The Number One Club – Ania Rontaler & Emma Sutcliffe – S3E14

This week on our Legally Speaking Podcast, powered by KC Partners, our host Rob Hanna was  joined by Ania Rontaler and Emma Sutcliffe.

Ania is an M&A expert and Corporate Partner, and Emma is a top-quality Financial Markets Litigation Partner.

Both Emma and Ania are Partners at the leading law firm, Simmons & Simmons, and together they co-head Simmons’ award-winning womens’ network, The Number One Club.

The three of them discuss:

  •  Ania & Emma’s backgrounds and how they both got into law.
  • Why The Number One Club (TNOC) was founded.
  •  How people (not just lawyers!) can get involved with TNOC.
  •  The multiple positive effects TNOC has had within Simmons & Simmons.
  •  TNOC’s many successes including recently being recognised as a Times Top 50 Employer for Women! They have also received over 9 different nominations at the Women in Law awards!
  •  How Ania & Emma manage their time and the many positive effects TNOC has had on running their practices.
  •  Some of their positive yet amusing legal market recognition quotes over the years!

Thank you to Emma and Ania for sharing  more about TNOC and their successful legal journeys to reaching Partnership!


[0:00:00.0] Rob Hanna: Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast powered by Kissoon Carr. I am your host Rob Hanna. This week I am absolutely delighted to be joined by Ania Rontaler and Emma Sutcliffe. Ania is an M&A expert and corporate partner and Emma is a top-quality financial markets litigation partner. Both Emma and Ania are partners at the leading law firm Simmons and Simmons and together they co-chair Simmons’ award-winning women’s network, The Number One Club. So, a very big welcome Emma and Ania. How are you?

[0:00:32.5] Emma Sutcliffe: Hello.

[0:00:33.4] Ania Rontaler: Hello, we are well thanks.

[0:00:35.2] Rob Hanna: Good stuff, it’s a pleasure to have you. So, before we go through both of your amazing achievements and everything you have achieved in the legal space to date, we do have our customary ice-breaker question on the Legally Speaking Podcast which is on the scale of 1-10, 10 being very real how real would you rate the reality series Suits in terms of its reality? I’m coming to you first Emma.

[0:01:01.1] Emma Sutcliffe: I have never seen it. I have seen a clip of it. I’m going to go with a minus 10. I don’t think I have ever done a case that has taken the 5 days it seems to take in those sorts of programs.

[0:01:10.5] Rob Hanna: That’s a fair comment and Ania, what would you say?

[0:01:13.6] Ania Rontaler: Well, Emma is clearly more highbrow than me. So, I was quite partial to Suits at the beginning, but I wouldn’t give it much than a 4. I think what confused me. so, I’m a corporate lawyer as you said. Emma is a litigator and I’m not quite sure what they are? They sort of dabble in corporate, they dabble in litigation. And the other thing is they never seem to have any paper or documents. I mean that is my life, paper and documents, so that is 4, I think.

[0:01:37.4] Emma Sutcliffe: Quite glamorous as well. I’m not sure we’re as glamorous.

[0:01:37.8] Ania Rontaler: Well, on a good day.

[0:01:39.6] Rob Hanna: On a good day indeed. So, we always like to just sort of start at the beginning of a, you know, of our guests journey I mean. So, why don’t you sort of tell us both a bit about your backgrounds and how you got into the law, so Ania why don’t you start?

[0:01:54.1] Ania Rontaler: So, it’s not a particularly exciting story so it wasn’t Suits that inspired me, I think showing my age was a bit of LA law. So, I think I always wanted to be a lawyer. I’m not quite sure if I even knew what it really meant. I did quite a sort of standard route. I did law and French University, so I got to spend a year in the south of France which was amazing, went to law school in London and then I got my training contract at Simmons.

So, I’ve been at Simmons my whole career. I actually joined Simmons wanting to be an employment lawyer. I thought that was going to be my thing but actually I did corporate in my first seat as a trainee and absolutely loved it. I loved the excitement of it, I like the problem-solving nature of it. So yeah, it’s all quite standard my journey into law I’m afraid.

[0:02:29.9] Rob Hanna: Well, we like standard so, Emma how about yourself?

[0:02:34.4] Emma Sutcliffe: Yeah, not dissimilar actually. I mean I always really enjoyed debating at school and quite liked the idea of coming up with arguments. I didn’t have anyone in my family who’d done law so, it was, it was a bit of a risk I suppose but I did a few placements and I really enjoyed them. So, I didn’t read law at university. I read PPE and I sort of followed a similar route to Ania really but I always had it in mind, that I wanted to perhaps be a litigator and considered the bar.

But after a, a couple of placements I decided actually, that being a solicitor was for me and I did something similar, I trained another city law firm but I have been at Simmons now for over 16 years and have most of my professional career here so that’s been great.

[0:03:11.8] Rob Hanna: Great stuff and you’re both partners and doing so fantastically well. If you were to say, the best thing you enjoy about your jobs what would it be? Emma, what would you say?

[0:03:23.2] Emma Sutcliffe: I would say winning a case. Sort of what a litigator would say really and by winning it’s not that sort of straight forward as that but it is the satisfaction of making new law or getting a great result for client and really working with the team because these things are hugely led by teams. It’s not one or two people it’s very much you know a group of people. I love that and that’s what I really enjoy about it.

[0:03:44.5] Rob Hanna: Great stuff and how about you Ania, what would you say is the best thing for you?

[0:03:48.6] Ania Rontaler: That no two days are the same so I have been doing this for – I can’t believe I’m saying it – 17 years and genuinely I have had no two days the same and that’s really important for me. It’s about people as Emma said, it’s about listening to the clients and putting down on paper what is it they want. It’s about working in teams. For me, that sort of keeps me going and has kept me going for the about 17 years as I said.

[0:04:09.1] Rob Hanna: Great stuff, okay and as I mentioned in the introduction you both co-chairSimmons and Simmons women’s network which I believe it celebrated it’s 10-year anniversary in 2018. So, for those not familiar with the initiative, Emma why don’t you start us off by telling us a bit about it.

[0:04:26.8] Emma Sutcliffe: Yeah, absolutely so both Ania and I were involved at the beginning and were sort of the original team as it were that became part of The Number One Club that’s the name we give it, and we now call it TNOC for short and the reason behind that is because of the name of our office at one Ropemaker street in London not because we consider ourselves in any position of grandeur.

And we didn’t want a name that just mentioned women, it was intended to deliberately  to be inclusive. I think it’s fair to say that we beat on quite a journey in the last 12 years and in that time Ania and I have certainly moved to our careers and become partners. But we have also seen a very big change in the approach that our women’s network does its sort of good deed as it were within the firm.

So, it started off as I think an opportunity for women to come together and talk about some of the challenges that they faced. But now, it’s much more integrated within the rest of the firm. It’s something that is open to all. We all a lot with clients and we really built up three pillars which is probably something that Ania can talk about.

[0:05:27.4] Rob Hanna: Yeah, Ania tell us a bit more.

[0:05:27.8] Ania Rontaler: Well, the three pillars thank you Emma, so yeah we have three pillars that sort of tracks our evolution. So, the first pillar is ‘Looking After Number One’ by reference obviously to TNOC, so that is this sort of more internal facing stuff. So, training and support for women within the firm and creating networking opportunities for them. Then we have what we call sort of  ‘Plus One’ which sort of tracks our evolution, so this is organizing events for our clients.

So, events absolutely open to all, all at Simmons men and women where we do events for predominantly for our female clients. We have got quite an exciting roster of sort of past events they tend to be focused around speakers or the theatre or art that sort of stuff. And then the third pillar which is our newest pillar is our ‘Collaborating as One’ pillar so that’s us working with our clients and their women’s network or even helping clients set up their women’s networks.

It’s working with other organizations so there is a great organization called the Gender Network, which is run by women, a fantastic woman called Vanessa Vallely. And that brings together lots of women’s network from across the country and it’s not just law or it’s not just finance, they have the police, they have armed forces, etc. And they meet quarterly to sort of share ideas and just sort of try and come together to sort of push objectives beyond your own organizations.

And we work with people like the Law Society so we helped with the women in law pledge which the Law Society released last year which encourages law firms to sign up publicly to pledges around gender balance, publicly. So, including a senior sponsor and ensuring that gender balance features in the way that partners are renumerated, etc. So, yes, it’s quite a broad spectrum across our three pillars.

[0:07:07.1] Rob Hanna: Great stuff and thanks for sort of sharing and going into detail around that. What I would like to talk about is its doing so well, TNOC, you’re both doing such an amazing job with it and it’s doing so much good for the legal community. But to try and inspire others who may want to start an initiative because you know you have been going for a while now.

Let’s get real, early on when you started what were the challenges if you were to do things differently, if you were to give advice to others what would you suggest because you are doing so, so well now but I can appreciate it probably wasn’t straight forward at the beginning. So, Emma do you want to share a bit more on the journey?

[0:07:39.6] Emma Sutcliffe: Yeah, absolutely I mean I think we both put our hands up and say we have made mistakes along the way and absolutely learnt from those mistakes. I mean I think what I would say to those people starting out is learn from others. We do that quite a lot with clients, we’ll sit down with teams of our clients who are thinking about setting these things up and talk through with them what is it we think they can learn from us about and share those mistakes.

And for example, one of those mistakes I think in the beginning was we did keep it a bit closed into women only and I think the perception, I think wrongly, but it was perception was that it was a bit of a winging mother’s club which wasn’t true, and it wasn’t fair but that was the way it looked. And I think that’s absolutely moved o,n it’s not just mothers I should say that comes to those meetings and it’s not just about winging it was very much about putting sort of serious gender diversity issues on the agenda.

And so, we have had those discussions with clients who are trying to set up their own network. And the importance of bringing men along with you in the journey. Now, we have men on our committee we think that’s really important and they find it very powerful to go out to clients and spend time speaking to women if they are part of a women’s network that gives them the access to that platform. It isn’t just about women in the firm.

I think the other thing that we have realized was that everybody is very enthusiastic about this topic and people really got behind it. It’s quite easy to put too much on your plate. Ania and I both have full time jobs, and you know running a women’s network could be a job in itself. So, we are very, very careful to make sure that we are clear about our objective which we have outlined and we have also tried not to take on too much and make sure that we have really great events around which we sort of built our profile and increase our network.

So, the speaker events that we had, we have had some wonderful speakers over the years but we are trying to aim for this sort of really high-quality things and do them regularly but not try to take on too much. I think these are two big things we would say to people starting out.

[0:09:35.7] Rob Hanna: Thank you that’s great Emma. And Ania, Emma mentions a point there about sort of balancing workload and TNOC being a full-time job in itself. You know you both run very busy, very successful practices. Again, not to sort of scare people off but maybe to give advice and tips; how do you manage and how do you fit in all in because I know in yourself particularly you have very, very busy with your practice recently.

[0:09:55.0] Ania Rontaler: I mean yeah it a good question, it’s a successful million-dollar question. I mean it comes with practice. I say I’m a corporate lawyer by day but probably more corporate lawyer by night and then co-chair of TNOC during the day, but I think to Emma’s point. So, we have really a established TNOC committee within the firm.

So, it broadly covers represents from across a whole business, so not just the legal departments, the business service and across the range of levels so from trainees through to partners and that’s been essential. So, it is very much a team effort we have tried to sort of not formalized the committee a bit more but tried to give people specific roles on the committee so that it wasn’t just me and Emma, so to empower people.

So, it really is about delegation, trust and sort of experience. But yeah, I mean the balancing act is something that just comes with years and years of experience. I’m not sure I’ve quite got it down it yet but it’s definitely working together as a team that’s a huge part of it.

[0:10:47.9] Rob Hanna: Great stuff, I definitely think a lot of people are going to be excited, but I’m interested following this discussion today. So, Emma how can people get involved with The Number One Club, is it just the lawyers within Simmons? You have mentioned it’s just not for women and men but yeah, how can people get involved?

[0:11:03.0] Emma Sutcliffe: Well, I should say it’s not just for lawyers as well, I mean one of the things we tried to make clear at the outset and have certainly focused on more recently is that the whole firm is invited. It’s people in other functions, business support, HR, secretaries, anybody can come and we do sort of make that clear. Anyone can be offered to be on the committee internally, but in terms of people externally we run lots of events and we do sort of post them on LinkedIn.

We are very happy to hear from clients if they do want to participate when we have those sort so events, both the collaborators one approach and the approach where we invite people on a one-on-one basis. So, absolutely put your hands up if you are interested. Ania and I are always very happy to talk about our experiences. And we also do sort of public speaking, we do come along to various events, we do offer support to other clients, we have done joint events with clients.

And I think that just helps amplify the message of it better across the city and more widely if you are doing these kinds of things. So, very happy to see people get involved.

[0:12:01.3] Rob Hanna: Brilliant, that’s great to hear and Ania I understand TNOC separates HR issues from the women’s network. So, tell me us more about this and why is that so important?

[0:12:12.3] Ania Rontaler: Thanks Rob, so that is really important and that really again tracks the evolution of TNOC. So, at the very beginning I think we did sit around the table and talk about maternity leave, shared parental leave and other things that is very much not within the TNOC agenda anymore. I mean don’t get me wrong, we are obviously very interested in it and we support those discussions but I think it’s really key for that to be owned by the firm, to be owned by the management because it’s not just a women’s issue it’s a firm wide issue.

So, as well as with TNOC we have a Gender Balance committee internally which is chaired by our senior partner. Who is a huge, huge champion of gender balance at the firm and I’m not just saying that it’s genuine, he’s won awards, it’s true and I think that’s really important I think for an organization to really shift the dial on gender balance to have sort of senior management advocating and really supporting.

So, on the gender balance committee that’s where we sort of talk about and feed into HR about more HR related matters so that it’s not linked to TNOC. I think it almost devalues it a little bit if it’s run by a sort of internal women’s network. It sorts of perceived more as a women’s issue so yeah, that’s been really key for us.

[0:13:17.4] Rob Hanna: Great stuff and yeah thanks again for sharing that. And Emma, coming to you with TNOC what can other firms take note from TNOC, I guess is my question, what would you say to that?

[0:13:25.5] Emma Sutcliffe: I mean I think some people and we do get this challenge occasionally say, I just I don’t think it adds particular value it’s just a group of women discussing issues but actually we haven’t seen any change and I would refute that. I would say we had seen huge change within our organization in the last 10 years and I do think that our women’s network has had a contributing factor to that.

So, I think we used to have approximately I think it was 14% women in the partnership when we both first started. I think we are now looking at something like 25% in London and I think that is a lot to do with putting this issue, this gender balance issue on to the radar of senior management. Now, I think the discussion is moving on a little bit from gender balance. I think it’s moving more towards other types of diversity and I think that is right.

But I think what helps with that is that we as a women’s network also supports our other networks so I think minority networks and some of our LGBTQ networks and those sorts so things and we are able to do that with the benefit of the experience that we bring to the table. So, I think that’s really valuable and I do think we have seen change. Change doesn’t happen quickly; this has taken 12 years and actually I would say that’s quite fast. So, it’s absolutely about investing in it as a long-term project.

[0:14:41.7] Rob Hanna: Great stuff and Ania I understand that you were recently recognized as a Times top 50 employer for women so many congratulations. You also received over 9 different nominations at the Women in Law Awards. So, tell us more about the achievements with the club?

[0:14:59.5] Ania Rontaler: Awards are important in a way we don’t do it just for the awards but the awards are important because I think it’s important for people internally to see what the firm is doing around gender balance beyond just seeing the sort of women at the partnership table and in senior positions. It’s important for recruitment obviously you know the lifeblood of our firm is the trainees and training them up and getting them through up to partnership. So, it’s really important from that perspective.

For the seventh year we have won or been listed in the Times top 50 employers for women. For 2020 we’re one of few law firms, that means a lot because it’s sort of external recognition for all the good work that we are doing and as you say, we have been short-listed for and I think it’s 7 categories as you said in the Women and Law awards.

I think the winners are announced in November, so we wait with  bated breath. And I think I mentioned earlier as well that we also get recognition for our sort of male champions – I’m not sure that people love that term – but our male supporters. So, Colin Passmore our senior partner, was ranked in the HERoes, capital H E R, 50 advocates for his achievement in championing gender balance and equality.

So, again super important to us but really to Emma’s point that is really the sort of recognition that we need is seeing the numbers improving in the partnership. So, we have really seen an increase and we are seeing a lot more, so over 40% of our internal partner promotions over the last good few years have been female. So, it’s those things I think that really drives us.

[0:16:23.3] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no thank you and congratulations on all of those achievements because they are important and what you are doing deserves to be recognized. And Emma, how have you found the running TNOC has had a positive effect on your practice and has it made you a sort of better lawyer in the process?

[0:16:40.0] Emma Sutcliffe: I did say I do it because I really passionately believe in it and it’s always been something that I felt very strongly about even before I became a lawyer. It was unclear to me why all these brilliant women around me were not achieving their full potential for no obvious reason. So, it’s been a long-term passion of mine and so I do it for that reason. So, in terms of having a positive effect its actually been enjoyable but it’s also been really helpful or my career.

I mean it gave me access to a network that I wouldn’t have had. I knew my team around me, but I didn’t necessarily know the other people in the firm and it just instantly gives you that access and experience and it makes you feel as though you are not alone on certain issues. So, that was really helpful and supportive. But I think as diversity has become much more of a higher priority within firms, I think that also meant that we had a voice and an interesting point of view, that I think it helped push my career forward.

And actually, frankly raised my profile which is really helpful, and I think now a days you know gender balance isn’t something that sits in the bottom of a list that you know, it would be a nice to do if we could. It’s absolutely front and centre of most firms’ priorities in terms of recruitment, promotion and retention. So, it has been fantastically helpful for me and a really great experience.

[0:17:53.9] Ania Rontaler: If I chip in there as well if I may, the other thing is it gives you great access to clients and look we are lawyers and we depend on our clients. So, it’s given us the real opportunity, Emma and I, to really get to know clients and sort of get into the DNA of clients if it’s not too naff of a thing to say. So, I think it’s really important and I think it really helped us when we were associates and giving us access to clients at that level. I think it really did help us with our sort of partnership tracks.

So, it’s the networking element both internal and external that the network really gives, I think it’s really a vital element.

[0:18:24.2] Rob Hanna: Yeah, and I guess on that Emma, what sort of positive affects you talked about you know the internal promotions and partner promotions and that’s great. But what are the sort of positive affects do you think TNOC has had within Simmons generally?

[0:18:36.5] Emma Sutcliffe: So, I think it’s taken some concepts that were originally regarded as not a firm issue and put them firmly at the centre of consideration by senior people. So, in the beginning it was about things like are we treating our maternity return as well, are we putting the right people forward for promotion, are we supporting the people who perhaps need better training, different training, are we looking at the way that we work, you know work life balance.

And those things have definitely become front and centre of what the firm does. We have probably more people than we can normally accommodate are coming to our committee meetings. Some of these issues are things women are now fully engaging on but also are men. I think people feel energized when they have people around them and can balance ideas off. And a great example of that was, we ran, at very short notice, an internal event to mark the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the States, very influential on a lot of us.

And a lot us felt quite moved by her loss and not really being in a position to mourn it the way you might. We shared a very short notice event and people came together, obviously on Zoom, and we talked about some of the impacts she had had both in terms of the law but also how she was just a role model. And I think those kinds of events are very inspiring. People contribute their views; we hear different thought but what we can take away from that and we go off when we do that in our day-to-day roles.

So, I think it has a really energizing effect when we can talk about those topics in that way.

[0:20:00.1] Ania Rontaler: The other thing I think the positive effect is that again, this is a bit naff, but it puts sort of gender on agenda as it were and by that, I mean it just makes people think twice so they sort of look at the teams that they are putting together for pitches and for panels and so forth. I think it just puts it front and centre and it just makes sure that we are involving all our great female colleagues in sort of pitches and that sort of thing.

It sort of just I think it empowers people to have those conversations. So, for me that’s very important and I really hope that we see that with our emerge network which is our BAME network, to sort of make race and ethnicity a thing that people feel more comfortable talking about within the firm.

[0:20:34.3] Rob Hanna: Brilliant and Ania if I can come back to you, Emma very kindly sort of shared the challenges, the start of the journey and what it’s basically taken for you to get to his level. I guess let’s look at the positives, the future with all the knowledge you have amassed in 12 years and sort of running TNOC, and what does the future look like and what are the aspirations, where do you want to be?

[0:20:54.0] Ania Rontaler: Good question so I mean we are almost like plotting our own demise almost. I would love to get to a stage where we don’t need a women’s network because we have reached sort of equality and gender balance. I mean that would be brilliant but yes, so what do we do so I think discontinuing our evolution so sort of learning as we go in along. I think it’s really key, this point about being inclusive and not just being about women.

Encouraging even more men to become a part of our committee and to attend more of our events. I mean I would say 40% of the attendees at our events now are male, if not sometimes 50% which is great. Continuing to work with our clients so you know we have all heard about ESG. It’s a huge agenda item for all businesses and board room agendas. So, this is about looking at the impact that organizations have on the world from an environmental, social and governance perspective.

It is becoming a real hot topic or a hotter topic. The drivers are sort of, they’re numerous, there is a lot of regulation coming down the pipe that will affect particularly asset managers. I think there is a real push from sort of stake holders so employees, etc. investors to make sure that companies have sort of good ESG credentials. And I think D&I, gender, balance, etc. I think want a bigger part of the S.

So, organizations are really looking at the balance that they have on the boards and within that organizations. So, as ESG comes further up the agenda I think it will, for the board room, I think it will push the D&I agenda even further so it’s exciting times.

And I have just got to mention one thing, Emma is absolutely going to kill me for saying this but it’s my favourite thing that I have posting on LinkedIn all week about. So, anybody who has read LinkedIn knows Legal500 came our last week, lawyer upon lawyer is posting where they have been ranked in quotes, but I really think Emma’s quote trumps everybody.

So, this is from a client abut Emma I’m just going to read it so, “Emma Sutcliffe excellent’ – we know that – ‘She’s got the fighting spirit of a samurai warrior combined with the brains of a rocket-scientist.’ Now, that is something to aspire to.

[0:22:55.3] Emma Sutcliffe: Ania I’m going to quietly kill you for that.

[0:23:00.8] Rob Hanna: Good stuff, thanks for sort of highlighting that with us. So, Emma as we wrap up, I’m sure this episode has definitely inspired lots of people to perhaps want to get involved or follow. So, people do want to follow, get in touch about anything we have discussed today. What’s the best way/platform for them to do that, feel free to shout out any web links or relevant social medias we’ll also share them with this episode as well but go for it.

[0:23:24.8] Emma Sutcliffe: So, Ania and I regularly post on LinkedIn and we’re always very happy to hear that from people that way if you do work for firm in the city and you have heard of us, we are always happy to anyone who is thinking of setting up a network or is thinking of running events for networks, equally if they would like to partner on running events. We always love to consider and hear different views about that.

There is also detail on our external website about our women’s network so again The Number One Club or TNOC and anyone can get in touch through that route.

[0:23:54.1] Rob Hanna: Excellent, well thanks a million Ania and Emma it’s been a real pleasure having you both on the Legally Speaking Podcast. Wishing you both lots of continued success with your legal careers and all things with TNOC. I’m sure we’ll be speaking with you again in the future but for now a massive thank you and over and out.

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