IWF UK Leadership Stories: Elaine Aarons

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Elaine Aarons, Senior Equity Partner at Withers LLP, is a trailblazer and industry influencer. She recounts how she was at the forefront of a new legal specialty, became a Partner whilst working a four-day week and has been recognised for her contribution to diversity. She also served on the IWF-UK Board and co-founded One Loud Voice.

What does being a leader mean to you?

As a partner in private practice for 30 years (28 as an equity partner) it has been about leading teams and being involved in the management of global firms (serving on the Boards of both Eversheds and Withers).

Other aspects of leadership are:

  • Being recognised as a leader and trusted advisor in my field by clients, opponents and the marketplace
  • Being an inspirational leader for those I work with to motivate and enthuse those around me
  • Leading the way for flexible working by forging a path that works for me as a woman and as an observant Jew. The focus has been to create working patterns that enable me not only to achieve work life balance but to shine
  • Being brave enough to be a pioneer. Leading the way is often about spotting the opportunities.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

At an early stage of my career as a young mother I reached a point where I felt it was necessary to develop a more flexible working arrangement. This was long before such work patterns were common in City law firms.

The primary challenge in this was to negotiate flexibility with my firm whilst not prejudicing the progression of my career. This takes courage. Many people, especially women, find themselves looking for a different way of working. There is no one solution that suits everyone.

I rationalised that if a driven equity partner works 70 hours a week, I should work 80% of that whilst delivering the value of a full-timer. Overall I wanted the arrangement to be fair but I also regarded the flexibility as a privilege not to be abused.

Having teenage children and ailing parents was by far a greater challenge than having babies at home. My teenagers were not problematic, but you can't delegate the things they need you for. The system needs to recognise this more. Agile working is perfect for accommodating these changing needs. We just need to be more agile in the way we think about them.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

  • Forging a future in a specialty (employment and partnership law) that didn't exist as a standalone. I took the idea of exclusively specialising to my then firm, Norton Rose, in 1984 and never looked back
  • I have been ranked by the leading directories as a top tier employment lawyer for well over 20 years
  • I built one of the strongest employment law teams in London from scratch at Eversheds from one person (me!) in 1989 to 34 lawyers and consultants by 2000
  • In 1992 I was invited to be one of the initial architects of the Employment Lawyers Association
  • Making it to equity partnership in two years, which would have been impressive if full time. I also had a baby in those two years! I was one of the first partners in the City to work a four- day week
  • Designing and introducing the first flexible working policy in Eversheds in 2001. In all likelihood the first flexible working policy in the City
  • In 2006 I crossed over from acting mainly for the employer to spending over 90% of my time acting for the executive. This had never been done before. I have a leading reputation in this field and have acted for many famous people (17 Bank chief executives in total so far!). It encompasses employment law, partnership law, corporate law and reputation management. I lead teams advising across these disciplines and am passionate about what I do.

I have also become known for my work in diversity and this is very important to me:

  • In 2004 I was invited to join The Center for Talent Innovation with over 70 global companies and in partnership with Harvard Business Review
  • I was in The Timewise Power Part Time List in 2013 published in the FT (see: https://www.ft.com/content/985...)
  • I have been a judge for Opportunity Now awards and Women in Finance awards
  • I was a Board member and Company Secretary of the IWF UK for 4.5 years
  • I am co-founder and director of One Loud Voice for Women (see: www.oneloudvoice.co.uk)

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

My transition has been from conventional management to inspirational leadership.

For 9 years before becoming a partner I was totally committed to client work whilst I built my experience. For 16 years in the middle of my career, whilst at Eversheds, my involvement in management was at its peak. I was still advising clients and building my personal brand but at the same time was heavily involved in all aspects of leadership and management initiatives.

For 13 years since joining Withers, I have tried not to do conventional management. Rather, my role is as a recognised market leader in the work that I do, always stretching the boundaries of creative and pragmatic solution driven thinking. The work is cutting edge, high value and high profile and needs senior and experienced input. I regularly lead multi-disciplinary teams on complex cases and I seek to inspire and mentor others around me so as to invest in the future.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

I think the challenge for most women (today I would like to say parents, regardless of gender) is that they are time starved. The evidence is this problem hits women harder. The result is they focus on doing their job well, but (important) extra-curricular activities are squashed out.

The two areas that can't be neglected are networking and blue sky thinking. These are what make you interesting. I have no doubt those with strong networks have greater opportunities. The wider the net the better as you learn so much from those not in your immediate circle. In my experience, the more eclectic, the better.

The challenge is to find a group of people who are exploring an area that you feel passionate about, involving blue sky thinking that will be of great interest to your work life and that you have a thirst to learn about. End result: your credibility and personal brand will benefit.

The focus has been to create working patterns that enable me not only to achieve work life balance but to shine

Elaine Aarons
Elaine Aarons

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