Leadership Stories: Suzanne Todd

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Suzanne Todd heads the Withers Worldwide Family and Trust, Estate and Inheritance Dispute teams in London. She is one of the most highly respected international family lawyers of her generation. She has received many awards and accolades and is rated highly by legal and industry directories. Suzanne is Company Secretary on the IWF UK Board.

What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

Leadership for me means building a vision, motivating and empowering those around me to achieve a common goal so that they too can #reachforthestars. My sense of leadership and career choices were deeply shaped by my early experiences. I grew up in the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. At school I was more familiar with bomb drills than fire drills. Although my school drummed into me that everything is possible, it was suggested by my career's adviser that a career in law was not for me!

In my early years I did not really think about leadership. As my career evolved, I had some major realisations- that I am passionate about helping people and I have much experience in helping to resolve conflicts. I realised I have been involved with conflict resolution for decades. Living in a Vicarage always involved dealing with conflict of some form or another but always on a confidential basis.

As a result, I came to realise that this is effectively what family law is like and explains why I am a family lawyer.

It is important to me to offer experiences that enable people to perform to the best of their skills so aside from my career training and experience, I use my contagious energy and ruthless organisation in my work.

I joined Withers just before Diana Parker became the first female chair of a City law firm. Withers has always given me the opportunity to 'reach for the stars'

Another aspect of developing my sense of leadership was to be an example of being a dedicated city lawyer as well as a parent. Sixteen years ago, I took the bold step to request working from home on a Wednesday afternoon after the birth of our eldest child and four years ago I started to work from home on a Monday. This is not a usual career enhancing move in the legal world! However, I am proud of breaking down the barrier of having to be 'seen' working in the City of London. It provides working parents with flexibility and agility, especially in this new Covid-19 world where we need to ensure well-being is protected.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

Looking back, I now realise that some of my biggest challenges became my biggest success stories.

One particular challenge was the final bit of the jigsaw puzzle in securing my training contract at Withers. I had to conduct a conversation in Italian in a red telephone box in Nottingham city centre late on a Friday afternoon. At that point I found my 'VERY'. In divorce lawyers speak, I have had a 'love affair' with Italy and created a family law practice with a strong Italian theme. At the time I did not imagine how that call would shape my career.

Another significant challenge was when I became Co-Head of Dispute Resolution. I remember someone saying to me that what you need is people to respect your decisions and share in your resilience. It is important to remember that just because you are good at one bit of a job (e.g. being an associate) does not mean that you will be good at the next stage.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was on my return from second maternity leave into the middle of the financial crisis in London in 2009. The 'cupboard' was completely bare. I truly believed that no-one would ever instruct me to do anything again! It was a scary place to be. However, 11 years later I am now a Top 50 Family Lawyer in Spear's and in the Legal 500 Hall of Fame.

As my husband says, “be careful what you wish for”. My goal was to be head of the Withers' family team (we have been top ranked in the UK for more than two decades). The role I have now is fundamentally different. I lead the Family and Trust, Estate and Inheritance teams (both top ranked) and direct their strategy, HR and financial performance. Different skills need to be deployed in the different teams at different times.

Being from Northern Ireland with a certain accent and being told in 2000 that I would never make it in London, as a result of this, spurred me on. The 'accent' is very much a part of who I was and still am.

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

The important thing my mother taught me was to treat others how you wish to be treated. This is fundamental.

Be 'VERY' at something. Never be afraid to take the plunge and do something outside of your comfort zone. That is the only way to grow. A pivotal moment in my career was agreeing to lecture in Italian on trusts and divorce, not having spoken the language for six years.

Confidence is an elusive attribute and is about believing in yourself and working out your strengths and how to celebrate them. A challenge is learning to expect the unexpected. It is then how we handle those unexpected events that dictate our direction of travel.

From an outward lens, I have worked in one firm for 23 years. That is not true. The firm has changed beyond recognition from 150 to 450 in one office in London to more than 1300 people in 17 offices worldwide.

When you scratch the surface the most important thing to remember is that change can be very good and that change is constant… and we need to embrace it.

My sense of leadership [is] to be an example of being a dedicated City lawyer as well as a parent.

Suzanne Todd
Suzanne Todd