Lawyer of the Month: Laura Cameron
Laura Cameron’s dream of becoming a dentist when growing up in Perth was thwarted by an unfortunate and insuperable drawback: her aversion to the sight of blood. “Although I studied sciences at school and got the grades, after a few dissections in the biology lab I realised fairly early on that it wasn’t my thing,” she laughs.
“When I explained to my late father, he very reasonably said ‘I’d been waiting for years for you to recognise that’, and promptly suggested an alternative career in the law.” The sudden U-turn was a fortuitous one.
“I loved it and have never looked back,” says Cameron, who joined McGrigors almost 29 years ago and became a partner at the venerable firm, whose antecedents date back to 1769. It then merged with London-based multinational firm Pinsent Masons in 2012, and she became its first female board member.
Last year Pinsent Masons announced that Cameron, who is based in Glasgow, will succeed John Cleland as the firm’s managing partner. She had stepped down after seven years as global head of the firm’s 880-strong risk advisory services group which represents about a third of the turnover of a firm with some 430 partners and 3,000 people around the world.
It’s a daunting agenda to keep on top of, and one that will be augmented by assuming her new responsibility at the top of the firm, but Cameron says that she’s “delighted and incredibly honoured to have been elected by my peers as Pinsent Masons’ first female managing partner and can’t wait to get started.”
Both she and the firm, she says, are hugely positive about law. “We’re always striving to do better and at our core are determined to keep ourselves relevant to clients. This involves thinking ahead about what they will need – and that includes being innovative in the use of technology and generally being ahead of the curve when it comes to the client’s needs.”
Risk advisory services is a contentious area involving litigation and dispute resolution and is part of Pinsent Masons’ service in every geography and jurisdiction the firm covers. “I deliberately became a litigator because I enjoy the cut and thrust of the courtroom and the hard work that goes into the preparation and presentation of a case,” she says. “And the idea of having court decisions create new law is a bit of a thrill.”
These have included, she says, criminal cases for big corporate entities. “I’ve done a huge amount over the years in terms of advising corporate clients about how to avoid health and safety incidents, but I’ve also been involved in defence cases in which clients have been prosecuted for disasters and fatalities, often in the construction, aircraft and oil and gas sectors.”
She adds that when she was head of the group it broadened its skillset by recruiting individuals with expertise drawn from other areas of professional services in forensic accounting, tax and policy advice and the managing partner’s role will allow her to do the same, though on much larger scale.
“Risk advisory services is really a much broader umbrella for all manner of things. We try to help clients avoid situations that could become contentious but that can’t always be avoided so when – as happens sometimes – things go wrong we’re there to help them navigate their way out of it.”
Inevitably, as she was Pinsent Masons’ first female board member – and now ready to become its first female managing partner – the ‘glass ceiling’ question demands to be asked. “When I was elected to the board in 2012 I was the only female around the table and that took a bit of getting used to – not just for me for my colleagues,” she recalls.
“Since then, there has been a complete shift in terms of female representation though we still have a lot of work to do, as do our peers, in terms of females occupying leadership and partner positions.”
In 2014 the firm launched Project Sky, a programme aimed at achieving an improved gender balance in its partnership and senior leadership team by removing barriers to the progression of women to the highest levels within the business.
“It’s important that we have diversity in its broadest sense around our decision-making tables but in purely gender terms, if we were having this conversation in five or ten years the landscape would look very different because in the current intake of trainees and law graduates the split is now heavily weighted toward women and we need to make sure we are encouraging, mentoring and sponsoring our female colleagues as they come through the business.”
As managing partner, she says she will face a variety of challenges. “One is making sure that we continue to look after our clients in an innovative and relevant way. Also, we must nurture talent within the firm and embrace the needs of a multi-generational workforce,” she says.
“Younger people increasingly tend to explore personal development and the quality of their work. They don’t necessarily look for upwards but sometimes lateral moves and our STRIDE programme allows people to be put into new positions, perhaps going from Australia to London or Dublin to South Africa and that has been an amazing experience for the business as well as the individuals.”
Also important to the future of talent is a commitment to both diversity and inclusion (DNI) and the overall ESG framework. “We are a purpose-led firm and people want to know that we are not only committed to that but that we actually follow through on our commitments because that is absolutely critical to our business.”
Cameron has been married to her husband Philip, also a lawyer, for more than 25 years and has two grown-up children. Despite holding a leading position with a global firm that involves world travel (and a particular fondness for Singapore’s cosmopolitan vibe) there’s nothing she says she enjoys more than a hike up a Scottish hill or around a loch. “Whatever the weather, a walk will feature at some stage on a Saturday or Sunday.”
Most of the time, however, she’s focused on ambition for the firm and its people. “When I look at my diary and see what’s coming up during the week that’s what is foremost in my mind – to champion change, to promote progress and to make the business work better for its people and clients.”
Like everyone, she says, not everything goes exactly to plan on every day. “But I’m fortunate in being able to simply come back, shut the door on that and say: you know what – tomorrow’s going to be a better day.”
It’s an outlook with which her prescient late father would have wisely concurred.