Inspirational Woman: Claire Clarke | Managing Partner, Mills & Reeve

claire clarke

Claire is managing partner at law firm Mills & Reeve.

She plays a key role in driving the firm’s strategy, which has seen above average growth for the last three years. Claire’s legal experience spans the full spectrum of corporate work, from acquisitions and disposals, to joint ventures and restructuring.

Claire has particular expertise in the education sector, advising universities and other education bodies and investors on their corporate and commercial legal needs.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My parents didn’t go to university, so I was the first in my family to get a degree.

After university, I trained, qualified and spent my first few years as a lawyer at international law firm Allen & Overy. I joined Mills & Reeve in 1986 and was promoted to partner in 1999 while I was on maternity leave with my first child. I became head of the corporate group and then head of the Corporate and Commercial National Service Line before being elected as the firm’s first female managing partner in 2015.

I do a range of corporate work, with a specialism in the education sector. I’ve recently advised three London colleges on a major merger, and helped 18 University of Cambridge colleges to create a trailblazing finance deal, raising over £400 million from institutional investors.

As managing partner I’m also responsible for driving the firm’s overall strategy, and protecting our collegiate company culture. I’ve just completed my first four-year term as managing partner, which has been hugely challenging but very enjoyable.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not really. I wanted to become a lawyer because I really liked solving problems – I still do. I also love language; I enjoy analysing what things actually mean, and finding out the facts. Working with people is also something that’s important to me.

So I decided on law and became a solicitor, and from there I have made decisions along the way which seemed right at the time. For example, I decided to leave the City for career and life reasons — I’m now based in Cambridge. I never aspired to be managing partner though!

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Of course. There are always challenges, including heavy workloads, difficult deals and challenging clients. There’s also the challenge of juggling the demands of a career and a young family. More recently, I’ve been getting to grips with the challenge of being a law firm leader with the responsibility of 1,000 people’s jobs and mortgages; messing up is definitely not an option.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I think it would have to be completing my first term as managing partner and seeing the firm continue to grow and prosper over those four years, while holding onto its values and collaborative culture. Retaining the firm’s position as a Sunday Times Top 100 employer for a record 16 years also has to be up there.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Hard work, passion and determination (sorry, that’s three).

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think both coaching and mentoring are hugely valuable.  I get a real sense of pride and achievement in seeing people develop and seeing junior recruits come through to partnership.

I have mentored others but I think reverse mentoring — where someone less senior in the organisation mentors me – would be hugely valuable to me in my role and give me some real insights into the views of millennials and those with perhaps a different background to me. We are looking to formally introduce reverse mentoring at Mills and Reeve and have also very successfully put in place mentoring between some of our colleagues and some of our clients.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Removing prejudice and bias would make an enormous difference — if only we could wave a magic wand to achieve it instantly. On a more pragmatic note, more positive female role models and continuing to challenge perceptions and assumptions from both leaders and staff will help to improve things.

Actual gender parity will take years to achieve, but at Mills & Reeve we are committed to tackling the challenges and making real improvements. I was really pleased to see that this year four of our seven internal promotions to partner were women.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Try not to beat yourself up too much when things don’t go to plan. Reflect on any lessons and then move on as quickly as possible.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

For the moment I’m focussed on my next four year term as managing partner, and helping the firm achieve its 2025 strategy. After that, who knows.

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