The sky's the limit
It's a long way from her childhood ambition of stand-up comedy but Suzanne Liversidge is embarking on a monumental new leadership role at Kennedys, and plans to bring as many people as possible with her
The journey to becoming global managing partner of a 255-partner firm is rarely effortless but Suzanne Liversidge acknowledges that, as a gay woman from the north of England, she took more than her fair share of knocks along the way.
On the other hand, she sees the funny side. “I tick so many boxes”, she quips while reflecting on the overwhelmingly positive reception of her appointment as Kennedys global managing partner last month.
“I wouldn’t make an issue of it myself, but I realise that having diverse role models in our legal profession is important”, she says.
“There is a lack of female – and not just female by the way – but a diverse range of role models. And there is a fear in our industry that we don’t address it positively. I don’t think for one minute I’ve been appointed because I’m a female but the fact is I’m the first female, allegedly, in this role. I think it is quite sad, in 2019.”
Liversidge joined Kennedys as head of its Sheffield office with a team from ailing Manchester firm Halliwells in 2010.
The trials and tribulations she experienced due to the collapse of Halliwells shortly afterwards are well documented and we don’t discuss them in our conversation, but it went without saying that they are among the “battle scars” that contribute to her professional philosophy today.
When she joined Kennedys, the firm had less than 150 partners and was reporting revenues of around £97m. A decade on, that revenue has increased 125 per cent to £218m.
She is taking the reins of a global headcount of 2098 – among them 255 partners – and a global footprint of 37 offices.
“It wasn’t a job I was seeking”, she says when asked if she ever thought she would be acclaimed as the first female to hold the title global managing partner at a law firm. “It wasn’t that I set my sights on this role.
To be fair, Nick [Thomas] did both jobs, senior partner and managing partner and has done it so brilliantly there wasn’t really a need to have anybody else. It was simply as we got so much larger; it just becomes nigh impossible for one person to do that role.”
Liversidge has been on the firm’s global board for several years, during which time she and Thomas have worked together on various projects involving the firm’s global strategy.
“So, inadvertently, I’ve been doing part of the job but not with any purpose other than doing those elements that played to my skillset or where there’s been an opportunity for me to get involved in a project I’m interested in.”
As Kennedys’ first global managing partner she shares leadership with Nick Thomas, who has helmed the firm as senior partner for more than 20 years.
Liversidge is wary of seeming gushing in her admiration for Thomas but repeatedly she describes him as “one of the good guys” and “a good and fair man”.
It’s clear she feels that her success is, at least in part, due to the culture he has forged over the last two decades.
“They’ve given me permission to be me” she says. “And still allow me to be me; a successful me.” That success means a decisive move away from lawyering to focus on management.
“I’ll maintain client relationships and have other interactions with clients. But in terms of actually handling cases, there’ll be people that have far more time to do that than me”, she says.
“I think it’s dangerous for me to try and juggle too many balls in the air. I need to focus on doing this job and doing it well.”
Thomas will remain in control primarily of strategy while Liversidge’s role is expected to be mainly operational. “We’ve kept it very fluid in that we work very well together”, she says.
“He will take the lead on some things and I will take the lead on some things, we’re not being prescriptive and saying, ‘this is your job and that is my job’”.
While sharing the load is a major factor in Kennedys creating the new role, Liversidge will also be keeping her hand in in areas that she has worked hard for a number of years. Diversity and inclusion, for example, remain high on the agenda as she heads into the new role.
She leads Kennedys’ Women in Insurance Network and is an active member of Link, a professional network for members of the LGBT+ community who work in the insurance sector.
She also leads Kennedys’ global sponsorship of Dive In, which is a festival for diversity and inclusion in insurance run by Lloyd’s of London.
The global managing partner role at Kennedys is not the first ‘first’ she can lay claim to as a woman in a traditionally male role either.
Between 2011 and 2012, she stood as president of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, becoming the first female president in its 242-year history. She was also named Sheffield businesswoman of the year in both 2007 and 2008.
“[Diversity and inclusion] is a strength of ours and I want to make it stronger, so that we can be the best we can be for everybody who wants to work with us”, she says. “That’s a big ambition actually because it’s really hard to make a workplace where everybody, no matter where they’re from, their background, who they are, can be the very best they can be and can be happy. And that’s what I would love to help to bring... to continue to bring”.
Wit and willpower
Liversidge was not always destined to be a lawyer. She set her sights initially on a career in stand-up comedy. “I actually did it for a while”, she confesses. “That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian on telly. Everybody thought that was what I was going to do.”
Her role model at that time? Julie Walters. Liversidge claims she “still does a mean Mrs Overall”, referring to Walters’ memorable portrayal of the doddery tea lady in 80s comedy Acorn Antiques. However, her commitment to slapstick wavered when “it was highlighted that it didn’t pay a lot of money”.
A marketing degree followed and her non-traditional route to law was underlined on her first day at one of the world’s biggest corporate law firms.
As her peers discussed the intricacies of dissertations in trusts and estates, Liversidge drolly disclosed that she’d done hers on “the Pot Noodle”.
The frivolity was short-lived however and Liversidge recalls dark moments in those early days in corporate law.
Sexism was rife and while she could tolerate the prescriptive dress codes women were expected to follow, she took a stand when she learnt that a male colleague in an identical role to hers was paid significantly more.
On reflection, she sees it as one of a few pivotal events in her career. “One of the best moments of my career was finding out someone was paid more money because I was angry and offended and decided to do something about it.
That’s when I set off on my own, which was a very scary journey but took me to where I am now, and I’d probably be a very different person had it not happened.”
The stick that she endured while climbing the ladder in her early career has given Liversidge a desire to mentor those she brings up through the ranks behind her. “The important thing for me is to make sure anything I’ve learnt when I’ve made a mistake, I tell other people before they make the same one”, she says.
Kennedys provides a safe space for sharing learning in that way but Liversidge is all too aware that it’s not the same in all corners of the profession.
Reflecting on revelations of repeated sexual harassment at big-name firms over the last couple of years, she says: “It doesn’t surprise me. You’ve got to have zero tolerance.”
Cringing at “bigging up” Thomas again, she adds: “He is a good and fair man and he just would not tolerate it. The culture in a firm is so critical. If you ask me one thing I’m going to do, the ambition is to make sure our culture is absolutely seamless from top to bottom, everywhere in the world. That’s the culture of inclusiveness and respect and being approachable and just the things you would expect human beings to be to each other, it’s part of your DNA.”
Her advice to those in firms with a less enlightened culture? “Call it out. It doesn’t matter if they sack you, you’ll get another job; call it out. And if they do then you take the law on your side. People don’t call it out because they fear being victimised over it and not enough of us probably addressed behaviours early enough”, she says.
Liversidge’s philosophy on working cultures goes further than just tackling sexism though, her tenacious approach to her career has taught her to tackle professional life with authenticity and she believes that’s a key factor in successful modern business cultures.
“Everybody in the world has their insecurities. We’re all human. But the reality is, if you are your true self you’ll thrive. I used to pretend to be somebody else in my first job. When you first start out, you think you have to be ‘something’.
And the minute I stopped pretending to be somebody else and I started being me I started to be very successful at work. I never correlated the two and then when I did, I thought ‘oh my god, it’s just because I’m being me”.
While her profile as a gay northern woman makes that realisation more powerful, she believes it’s a philosophy that applies to everyone.
“Many blows come throughout your life”, she says, looking back on her own journey. “But many blows come to you to a white man too.”
Her point is that the world has changed and building a career on a disingenuous portrayal of the stereotypical 80s brash, overconfident city lawyer won’t wash in modern business.
“If you look at the next generation, and the next generation coming after that, and what’s important to those people then we have to do a heck of a lot of listening”, she says.
“You have to ‘get down with the kids’”. She pauses for what may be comic effect. “Saying that in itself is bad”, she laughs.
Into the future
In addition to being a member of Kennedys’ Global Strategy Board, Liversidge has been a member of the firm’s research and development and innovations boards for a number of years. It’s an area she’s passionate about, although she admits: “I’m not very techie”.
Nonetheless she is intrigued by the work done by Kennedys’ in-house tech team, who specialise in areas ranging through artificial intelligence and robotics.
“We’ve really diversified out of the law and isn’t that a brilliant thing”, she enthuses, namechecking partner Richard West, who leads the innovation board and Liversidge credits with spearheading the firm’s progress in this area.
Among the innovation to come to fruition through this board has been the firm’s virtual lawyer system, Klaim.
The browser-based technology is an online litigation tool that, in the firm’s words, “aggregates the experience of over 400 legal experts” to guide corporate clients through the litigation process online to settle claims without the need to instruct a legal panel.
Shortlisted for a Financial Times innovation award, Liversidge believes Kennedys is leading the industry in developing legal tech inhouse.
“We’ve done it within our profession. It’s so bold. And we’ve all taken that and applied it through our board. We’ve got lots of technology in play at the moment which sits in tandem with the legal work we do.”
She is palpably excited by being at the forefront of that movement. “It changes what we do completely, allowing our clients to be far more self-sufficient”, she explains.
“Having come up with some ideas and concepts, we’ve all worked together with technical people, with client people like me, with developers, with individuals within universities and together as a combined initiative we’re turning out products.”
But perhaps where Kennedys displays the most innovative thinking is the process by which these concepts get to the innovation board in the first place. “We have this thing that’s wonderful called the Ideas Lab”,
Liversidge explains. The Ideas Lab encourages people from across the firm to submit ideas, which are in turn put before a panel and the best are given development funding. It’s a concept used frequently in technology businesses but less common in professional services.
Liversidge is on holiday when we speak, and perhaps more reflective than usual. “It’s been an incredible journey in two ways”, she says of her career at Kennedys thus far. “One, an incredible journey for the firm if you look back to when I joined and its size and what it was.
Joining with my team was a big thing at the time. Looking at where we are now and the size and scale of us, but also I guess that personal journey of coming in as a partner and getting to know everybody based in the UK, and then as we’ve grown globally. To all of a sudden being in a position where I’m global managing partner”.
What’s her priority when she gets back to the office and starts the new role in earnest? “My colleagues know I’m a dog lover, I have two. One of the first things I was asked when the new role was announced was whether we could start bringing our dogs to the office”, she laughs. “It’s very tempting, but I don’t think it’s the first thing I’ll do”.
For Liversidge, leadership has been an element of her career that she never expected to enjoy as much as she does. “I enjoy working with people, I enjoy solving problems and I actually genuinely get pleasure from other people doing really well”, she says.
That’s not a trait that women in power always display, something that Liversidge would like to see change. “When women are having that tension in senior roles, not just in the legal profession but anywhere, that is because the women are fighting for one seat at the table”, she says.
“They should just get together and demand more seats at the table. So that’s our role, isn’t it – in life – to go out and make sure it’s fair for everybody. Life’s never perfectly fair but we can certainly treat each other in a way that’s better”.
Hannah GannagÃ©-Stewart is managing editor of Solicitors Journal