before her run of civil roles, Woolf built a successful career in CMS’s UK energy and projects practice, having initially worked at legacy Coward Chance’s corporate and banking practice for five years. She then took up a position as assistant solicitor at McKenna & Co, the legacy CMS firm where she remains a partner.

Among other notable deals, she led the 38-strong team acting on the restructuring and privatisation of the UK’s National Grid electricity transmission network in the 1990s. She was also on the team negotiating the concession agreement for the Channel Tunnel in 1985.

Having worked with more than 28 governments, as well as several central banks on electricity reforms and infrastructure projects, Woolf has found her knowledge has come in handy with her civic duties. 

“I met the president of Taiwan in January, and after we spoke about financial services he asked to switch the topic to energy, because there isn’t anywhere in the world that isn’t challenged by the need for energy and infrastructure. So I think it’s a fantastic moment to be Lord Mayor and use what I’ve learnt throughout my career,” she says.

For an unpaid position that spans only a year, Woolf certainly has a lot on her plate before she moves into her next role as the first chancellor of the University of Law, which kicks in this November. As the ambassador for the UK’s financial and professional services industries, she is visiting 25 countries to promote the capital’s businesses to governments and leading industry figures, on top of a domestic programme of meetings with business leaders in UK cities. 

Woolf’s diary is, unsurprisingly, packed. Shortly after our meeting, she will be whisked away to give a speech at an awards ceremony, followed by meetings with Greece’s vice minister for development and competitiveness, UK Trade & Investment’s acting chief executive, the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates and the City of London Deanery Synod (the City’s churches). “Just another Friday afternoon,” she jokes.

cms-cameron-mckennaThe fight for diversity

On top of supporting the UK’s financial markets and running the Lord Mayor’s Appeal, Woolf is also rising to the challenge of improving career opportunities for women and minority groups. 

There are now 50 women in CMS’s partner ranks, making up 29% of the overall partnership – a far cry from the situation Woolf faced in 1981. But there is still much ground to cover, and she has made it part of her mission to secure higher percentages across the capital. 

Woolf has teamed up with CMS partner and InterLaw founder Daniel Winterfeldt on a diversity programme designed to share best practice among senior and mid-level managers in the City. More than 30 prominent organisations are sponsoring a series of seminars and events in relation to it, including Baker & McKenzie, CMS, Eversheds, Hogan Lovells, Morrison & Foerster’s UK arm and Reed Smith. Woolf says more businesses are also set to sign up.

“The idea is to particularly focus on the mid-level of these organisations, managing the pipeline to get the talent to the top. We’ve had lots of programmes focusing on the top dogs, and the young ones all get it, so reaching the widest parts of the organisation is what everybody wants to focus on in terms of the message,” she says.

Part of the plan is to ensure new networks are created, an idea that stemmed from a conversation Woolf had with former CMS senior partner Dick Tyler about the lack of opportunities to talk to organisations outside the legal profession to gain wider knowledge of diversity management tools. She also wants to link existing networks together.

“There are women’s networks, Hindu networks, LGBT networks – to name a few. But we want to say ‘don’t just talk among yourselves the whole time; learn from each other’. So networks for networks would be good. It would be great if we could get some mid-level champions to network as well,” she adds.

“Throughout my career, I often felt I was on the crest of a wave where I was going to see much more diversity in law firms. Then that wave would slip back. But this time I feel there is just so much energy and enthusiasm that, if we work together and collaborate on intelligence, we have a real chance [at making headway].”

Juggling professional and family life is a concept Woolf is all-too familiar with. When she married chartered accountant and tax adviser Nicholas in 1990 she became a stepmother to two children aged 12 and 16. “I inherited a bustling family that needed transportation to oboe, drama and tennis, just at the time when Nicholas said I ought to export what I’ve learnt on the electricity privatisation all over the world,” she says. 

“It was quite hard to organise life during the school holidays. I remember worrying about that a lot, but taking the children with us, particularly when I was travelling, seemed to be the answer to a prayer. They were wonderfully resilient and rose to the challenge of having two professionals in the parenting role.”

As part of her mission, Woolf has installed red buses on routes cutting across the City with the words ‘We are all dedicated to diversity’ emblazoned on the side.

“I think the strong message, for anyone from a diverse background, is that no one wants you to fail and that we are a lot better at supporting and developing talent than we were before,” she explains.

“We still have a long way to go – the long-hours culture in law firms, for example, is a problem we really need to tackle – but there is a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm going into moving the needle on diversity.”

Here’s hoping that, with her efforts, it won’t take another 30 years for the next female Lord Mayor to step up to the plate.

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