An interview with Kirsty Peacock – UKMEA HR Director, Dentons LLP
Just over a decade ago I vividly remember simultaneously partnering a Magic Circle Law Firm and a Global Investment Bank on two senior HR searches. Technical competencies aside, the brief from each client was crystal clear: the successful candidate needed legal and investment banking experience respectively. Whilst there remain a number of key advantages in hiring a HR leader with specialist sector knowledge and skills there are also vast opportunities for firms to identify and hire talent from outside sector, candidates who will challenge the status quo and genuinely bring new and innovative ideas to the table.
I have witnessed a significant increase in cross-sector HR candidate mobility in recent years and a genuine curiosity from both clients and candidates to either hire from or make the transition into a new and rewarding sector. I spoke to Kirsty Peacock, UKMEA HR Director at Dentons about her transition into a HR leadership role with the world’s largest law firm.
Tell us about your early HR career?
I was fortunate to spend the first ten years of my HR career in FMCG, with the brewing organisation Scottish & Newcastle. The variety of opportunities I was given included HR Officer in the Sales & Marketing Division; Brewery HR Manager in a heavily unionised environment and latterly HR Business Partner to the Divisional Leadership Team at HQ. I had to be commercial, resilient, flexible and at times fearless in a competitive, male dominated consumer facing business. Those characteristics are still the bedrock of how I operate today.
How did you first break into professional services?
I had worked in Financial Services for five years and wanted a change. With every job move I’ve been agnostic about sector. The culture and HR agenda have always been the key drivers for my job moves. HR Director in the property sector was my first professional services role. They were ideally looking for someone with partnership experience, which I didn’t have. However, I was able to demonstrate strong HR leadership skills, which were transferrable. This was coupled with a track record of moving sectors in the past, which showed I was flexible and could learn quickly.
Did you have any preconceptions around HR’s profile in the legal sector and if so, what has been the reality?
In considering the role at Dentons, I spoke to people who knew the legal sector well. Some had not enjoyed it, but others had and described the intellectual challenge of working with lawyers and how sharp you had to be in producing quality work. I can’t speak for how HR is perceived in the legal sector more broadly, but there was a clear need at Dentons to improve the perception of HR. What I found when I arrived was a team of individuals who were as good as I had worked with anywhere. They just needed to be reenergised through having clear direction and a leader they knew would encourage and support them.
Having not had prior experience in the legal sector, what do you believe you can bring to it?
In hiring someone like me, perhaps Dentons took a risk. However, I believe that reflects the kind of firm we want to be; innovative, different and in some cases disruptive. Someone described me recently as a “disruptive hire”, which I was flattered by. I bring a perspective that is unrestricted by the way things are typically done in law firms. To differentiate ourselves, we need to look beyond the legal profession to what other organisations are doing to engage their best talent and deliver a great employee experience.
What are you and your team working on right now?
Performance management, hiring great talent, using technology better and delivering effective development solutions, is always a priority. Having off-shored our administration activities to Warsaw this month, we need to integrate this new operation. Diversity & Inclusion continues to be a priority and we are focused on developing our female talent with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of women partners we have. At the end of last year we launched “Your Bright Future”, a legal apprenticeship programme, providing an alternative work based route to becoming a qualified solicitor. Health & Wellbeing is at the heart of our people agenda, with some exciting new initiatives in the coming year.
Dentons claims to be a highly polycentric firm, can you expand?
I didn’t fully understand what polycentric meant, until I experienced it at Dentons. In practice, for me it means accountability is highly decentralised. There is no global HQ controlling everything that happens across the world and slowing down decision making. Compared to other places I have worked, this has been liberating. I feel accountable and can achieve what I need to without an onerous approvals process. This allows us to be very agile in our decision making and where we need to, make things happen quickly.
What advice would you give to a HR professional considering a transition into professional services?
Many corporate leaders will say “our people are our most important asset”. In professional services people are the only asset. Getting things right for our people is more important as a result. That’s a great context for HR to operate in, and where our contribution can have such a significant impact. My advice would be, if you believe passionately that HR can add value and want to work somewhere that will challenge you intellectually every day, work in professional services.
If you were to change sectors again in your career what industries would interest you?
The answer to that is retail. With the growth in online shopping the retail sector has been forced to change more quickly than others, so that’s exciting. I also miss working in a business where your clients are consumers and there is a strong creative element. Having worked in the food industry for five years I loved watching a product evolve from an idea in a meeting, to six months later being a reality in my local supermarket.
As far as you can tell, what keeps a lawyer awake at night?
Lawyers are typically high achievers and have a strong tendency to be self critical. Wondering if there was another angle on a problem they didn’t spot or worrying about the document they trusted a junior colleague to send to a client on their behalf. I suspect it’s those things that keep them awake. Instead they should accept sometimes they couldn’t have done anymore, or trust that someone can do the job as well as them.
How do you switch off at the weekend?
Dentons get the best of me from Monday to Friday, but my weekends are for family and friends. The challenge of two teenagers, forces me to forget about the lawyers. Weekends are mostly standing on the touchline of a hockey pitch or cooking breakfast for a group of teenage boys who’ve sought refuge for the night after a party. Saturday morning exercise has become pretty sacrosanct, but this is mainly so I can eat and drink without guilt on a Saturday night!
Barry Byrne, Partner, Aretai LLP
- Executive Search
- Financial Services
- Legal Services