Employment in a Changing World – Sophie Vanhegan – S2E9

We have a special mid-week episode this week!

Our host Rob Hanna, talks with Employment Partner Sophie Vanhegan, from GQ|Littler. Sophie sheds light on her journey to becoming a partner, and the differences between working at big and boutique firms.

Sophie discusses her opinions and experiences on the current employment law situation, including options people have been exploring such as furlough in light of COVID-19. 


LSP Production Team: Hello. This is a quick message from the Production team. I hope you are enjoying the Legally Speaking Podcast due to the current Covid-19 linked crisis. The next few episodes will be recorded through our video communication software. Thanks for your understanding and do stay safe. The episode will now begin.  

Rob Hanna: Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast, powered by Kissoon Carr. I’m your host, Rob Hanna. This week I’m delighted to be joined by Sophie Vanhegan an employment partner at GQ|Littler. So, welcome Sophie. 

Sophie Vanhegan: Hi Rob, thanks very much for having me.

Rob Hanna: Absolute pleasure. I think we were talking just off air that you haven’t seen it before. But as you may or may not know, our customary question on the Legally Speaking Podcasts is around ‘Suits’. So on the scale of 1 to 10, 10 being very real, how real would you rate the hit series Suits? From what you’ve heard.

Sophie Vanhegan: As I said, yes, I haven’t ever seen an episode before. So I’m going to take a wild guess of about four out of 10.

Rob Hanna: Yeah, I think that’s probably a very sound and safe guess. And lots of people in the industry have said that, so you know it’s a real pleasure to have you on. You’ve achieved such a tremendous amount throughout your legal career, which we’re definitely going to be talking about on today’s episode. But let’s sort of take it back to the start. Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Sophie Vanhegan: I decided I wanted to be a lawyer at a geekily early age. There was a program for people of my age, in the ’90s called Kavanagh QC, which as a teenager I became rather addicted to watching. And it was about a criminal barrister standing up and defending clients. And I remember watching that when I was about 14, 15, and thinking, “That looks like quite a cool job. Standing up, making arguments for one side or the other.” I quite like the look of that. And it went from there, really. I decided that I thought I would be interested in law. By the time I got to sixth form. I was very clear that I wanted to study law at university. And it carried on from there essentially.

Rob Hanna: Yeah. Well great. And you went to Cambridge. How did you find your time there?

Sophie Vanhegan: I loved studying there. I think doing a law degree there was pretty intense. But I think most law degrees are quite intense compared to some of the other subjects. So it was a question of working very hard and working very intensely. But that sets you up well for a career in private practice, I think, for dealing with clients demands, and dealing with intense periods of working. It was also a really formative experience. It really made me more confident, it made me very focused, and driven with where I wanted to go with my career. So it was an amazing experience. I loved being there.

Rob Hanna: Great. And then from Cambridge, you successfully joined Linklaters. Right? Do you want to sort of tell us about your time there? And then secondly, why you chose to specialise in employment?

Sophie Vanhegan: Sure, so in the second year of my law degree, I did what everybody else did, which was to apply for lots of vacation schemes. And I managed to get two. One being at a US firm. And the other being at Linklaters. So off I trotted it in the summer holiday between my second and third year, for a month’s vacation scheme at Linklaters. And I absolutely loved it. It was a fantastic firm. I could see that if I could get the training contract there, I would have amazing opportunities to work on really high profile work, to be part of one of the biggest, most successful law firms in the world. So I applied for a training contract at the end of that vacation scheme and luckily got it. And I dually started my training contract there in 2006. In terms of employment law, you don’t tend to start a training contract at Linklaters with aspirations of being an employment lawyer. You tend to more be planning to end up being in one of the big engines of the firms, such as corporate or finance. But I did study employment law, It was one of my papers in my third year. And I always found it academically very interesting. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’d like to get a seat and employment law during my training contract,’ which I was lucky enough to do. And I think the thing that really appealed to me as an employment lawyer in the city, was that you were still getting the black letter law experience. I’ve always enjoyed the technical side of being a lawyer. You still get to take part in some much bigger matters. So at Linklaters that meant being part of some of the big deals and transactions. As well as big high court cases. But I also liked the more human element of being an employment lawyer. That you are actually dealing with people and their jobs. And the issues that they come up with at work. So for me, it gave the best combination of work while still being a lawyer in the City, which you know, is still one of the big hubs of our legal services industry in the UK. So those are all the factors that led to me joining Linklaters, and then ultimately deciding that I really wanted to be an employment lawyer.

Rob Hanna: Yeah. Great. And you know, you’ve done so much in the world of employment. Maybe for people listening in, do you want to sort of tell a bit more about the breadth of your practice, and how much you do within the employment space generally?

Sophie Vanhegan: Sure. So when I was at Linklaters I obviously did quite a lot of corporate support work and I worked on some very large transactions there. But I was also lucky enough there to get some exposure to some real high value litigation. So I was the lead associate on a multimillion pound bonus claim that went for five weeks. And a high court trial. So that really gave me the taste for employment litigation, particularly in the high court work. So when I moved on to GQ|Littler, that was something that I very much wanted to continue and have been lucky enough to continue. So I would say that now my practice consists of a lot of litigation. Particularly on the high court side. Which for an employment lawyer, means bonus disputes, restrictive covenant issues, and also team moves. But I also do that alongside a full raft of advisory work. And something that I am increasingly focusing on in the last couple of years by virtue of my financial services clients, is the interaction between employment law and the senior Senior Managers and Certification Regime that was rolled out for banks a few years ago, but as of December last year, also got rolled out to solo regulated firms. So I’d say those are my two particular areas of interests and specialism. The regulatory piece for the financial services sector in terms of its employment law interaction. But then also the high value complex employment litigation.

Rob Hanna: Yeah. And again, I’m very impressed by everything you’ve achieved. And just to go back a step, you’ve spent six wonderful years with Linklaters. And then you touched on it there ,and where you’re currently with GQ Littler, in terms of joining them as a senior associate. Do you want to maybe explain having trained, been with the Magic Circle firm, moving to a firm like GQ Littler? Your experiences, and perhaps what you’ve found in terms of similarities, and certain differences as well?

Sophie Vanhegan: Sure. So yes, I joined GQ Littler, back in 2012 when the firm was only two years old. And lots of people ask me, “Why on Earth did you go from a Magic Circle firm, to joining a two year old startup?” And the answer is quite simple. The G and the Q are Jon Gilligan and Paul Quain, who were the two founding partners. And I had worked with both of them Linklaters. But particularly Paul. Paul many years ago was my trainee supervisor when I was in the employment team there. And I always got on very well with him when we were at Linklaters together. I’d work with him a lot. And I was always very interested in his decision to leave to set up an employment boutique. So I’d kept an eye on how they were developing. And I could see that they were doing something different and something exciting.So that is why I basically decided to take a leap of faith when they were two years old. Because I thought, “Okay, they’ve survived two years, they must be doing okay.” And I thought, actually I was at a stage in my career where I was coming up for that promotion to senior associate. Lots of recruiters were always telling me, which Rob may know better than me, whether this is still true, that two to four PQE is a very prime window for moving if you do want to move firms. And so I thought actually where I am in my life and my career at the moment, I think this is the right time for me to go across. And I’ve never really looked back. Compared to how the firm was when I joined, and where it is now, they’re completely different. It’s like comparing day and night. We’re obviously now a much bigger team in London. And we’re also part of a much bigger organization in terms of Littler Global. In terms of what things I found different. Well, I mean it was everything from when I first joined GQ and serviced offices, where you had to pay money get the bulk photocopier to work out in the shared areas. I’m pleased to say that we now have all own much bigger offices, with fully functioning photocopiers. I went from a full service firm to an employment boutique. A full service traditional law firm with lots of very big support teams, to a much leaner support team model. But also, I think the advantage of going and becoming part of the team that was the firm and is the driver of the revenue of the firm, I think in a lot of full service firms, and I may be wrong, employment lawyers don’t have the same input into the strategic direction of the firm. And one of the things I really like about the boutique model as an employment lawyer, is that means you get a lot more influence and say into how the business develops. Which when you combine it with a relatively new business, where you’re not tied up in a bigger bureaucracy, that’s meant that we’ve been able to move quite nimbly and quickly to develop the firm in the direction that we want to, with relatively few constraints.

Rob Hanna: Yeah. So I think, in terms of people listening in then, to take away from that, I think it was a very measured shall you say, risk, in joining the firm two years in. But you’d had kind of trust built up. And you knew of the people. And respected and trusted the partners that you would be joining. And I think that’s really good insights for people to sort of take away. If you’re going to make a move and you know you’re potentially going to take that step. And if you do as much due diligence, or you’re kind of using trusted networks, that’s always going to help. And I guess that trust has always been sort of put in you. Vice versa as well, as you successfully made partner with the firm quite soon after joining. Which is obviously a testament to all the work that you did. Do you want to talk about that journey in a boutique to making partnership?

Sophie Vanhegan: Sure. So I think it’s pretty fair to say that the transition and the business case, and moving up to partner, can be a little easier than full service, traditional law firms. We’re not constrained by having enforced ratios of partners to non partners. It was two things; my initial promotion came about on the basis of shoring up the levels of primarily fee-earning focused partners. So that certain equity partners more focus on the running of the business. That’s obviously developed and changed over time the longer that I’ve been a partner as I’ve taken on management responsibilities. I think it was also, I had been able to demonstrate that I could run matters, I could run larger matters, I could supervise teams of more junior lawyers. So it was a promotion that came as soon as I returned from my first maternity leave actually, which hopefully is also a reassuring message to get out there. And it also meant that I became the first female partner at our firm. And it was a transition that I think was well supported within the team. The existing partners were very keen to support my transition into that more senior role. And that also happened at the same time as my decision to go part time. So there were lots of changes that happened at the same time when that promotion came about, but I think it’s panned out quite well. So yeah, I think it was a different set of circumstances. Because I was being promoted when the firm was still growing and as it continues to do so now. But without having the big constraints of very formal prescriptive partnership processes that a lot of the bigger, more traditional law firms have.

Rob Hanna: And that’s just such a wonderful case study. You know, outlining your journey there. Particularly within a boutique, because you have been able to successfully have a young family, as well as sort of hit the optimal goal, which everyone strives to achieve. You know? Typically partnership. And hopefully that inspires lots of people that, if you get into the right environment, you work hard, and you facilitate the right plan, and it is very achievable. So that really does highlight that it’s out there. And successful people can emulate what you’ve done, which is highly, highly successful. So congratulations. 

Sophie Vanhegan: Thank you.  

Rob Hanna: In terms of the times that we’re living at the moment, I guess, you know, most people will be shouting at me I’m sure to say, ‘Come on, let’s talk about coronavirus, and all things employment.’ So this is not a legal kind of hour of advice. But, come on, let’s talk about obviously the current pandemic which is a crisis that we’re in unfortunately. Do you want to maybe share a bit more about your practice, and what you’re seeing in terms of certain trends as a result of the government’s recent and ongoing announcements?

Sophie Vanhegan: Sure. So I think it’s fair to say as employment lawyers, our market is often counter cyclical. So when the world starts to face a huge crisis like the one we’re going through at the moment, we certainly see quite a big flurry of needs from our clients while they scramble around working out what the best thing to do is for their business, but also for their workforces. Lots of clients, particularly those in the sectors that have been most sharply impacted, such as retail and hospitality were already thinking very quickly about what measures they could take essentially to cut their staff costs as quickly as possible. So we saw lots of clients very quickly looking at whether there were redundancy measures they could take, but also what alternatives they could take to redundancy. Such as asking people to take unpaid leave, asking people to reduce their hours or reduce their salary, delaying salary increases. Also asking people to go on a period of holiday. Just to get them through those initial weeks. The landscape changed significantly 10 days ago, when the government then announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, under which their employers can now furlough employees, and sorry, essentially pay them 80% of their salary. Or up to £2,500 a month in order to keep them in employment. But essentially say, “Go home. Don’t do any work.” And hopefully reduce the numbers of redundancies. So particularly the last week and a half, we have seen an awful lot of inquiries around that. Because I think everyone hopes that the economy will recover quite quickly once the restrictions are lifted. So people are very much looking into furlough as an option where they essentially are keeping their employees. Albeit that they are not working. And therefore they are hopefully going to be able to come back to work as soon as the restrictions are relaxed and the economy gets going again. So there’s been all sorts of options that people have been exploring. And I think it will be interesting to see this at the moment the furlough scheme is going to run until the end of May. I know over the weekend there’s been talk about there being a six month period before life gets back to normal. How that scheme will be reviewed at the end of May, if we are still in the lockdown period that we are in at the moment, or if we are still in very much a muted level of economic activity, such that employers don’t yet have the work for those staff to come back to.

Rob Hanna: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think there is still a very much a high level of uncertainty. And as you say, you touched on there the sort of six month… Potentially even longer they say, in terms of back to what might be the norm. I guess, generally employers thinking about COVID-19 in terms of policies and sort of bringing them out, and driving them out. Is there anything you’ve seen? Or what the employers maybe should be thinking about, that they haven’t historically had to think about in terms of prior to all of this?

Sophie Vanhegan: So lots of employers who had never really had practices of working from home, have had to very quickly get large amounts of people effectively all working from home. That’s been quite an interesting a development from practical issues such as getting enough laptops for their staff. That’s being made more complicated, would you believe it, by the factories in China that make a lot of the components for those laptops having been shut for a while alongside the whole of the world looking to get more and more of their staff working from home, leading to serious laptops shortages. And what do you do with your staff if you can’t yet get them a laptop, but you know you’re going to get them on in two weeks? Do you give them special leave? Do you say ‘You need to be placed on holiday?’ So there’s been practical issue of getting staff working from home. There’s also been a second issue about working out who you still really needs to come into the office. And how do you manage those stuff understandably feeling anxious about still having to travel into the office? The FCA indicated a few weeks ago, that certain regulated persons we would fall into the key worker category. So lots of our financial services firm clients have had an interesting issue to consider in terms of people who you wouldn’t necessarily automatically think would need to be going into the office; working out who falls into that bucket. Also, what do you do with people who can’t work from home? So the people who work in your post room, the people who work in your print room. I think the furlough scheme is being looked at very closely for those categories of people. It’s thrown up so many HR questions, because you are rolling out very wide changes to your workforce, and then on top of that you’re layering whether you actually need to look at cost saving measures for your business in the meantime. So it’s really touching upon lots of policies, whether that’s your working from home policy, whether it’s your holiday policy. Are you going to make people still take holiday while we’re in this lockdown period? Are you going to let people roll over more holiday? And then it also impacts your business-as-usual things. So we’ve had companies ask as ‘Well, this person was being performance managed. Can we carry on that performance management process while we’re all working remotely?’ So we’re seeing lots of companies having to get used to running meetings such as that which they would normally be running very much in person, switching to running those by video. So it really is touching upon every aspect of people’s working lives.

Rob Hanna: Absolutely. And I think, there’s so many great things you’ve just touched on there. And I know there’s even more to go in. But hopefully as a result of all of this, people will get through it. The one thing I know particularly around GQ Littler as well, is you are a boutique firm. But you’re very human in terms of your approach and you are also sort of a firm that promotes sort of flexible, agile working as well is great. But I was going to ask a question more generally for the legal sector. You know, the legal sector historically, has had a bit of a bashing for not being very flexible and not necessarily, you know, some firms allowing flexible working where it potentially could be given. Do you think, as a result of all of this happening in law firms, and ultimately having to function remotely, that this will kind of put legal set a step further forward in terms of that sort of offering?

Sophie Vanhegan: I certainly hope so. Yes, as yous say, GQ Littler, we have always been quite ahead of the curve in terms of agile working. And we felt slightly smug a couple of weeks ago because it meant the we found the transition to having our whole team working from home much easier because we already had the hardware in place to enable that to happen. And we were just used culturally to most people working from home at least one day a week. But lots of our team work from home two or three days a week, ordinarily. I’ve been quite surprised at the number of reports I’ve heard of law firms who had not had any regular home-working arrangements at all. So have had some scramble around quite frantically too to get those systems in place. Although I think that should be a minority. I think most firms in the City at least, had moved to a pattern of generally encouraging working from home one day a week. So yes, I would hope for the firms that had previously been more resistant to working from home, at all, that they will see that it can be done and it can be done effectively. So I very much hope that, that will change mindsets, and encourage that. I think the interesting thing also is in terms of one of the key other sides of flexible working, being part time working. And whether the crisis that we’re in at the moment sees greater understanding of that. Because I think that is still the thing that is difficult in private practice and that some teams do really struggle with making work. And I think that is a key issue to be addressed in terms of seeing more women in more senior roles in private practice. Seeing that happen and actually happen effectively, and people genuinely working part time, and not just squashing a full time job into part time hours which so often seems to be the occupational hazard of trying to work part time in private practice. So yes, I think lots of things are going to be tested during this time. And I certainly hope it will result in some longer term changes for the better when we do all get back to normal whenever that may be.

Rob Hanna: Indeed. Indeed. Well let’s hope so; we’re all praying that it will be sooner rather than later. And I guess that you’ve talked about mindset there. And as a partner of a law firm, you know, you’re in a leadership position. And lots of people have been saying, ‘Well how do you keep your colleagues motivated at times like this?’ It is quite hard for certain people to stay positive, to stay as productive. You know? People are talking about staying much match fit. Most of the work from home to keep yourself operational as you would in an office environment. Do you have any tips as a partner? Anything you do within the firm generally, in terms of keeping that team spirit nice and high?

Sophie Vanhegan: Sure. So at the moment we are having a morning call. Monday to Friday, every morning, which is by video, for everyone to just check in, people to ask if they have any questions. We are also having a weekly happy hour at five o’clock for a more lighthearted discussion. And there have definitely been beers and gin tonics on view during those video calls. But the other thing, I have HR responsibility within our firm. And one of the things I’ve also been very keen to ensure we keep an eye on, is peoples’ individual wellbeing, and how they are coping. Because this is obviously a difficult time for everybody. So I’m also having one-to-one video chats with everyone at least once a fortnight. Just to really say, ‘How are you? How are you finding it? Is work okay? Are you managing with work, okay? Is there anything worrying you?’ Just to try and encourage people to be open and communicate as possible. Because I think that’s the key thing with everyone working at different locations. To make people feel that they can still say if something is causing them issues. Because the downside of this is that you can’t just turn around in the office and say somebody, ‘Can we just go and get a coffee?’ Or ‘Can we have a few minutes next door to have a chat?’ on a more private level. So I think, as team, we are very much trying to put proactive steps in place to actively monitor people, and actively check in with people, so that we don’t have people individually going to ground and letting things gets on top of them.

Rob Hanna: Yeah. And that’s a really good point. And I think even more so whether you agree with this in terms of the mental health first aid as people talking about. In terms of having mental health offices becoming almost as standard, rather than options. I think it’s going to be increasing more and more, as a result of this too. Because I think you’ve just got to put people’s wellbeing first.

Sophie Vanhegan: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a difficult time for everybody personally. Particularly given that we don’t know how long this situation is going to go on for. So the more we can do to the pull together and support each other, the better I think at the moment.

Rob Hanna: And on a more positive note, Sophie, when business is normal, you are a real success story in terms of everything you’ve achieved, from sort of strong academics, through to a Magic Circle firm, through to a top boutique in your field. And making partnership as well as sort of running family life. What tips would you give to perhaps more junior people, aspirational lawyers, listening in to what practical steps they may need to take to try and emulate your successes?

Sophie Vanhegan: Well, I think having drive and focus has always helped me throughout my career. I was very clear at the beginning that I really wanted to go to a big firm if I could get a job. A really big firm and take all the opportunities that are offered to me. But to keep checking in with yourself and thinking, ‘Where’s my career at the moment? Where do I want it to go? And what kinds of things do I need to do to get to the next level?’ But I think also as you become more senior, also stepping back and putting boundaries between your career and your personal life which I think becomes all the more critical when you do you decide to have a family and continue your career as a lawyer. I think when I was junior, I found it very difficult to say ‘No’ either internally or externally. And the more senior you get, the more important it is to have the confidence to put limits on what you can do professionally. So that you are still giving your best in your career, but you are also preserving something of yourself for your personal life, and for your family commitments. So that you don’t end up in the situation where you just feel, which I think is quite easy to happen as a lawyer in the city, that your life is your job, and that something has to give. Because I think that is still too often the problem. Particularly for women coming up to the senior ranks, that when they have children, they feel that it becomes a choice between their job and their home life. And I really think if you can put boundaries between your work and your home life, and you also can work in a team where you have a team that’s supportive of you doing that, that is a key way of keeping your career going, and keeping your career progressing. And that’s certainly something I’ve found that I’ve been lucky enough to have at GQ Littler. Their partnership and the whole team have always been very supportive of me working part time. As have my clients. And also not being fearful to be up front with your clients, that you do have a life outside the law. I think lawyers are very often frightened to let clients see that they are not just at their desk 24/7, always ready. And clients, I think, generally respect that because most clients are in a similar situation, trying to juggle different areas of their life. So I think work hard, be driven and focused. But also do have the confidence to put boundaries in between your work life and your personal life. I think those are all key things that have really helped me and guided me through my career.

Rob HannaGreat stuff and of course listen to the Legally Speaking Podcast. You know? Just to get regular info.

Sophie Vanhegan: Absolutely, absolutely.

Rob Hanna: And Sophie, listen, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show today. I think all of your journey, your insights, and also touching on coronavirus. I’m sure there’s lots of helpful content there for our listeners listening in. So thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure. And wishing you lots of continued success and no doubt we’ll see you feature on here again in the future.

Sophie Vanhegan: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been really interesting to have a discussion. And I hope you and all your listeners do get through this difficult spell okay. And I look forward to meeting you and your listeners when we get back to normal.

Rob Hanna: Great stuff. Many thanks. Cheers Sophie.

Sophie Vanhegan: Thank you.

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