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Q&A with Caroline Sumnall: “Define what success looks like to you”

Our FAIRE event brought together speakers from across the legal sector and our lawyers, managers and directors gave an insight into their own career paths.

You asked thousands of fantastic questions over the two-day event. We’ve taken your questions and put them to the people in our team - producing a series of question and answers from those around the business to help you navigate the next steps in your career.

First up is our Client & Marketing Director Caroline Sumnall. Caroline leads the Client & Marketing team - encompassing business development, management, bids and communications. Here Caroline outlines the valuable lessons she’s learnt during her varied career and what she’d tell her 16-year-old self.

Caroline’s career journey

What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

Define what success means for you – for some people it’s money; others status; some prioritise family; some want to be an expert in something. I wanted lots of different experiences inside and out of work. That meant rejecting linear career progression, and ultimately earning less, but I think it’s been more interesting. Along the way I worked in DC and Zurich; learnt to teach English in Mexico City; and bought a church steeple to live in.

Did you prefer studying in the USA or the UK?

I enjoyed them equally – a sandwich degree was a great way to combine both!

What sacrifices have you had to make to become a senior leader?

Going the extra mile at work means I spend less time with friends and partners. Sometimes that doesn’t work for them and there are some really tough choices, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Good friends will appreciate your passion and be really happy for you.

How hard is it to make your way up the ladder? Have you experienced any difficulties as a woman?

It requires hard work for anyone, but as a woman it’s worth reading up on female leadership and the double bind. It’s a very real challenge.

What has been the most memorable point in your career?

There are many, but a lovely moment was advising the Board of the largest law firm in DC about their rebrand around a huge mahogany table – I glanced out of the panoramic window on Pennsylvania Avenue at the Washington Monument in the sunshine, and was really grateful that my career had given me the opportunity to be there.

What is one word you would use to sum up your career?

Intriguing.

Caroline’s role at Browne Jacobson

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Being in a position to give people career opportunities and challenges. One of my favourite moments in the last few years was asking one of our receptionists to undertake an assignment and then present findings. She’d never presented before and visibly enjoyed the opportunity and challenge – it was terrific.

From a leadership point of view, do you have a strategy when you feel something you are working on gets overwhelming?

I don’t really find things I’m working on overwhelming at this stage, but my advice would be to ask for help from colleagues – everyone has different strengths and it’s interesting to learn from others. You are also likely to be able to help them with something in return.

What motivates you to do your work?

It’s just really interesting!

A career in the legal sector

How realistic is Legally Blonde and other legal dramas such as Suits?

Some of it is spot on - I’ve worked closely with a Jessica; had full-on late night/ early morning prep meetings; and worked in glamorous offices full of fabulous suits.

What is a current issue affecting law firms aside from Covid-19? How is the legal industry changing as a whole?

There are many from tech to D&I. A fantastic change is the increasing awareness of the importance of wellbeing.

Tips for progressing in your career

What are the essential soft skills that make a Great Leader?

There are many – the best leaders I’ve worked for have been smart, caring, organised, strong decision makers and very open and honest. They are confident enough in how much they do know to admit what they don’t.

How can I improve my leadership skills? I think sometimes I appear too aggressive/full-on.

Ask for feedback – give permission for people to be honest with you. It’s helpful to have specifics. Ask what you do well, could do more of, and what you should stop doing or do differently. Importantly, that won’t be the same for everyone you lead. Reading and coaching can be helpful also. What one person sees as overwhelmingly full-on, another person can read as inspirational passion.

What tips do you have to help cope with pressure?

Know yourself - when do you feel pressure? Is the pressure coming from yourself or externally? Do you have a physical early warning sign and if that happens, what helps? Ultimately even if it’s stressful, is the pressure teaching you something and making you better (which is worthwhile), or just unhelpfully stressful. I find having a cup half full approach and a sense of humour help enormously.

What soft skills do you recommend we try to attain as being book smart is not enough?

How to communicate with customers and colleagues under pressure; swift problem solving; to be honest when things go wrong; and to treat everyone as you’d wish to be treated, regardless of seniority. I’d highly recommend being a waiter/waitress for a while – it teaches you all these things.

What can I do to make myself stand out amongst other candidates if I am looking for a career in law/business?

Be curious, enthusiastic and tenacious; do your research; take opportunities to volunteer and lead. Make considered approaches to people whose jobs you would aspire to have in order to learn from them.

Find other career stories here >