Interviewed by Hajar El Baraka
Meet our Talent, Rebecca Francis, Real Estate Solicitor and Associate Director at Osborne Clarke. In this interview, she tells us how she ended up in a career in law and what her professional journey has been like. She also gives some valuable advice on confidence and personal branding in the workplace.
You hold a bachelor’s degree in Law and obtained your LPC right after it. Have you always wanted to become a solicitor? What motivated you to choose this career path?
I started down this career path a long time ago! I think I had an idea in my head when I was 13 or 14 of what a career in law might mean. I was very interested in public speaking, debating and politics at school, so for me, it was a natural fit to pursue a career in law. It seemed like a career that gave structure and had a clear career progression.
Of course, what I thought a career in law was when I was 13 or 14 is very different to the realities of working in a commercial law firm. The biggest realisation for me since I qualified is that you are the asset and the product you sell. It is very much about marketing yourself as well as the firm and business development. Yes, it is about having an understanding of the law and keeping on top of it; but you also have to be incredibly commercial and really understand your client’s drivers, as well as the marketing side of things. It’s been an interesting journey so far and it certainly hasn’t disappointed.
I enjoy talking to people, going to events and meeting people. But selling yourself as a lawyer can take some adjusting to. Finding a balance is key. Being personable and trying to relate to people is also important: we shouldn’t be ashamed or shy away from saying “this is what I do, and this is how I can help you and let’s have a chat about it”. My ability to do this has progressed over time, and I’ve certainly found it an enjoyable aspect of my career.
“We shouldn’t be ashamed or shy away
from saying : this is what I do, and this is how
I can help you. Let’s have a chat about it”
You are currently an Associate Director at Osborne Clarke in the UK after having been a Senior Associate for almost 6 years. What does a typical day look like for you? What kind of real estate issues and clients do you act for?
I am a Real Estate Disputes Lawyer. I do not work on the transactional side, though I do a lot of work with my colleagues in that department. What I love about real estate disputes is that there is no typical day. I would say half my working day is dealing with genuine disputes if things go to court or alternative dispute resolution. The other half is advisory: it’s about working with clients and colleagues to try to avoid disputes later down the line. I really like having the best of both worlds: full blown litigation but also the advisory side.
My specialism is in residential or mixed-use property. I am slightly obsessed with buildings - maybe I should become an architect in a next life! I find it fascinating to be involved with things that affect us all. We all need somewhere to live and how we live is constantly changing. I have been privileged to work with many clients who are at the forefront of these changes, and seeing people who want to live and work in a different way. For instance, ownership is not the holy grail for everybody: long term purpose built rental, flexibility, technology, working from home etc, are preferable for many. All of the above are things that our clients, who are mainly developers and investors, are involved with, and I have been fortunate to be involved in their work.
What was the most successful case you have worked on or your best experience throughout your career?
The answer is probably a case on which I am working right now! It’s very much in my area of expertise and involves an iconic building that played a part in my childhood. It was a dispute that went on for a while and for which we just had the results. We won on everything. I have really enjoyed the subject matter. Doing site visits was incredibly interesting to me and getting a positive result at the end of all of it was the cherry on top.
Working with our trainees and getting them so involved throughout the whole process so that they could see a dispute from start to finish, was especially fulfilling.
Across the globe, we are now transitioning from remote/hybrid working being a new way of working to being a standard way of working. How did this change impact the real estate industry and how did you adapt to it as a solicitor in this field?
I think there was a feeling of shock in the real estate industry when the pandemic first hit, and we went to full lockdown in the UK. Retail has probably suffered in a way that residential hasn’t, but generally the industry responded very positively by looking at the opportunities and recognising that it implies a huge cultural shift. Some of clients who were already in the space of purpose built, rental and alternative living assets were perfectly placed to strike and make even more of a business case for what they were offering. So, although it was mixed, the feeling was generally positive after the initial lockdown.
In terms of how we responded as lawyers, we were busier than ever on the disputes side when the pandemic hit. The government was bringing out vast amounts of legislation and measures to support businesses and we had to get to grips with it on the day it was published and advise our clients in real time about what this meant for their businesses. I think we will see the fallout of it for a long time to come.
I was lucky to be in a firm where connected working wasn’t new for us. In fact, we already worked from home a day or two a week, so it wasn’t a huge shift for us to then to go full time remote working. Obviously, MS Teams was not part of my life before March last year and now it very much is! There were certain things you had to get used to, but I think we adapted really well, and we were able to deliver for our clients.
Acritas and Thomson Reuters, as part of the “Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law” programme, conducted a research study on approaches to improve gender diversity at senior levels in law firms. This research found that only a third of New Partners in law firms, both salaried and Equity, were female. Do you recognise this lack of gender diversity in senior levels in law firms and, if so, what are the factors behind it? How is Osborne Clarke tackling this issue?
The short answer is yes, I do very much recognise those findings, particularly in a commercial law firm. There is a stark difference between female representation at the junior end of the spectrum and senior end. We have by far more women at the junior end than males and our partnership is made up of around 25% females. That is certainly changing: in 2019 about 63% of new partner promotions were females so that’s a huge change and very different from the general findings of that research.
The steps Osborne Clarke is taking are making an impact but obviously, you can’t rest on your laurels: it’s about retaining diversity and good strong female talents as well as simply recruiting. The reasons for it are very complex and it’s a combination of factors. But from my experience, what jumps out are the things women do subconsciously in terms of the draw and the drain on their time. Even in a work setting, things women generally get asked to do over and above their day job and which they volunteer to do means they have less time for other things such as chargeable work, networking etc.
Traditional forms of networking and business developments have not helped either, particularly in real estate which is traditionally a very male industry. There is a lot of going to the pub, lots of sport events and not everybody, male or female, is able to do that. I think this has made people self-select out of going through the promotion process, for example.
There is a need to be more creative about business development and how we work and what is necessary to be able to fulfil a role. At Osborne Clarke, they have recruited for specific roles to enhance diversity and inclusion in the firm. It is business critical for them and it goes all the way up to the Executive Board. I think it’s not as easy for smaller firms to go at it as hard as OC have, but there definitely things all firms can do so hopefully the only way is up.
You always try and steer away from stereotypes. But looking at my female colleagues we do tend to want to make sure we are 100% perfect on something before we put ourselves forward. If we could be a bit braver and just say “yes, I am going to go for it and do as much as I can”, we would reap the benefits. It’s about your potential, your progression, and justifying it on that basis.
“I look at my female colleagues and we do tend to want
to make sure we are 100% perfect on something
before we put ourselves forward. If we could be a bit
braver and just say “yes, I am going to go for it and do as
much as I can”, we would reap the benefits.”
As well as being a Talent in WIL’s Women Talent Pool programme, you are also a member of Women in Property, which provides mentoring, networking and professional development for women in the property sector. Can you tell us more about this organisation? What do you expect to achieve or learn from your role in both of these organisations?
I joined Women in Property as soon as I qualified and found it immensely helpful, particularly at the start of my career. For me, it was a safe space to go out and practice networking. They put on diverse events covering the full spectrum of real estate industry, enabling you to meet people you never normally would. Immersing myself in a female-only safe space was incredibly valuable and I have learned a great deal. I still value it and would encourage any junior lawyers to attend.
The same applies for WIL. It’s about extending your network to people who are outside the London legal bubble and your own firm. It gives you a different insight into how different companies are doing things and what conversations they are having about diversity and inclusion. For me, this is what WIL is about: broadening your network, sharing ideas and having conversations about things that otherwise you wouldn’t.
We usually end the interview with a question from our Proust Questionnaire. Ours for you is: what advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be too disheartened by setbacks! My progression to where I am now definitely didn’t take the path I was expecting. But along the way I developed skills and met people I never would have done otherwise, which ultimately led to me getting to where I am today, in an area I really enjoy. It may have taken a bit longer than the 13-year-old me would have wanted or thought, but it means that I have been able to do more things and grow.
Also, have your own style! As I said before, it’s about marketing yourself. You must have your own way of doing things and be true to yourself and try not to conform to pre-imagined stereotypes. In law, so much of it is about building relationships, so you have to be human. It is easier said than done. Early in your career you have less experience, and I think that only when you feel comfortable enough about your expertise can you start to relax and let your own style and personality shine through. To gain that expertise, you have to put the leg work in.
“Don’t be too disheartened by setbacks! My progression
to where I am now definitely didn’t take the path I was
expecting. But along the way I developed skills and met
people I never would have done otherwise, which ultimately
led to me getting to where I am today,
in an area I really enjoy.”
Video edited by Nadège Serrero