Sandra Wallace, the UK managing partner at DLA Piper, enjoys her challenging work as one of the nation’s top lawyers. Steve Dyson reports.
Sandra Wallace discovered just how seriously DLA Piper considers its female workforce when she was heavily pregnant with her first child back in 2001. Her maternity leave was about to start just before a series of interviews for partnership at the global law firm, but rather than delay her application the company adjusted the process to make sure she was included.
“I was due to be off on maternity leave just after the interviews and so they brought my date forward,” recalls Wallace. “That was a bit scary! Usually, there’s a nervous camaraderie in going for partnership as a group of people, and so doing a lot of it on my own was daunting.
“But then it felt so good when they told me that I’d succeeded and would be a partner. And they valued me enough to do it then, rather than saying: ‘Wait until you’re back’, which was great.”
Born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, Wallace was the first of six siblings to go to university. She graduated with her law degree from Wolverhampton University in 1994 and started work at a company called Needham & James. This firm soon merged with Dibb Lupton and Broomhead in 1993, which later became Dibb Lupton Alsop, before being renamed as DLA Piper after a merger with a US-based firm in 2005. DLA Piper now has more than 4,200 lawyers located in over 30 countries.
Wallace, who has three children and lives in Sutton Coldfield, went back to work part-time after her first child, and her job has remained ‘flexible’ ever since. For her, this means planning time off when she needs it, like for most of August so she can be with her children during school holidays.
She says: “DLA Piper has an excellent approach to agile or flexible working, and has done throughout my partnership career.
“Today, people want a work-life balance, and this is something employers should be encouraging. It means you get the best out of people, because we all need time away from work. That flexibility means staff are at their happiest, which is when you’re going to get the most out of people.
“People want to deliver to the highest standards, but even more so when they know that the company allows flexibility. So it makes business sense.”
The highlight of Wallace’s 22-year career came last year when she was asked to become DLA Piper’s UK managing partner – an invitation she says came “out of the blue”. The three-year role has never before gone to anyone outside of London. Sandra was at the time the UK Employment Group Head.
She says: “It’s a big, strategic role in a huge international practice, so it took me a while to decide. But I’m so glad I did because it’s been great to see how we’re driving the business forward. I work in a tremendous office, but now I’ve visited all our other offices, getting to know all the teams and strategies, and having inputs into those. Together we’re going to meet and exceed our budget this year, despite all the caution we’ve seen in the run-up to the European referendum.
“That’s given me and the business real confidence. It’s so pleasing to know the qualities we have, and to see how we’re able to get everyone working across the group. We have so many cross-group workings now, giving staff opportunities to work on really exciting projects, regardless of place. This has included international secondments to places as far away as California, Dubai and Australia, and seeing all that culture and all those connections coming back to Birmingham and our other UK regions.”
The secondments are part of what’s known as DLA Piper’s ‘One UK’ approach, which involves acknowledging the strengths of each office, but then being able to draw on the specialties and resources that might be elsewhere. “What it means,” says Wallace, “is that you do a job with the people who are best for our clients. That might mean calling on extra resource, or drawing on particular expertise from another office. We’re one firm, but one firm across the UK – whether that’s Birmingham or Sheffield, for example. Having a global footprint means we are trully full service.”
DLA Piper’s traditional roots were in northern England, but it made the decision to expand into the West Midlands in 1993 because of the region’s strategic importance for sectors such as life sciences, manufacturing and financial services.
DLA Piper’s work in the region now covers everything from industrial aerospace to the leisure sector. Sandra has developed a market-leading reputation, offering strategic and commercial advice on business reorganisations, international cross border projects, executive disputes and staff relations, as well as complex disciplinary, grievance and whistleblowing matters. She also acts on high-level discrimination, equality and diversity matters.
One case saw Wallace acting for a leisure industry client on changes to pay, terms and conditions for 1,500 employees, handling employee relations issues, consultation and contractual changes. Another saw her defending an employment tribunal litigation involving claims of discrimination, constructive dismissal and whistleblowing. This included securing a Restricted Reporting Order to protect the client’s company reputation and brand.
Wallace also advised on a major post-acquisition project which involved a business reorganisation to align marketing, sales and support functions in the UK and internationally.
She says: “It’s never been DLA Piper’s aim to be the biggest. Does that sound crazy? Actually, it’s not. We feel it’s more important for us to offer strategic relevance to our clients. That means being wherever our clients operate, and offering them the expertise whenever it’s needed.”
Wallace likes “watching people who I’ve worked with develop and grow, and now seeing them lead the business”. And she enjoys having “great relationships” with clients, where they feel comfortable telling her if they’ve had a “dreadful day” because they know “there’s someone on their side”.
Wallace adds: “Getting to that point with a lot of clients is the best part of the job. But the really important thing for me is to be enjoying what you do. Yes, it’s hard work and can be really challenging. But if you enjoy it, it’s worthwhile. We work hard for our clients and for the business, but we should always enjoy it as well.”
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