Law firms run more effectively when they are diverse, inclusive places that foster a sense of belonging. But engaging busy, time-poor employees in initiatives that promote this ethos is a difficult task, and one that requires innovative, outside-the-box thinking.
Chris Mansfield, Co-founder of GoodCourse, spoke with Darren Mitchell, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Simmons & Simmons, about his journey to becoming the firm’s first-ever COO, the key aspects of his role, and the ways in which he promotes engagement and community within the firm.
I’ve been COO of Simmons & Simmons for just over a year. It’s one of the biggest UK-based firms with around 2,000 people covering offices across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with one small office in the US too.
I didn't set out to be in this role; I did a degree in Law but realised I didn't want to be a lawyer, so went into management consulting. I ended up back in the legal world almost by accident, working in a strategy unit at Clifford Chance somewhere between marketing and finance. It was pretty cutting-edge to have this capability back then, and it really interested me. I found that my finance abilities, combined with commerciality and critical thinking greatly helped in this sector. As I thought about what I wanted to do next, the operational side of things appealed to me, bringing me to the COO role at Hogan Lovells. I am working in a role here that didn't exist previously; being the first COO at Simmons & Simmons really creates an opportunity to make your mark.
It’s great being able to come into a role and put your own stamp on things, but at the same time, in a role that has no history, there are some challenges around adhering to the way things have previously been done while also trying to make improvements to the firm. I am thankful to have a great relationship with the Managing Partner; he got to the position where he realised they’d reached their bandwidth, and he was getting dragged into a lot of operational management, which took away from the time he could be spending strategically looking at where the firm was going. For me, it’s been about getting involved, working out why we do things the way we do, and seeing where improvements can be made.
The bottom line is important, but it isn’t all that matters. I also address people development, creating career structures, working on technology issues, and managing operations across the firm. It’s been quite a journey so far.
In my first few months speaking to partners, I asked about the areas where the firm was succeeding and the areas it needed to work on. Time and time again, they’d talk about the importance of culture at the firm; it’s held to a really high standard here. People define culture differently, but it was consistently defined as feeling a sense of community and the importance of friendship. People spend a lot of time with their colleagues, so this is really important to them.
People define culture differently, but it was consistently defined as feeling a sense of community and the importance of friendship. People spend a lot of time with their colleagues, so this is really important to them.
From an inclusion perspective, we have lots of communities built around particular characteristics. However, what’s different in Simmons is that those communities aren’t just for the specific groups that the community is aimed at — everyone is encouraged to participate. For example, I’ve been involved in our Emerge Network, which is our race and ethnicity programme, and that has been really interesting. I’ve participated in reverse mentoring and building close ties with those that have different backgrounds.
We recently placed a position for one of our partners to become the Global Head of Well-being. Well-being is something we take seriously; it makes people's lives easier, and we recognise that the legal profession often comes with a lot of stress and long hours. We can’t necessarily change that, but we can try and put in place mechanisms and approaches that are helpful and address the issues that people are facing.
It’s a combination of approaches that make them more accessible, and there is no one size fits all approach, unfortunately. We’ve thought about how we can give recognition to those who do engage with initiatives as a means of incentivising it. There isn’t a defined answer, but small changes like short events at the end of the working day, or events that slot easily into the day are things we have started to implement. We’re careful not to pressure people into attending events, but try to create events that people actually want to go to.
Getting senior people along is a big thing as well — if people see Senior Partners going along and making the time, it shows that it’s important and encourages others to do the same.
Create opportunities for people. Law firms are notorious for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; with legal expertise, there is a lot of focus on getting it right, but growth often comes from people being allowed to fail. It’s important to create opportunities for people to grow on the job.
I’d also say encourage curiosity. I like it when people ask a lot of questions and are curious as to how things work. It shows a mindset of wanting to make things better. Instilling that curiosity in people is so important.