I’d like to say becoming a lawyer was a very well-thought-out decision in my teenage years, but it wasn’t. I recall taking a career aptitude test at school, and it was one of the few professions I’d actually heard of. Law sounded interesting, and I’ve always enjoyed the legal wrangling in various TV shows. Showing my age, it included the less esoteric ones at the time, like LA Law in the late 80s and early 90s.
I picked Herbert Smith. I applied to a number of places, but I had heard partner Lawrence Collins, now Lord Collins of Mapesbury, speak at a careers event at university. Herbert Smith was well-known as a preeminent litigation firm and so I thought that was where I wanted to go. I wrote to him directly. I didn’t think it would make any difference, but it did. When I started, I was a trainee in his litigation department. I had an opportunity to work with him first hand, and he supported me in the early stages of my career.
Early work included a pro bono matter on recovering art looted by the Nazis. I remember going into Collins’ office and, whereas most people give you a topic to go and research, he was able to refer me to the names of several cases, not only the cases themselves, but also the citations. I remember thinking: ‘Right, this is what you need to be able to do.’ Oppenheimer v Cattermole . I still don’t remember the page number.
I’ve had role models both inside and outside of work. When I was a trainee there was a lack of female role models. The support network was therefore more with your colleagues, and women you met along the way. Having female role models for women starting their careers now is something I feel very passionately about.
I was on the partnership track but I wanted more client contact. I had been doing some work for General Electric, and they asked if I’d come and work with them on a secondment as chief compliance officer for one of its businesses. I went in originally for four months but then it became permanent, and expanded to head of compliance with responsibility for all litigation matters. Eventually I became responsible for managing all the litigation for GE Capital across Europe, around 17 different countries.
Going in-house was an extremely valuable experience. You get to work with different characters, you have an opportunity to deal with all kinds of decisions: hiring, firing, appraisals, development. The kind of things that are so important to help other people progress. You also have to deal with difficult conversations, an exposure I simply didn’t get before I went in-house.
GE had a system of identifying the lowest 10% of performers and considering whether they should stay. It was a very stringent process. Some people just identified those performing less well and that was the end for those people. Or you could see if there were opportunities for those people elsewhere, and if you could develop them. Learning how to deal with those things puts you in a really good position for management and leadership. All of that has helped me transitioning back from in-house into a partner.
I ended up being the only lawyer working with GE’s audit and risk team investigating a fraud of around €6m. I took it right through from a potential issue to investigation to litigation, and succeeded in recovering the entire amount plus interest. That was a moment for me when I realised: ‘I can absolutely do this.’
I hope throughout my career that my colleagues would describe me as collaborative. Fun to work with, and someone they’re pleased to be in a team with. You’ll have to ask them!
When I was thinking about whether to move to Barclays, every time I opened a newspaper, there was a new piece of litigation or regulatory investigation on the front page. I thought: ‘Is this what I want because some of this is going to be very high-profile?’.
I originally had a team of about 35 people managing all the litigation and investigations in the UK and Europe. It was a fantastic experience. It was really great to be at the heart of all these issues, and to have a role within the business itself. We had the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. We were at the tail end of FX and Libor investigations. The Libor litigation was still continuing, the FX litigation is still going on.
You only hear of what’s public. When you are a big financial institution or a global corporate, you are always at the end of litigation. There was so much going on internally. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time on regulatory investigations. And, as those who work in financial services will know, success is when you haven’t heard about them.
Having female role models for women starting their careers now is something I feel very passionately about.
At Barclays, you are not just a litigator or an investigator. You are also dealing with risk management, PR, media, employment, corporate governance. I learned from GE and Barclays some really key and critical lessons that I didn’t realise even then how much they would help me going back into private practice. I see my work through the client’s eyes now. Due to the volume of contentious matters, you learn to compartmentalise, assign and delegate, but to be there for the most important issues. We worked hand in hand with our external counsel, we were like business partners with them. There were definitely times it was all hands on deck, but generally there was a really good atmosphere.
My dispute resolution style? It depends. I know when to stand my ground and when is the right time to negotiate. At Boies Schiller Flexner we are trial lawyers; we will aggressively defend our clients. But all the things I’ve learned over the years in terms of risk mitigation and PR come to the fore. It is not always the best for your clients to go to trial as it may not be cost or time efficient. So I’m aggressive when I need to be, but I also want to get the best result for my client.
A great opportunity at Boies Schiller arose and it seemed remiss not to take it up. Boies Schiller had worked with Barclays for some time on Libor and some other very complex litigation, so it was a firm I knew well. I always enjoyed working in private practice, I wanted to see what it was like to be back on the other side. Despite Covid, it’s been a seamless transition.
I’ve just passed my one-year anniversary of joining Boies Schiller. I spent my first four and a half weeks in the office, and have spent the rest in my dining room. That could be seen as an obstacle to some, and it has certainly prevented me from meeting clients in person, but I’ve Zoomed and Teams’d my way through! I’m happy to say I’m very busy.
Natasha Harrison, Boies Schiller’s London managing partner, is one of the main reasons I joined. She is a tour de force. Natasha is extremely supportive of diversity at the firm. She has a vision, which I share, of a firm that is diverse, collaborative and operates as one firm. It’s great to be working alongside her.
The fact that it’s a small office in London was an attraction to me. It’s an opportunity to build my practice. We’re very busy in our investigations practice at the moment, and we’re starting to see the first Covid-related litigation. It was very important to me to be somewhere entrepreneurial.
Things have really changed in the profession. It’s a completely different environment for a woman starting out in law now to how it was all those years ago. One of my first days as a trainee, there was a session on dress code. One of my brave female colleagues asked if we could wear trousers, and the look of dismay on the face of the person leading the session was stark: ‘Absolutely not!’
There’s a lot more flexibility for a woman with a career now if you’re at the right firm. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work equally as hard as your male counterparts. But the flexibility on when and where and how you work makes a huge difference.
One recent achievement that I’m proud of was being awarded Solicitor of the Year at the Inspirational Women in Law awards. That was special because I was nominated by a former colleague. It means a lot to me because it came from someone I worked with but also because it’s an area that’s very personal.
I love reading. I’m never without a book. I finish one then start the next immediately. I like crime and investigative novels, obviously! I like all the Nordic crime noir as well.
I’m a new and dedicated Peloton rider. I would never have imagined myself on a bike before but I needed something to do. It’s fantastic, it really motivates you. You can choose from different classes and different styles of music. For the last few weeks, my friends and I from across the UK and US have been joining the same session at the time. You can be competitive and catch up afterwards.
I just finished watching Zero Zero Zero. It’s an Italian series, which was very good. But I’m now watching The Last Kingdom, just because it’s got so many series it’s going to maybe keep me going until the next restriction is lifted.
I have a very eclectic taste in music, from musicals to dance music to classical. Aretha Franklin is amazing. I’m actually a singer myself, and I used to sing in the firm band. I was in a cover band at university, singing mainly covers and soul music. We’re all musical in my family. Guys and Dolls is my favourite musical.
I hate marmite. In all guises. Can’t bear the smell of it. I’m very decisive. Actually… I do like twiglets.
Regrets? As Edith Piaf would say, ‘non, je ne regrette rien.’ I’m sure there are some times you may make the wrong decisions, but you learn something from everything you do.
My life mantra is, to borrow a Nike slogan, ‘just do it’. Take every opportunity!
Tracey Dovaston is a partner in the London office of Boies Schiller Flexner.