bckr | Denise Jagger: “Being on a board gives you skills – which can help your law firm”
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Denise Jagger: “Being on a board gives you skills – which can help your law firm”

Denise Jagger: “Being on a board gives you skills – which can help your law firm”

We recently welcomed Denise Jagger to BCKR, who shared with us her wealth of expertise acquired on her non-executive journey which, rather unusually, began when she was in her 30s.

Top tips:

  • Getting a portfolio takes a long time, so you do have to start early and put in the effort.
  • Do not underestimate the power of your network. Denise found her most interesting roles on her own. Your contacts are important; you can use them for several things, not just getting you introductions to roles but also later on to introduce donors to charities, for example.
  • Do not assume that people will think of you as a candidate, lawyers aren’t good at self-publicising, so you need to let people know that you are looking for non-executive roles.
  • It’s important to start looking for NED roles while you’re still in an executive role and your contacts are in your reach. Before you leave your firm!
  • Educate yourself, using organisations such as BCKR, or taking finance courses for non-accountants, to become financially literate. You have to have a way to overcome that prejudice.
  • Do use a separate CV for non-executive applications. It should be completely different from your legal CV.
  • Don’t rule anything out. Denise used always to say she wouldn’t do financial services, but then got offered a role in insurance and it ended up being one of the most important and interesting things she’d ever done.
  • Get yourself known with the headhunters. Use your contacts to help with introductions.

Skills rather than deals

There is an increased focus on diversity on boards now, so it is getting easier for lawyers (despite still being presented as the ‘wildcard’ on headhunters’ short lists).

Boards never look specifically for lawyers; there is a massively out-dated stereotypical view of lawyers. We don’t need a lawyer; we can buy in that skill/we have a GC already/a lawyer will stop us from doing what we want etc. So it’s important to bring out your skills rather than your deals.

It can be easier for in-house lawyers who have sat on committees and boards, or even for lawyers who have run legal teams or departments. You need to point out your managerial skills in that case. Show your vision and strategic capabilities.

Sector experience can be a benefit, depending on the situation, but not necessarily. Some don’t want their board members to have sector experience because they have it in drones already in their executive team, but there can be situations where it’s appreciated.

Charity trustee role

Get experience early on. For example, start by becoming a charity trustee, get your first role under your belt, and build your experience from there. These can help hugely if you want to move into commercial roles later, because you meet the right people and develop the right skills.
You can learn so much, there are some hugely talented, resourceful, creative, interesting people on these trusts and trustee roles are not that difficult to get in comparison with listed company NED roles.

Denise was once on a museum trust, where she learned lots of useful skills she could use later on. She got it because she was a local. Find something that fits your interests e.g. conservation, riding, education, NHS etc.

Don’t wait for a job notice, just get in touch, write in and offer your skills. In smaller trusts you may be asked to chair a committee, so it’s a great opportunity.

How did she get her first roles?

  • 1st role: While she was in private practice, she did an IPO for a healthcare client. Years later, the client called her up and offered her a board role.
  • 2nd role: Whilst GC at Asda, a friend of a friend met the chair of a building association who needed someone with consumer experience.
  • Next roles: Local museum trust and other smaller industry panels. Started to build out her CV.
  • 1st PLC role: Redrow, the house builder, she got the job following her responsibility at Asda for onboarding subsidiaries. This led to other PLC roles such as Belway, another house builder.

How does she manage her executive and non-executive career simultaneously?

When she joined Asda she already had a role, asked to keep it and they let her. Then she took on additional roles within Asda. It’s harder in private practice but not impossible. Sometimes there can be conflicts of interest, or at least perceptions of them.

Now she’s a 3-day Partner at Eversheds and not a fee earner, which takes off some pressure. It takes a lot of planning and time management.

When she returned to private practice she was able to negotiate and brought her portfolio with her. It’s easier to make the case in point when you’re closer to retirement. It has definitely given her skills, which have helped her firm.

What roles would you decline?

Don’t just take the first role that comes along, as you have to commit to minimum three years. If you can only take on one role whilst you’re working full time, you need to make sure it’s the right role.

You’re doing it for interest, not for money, so pick well.

Meet as many people as you can. Do your due diligence. Insist on seeing the people you think are important. You have to get on with the Chairman and build a relationship.

Is there a danger that you get perceived as ‘non-commercial’ if you have a couple of charity trustee roles?

It’s a catch 22. The danger is there, so be weary. Do take on 1 or 2 charity roles as a way in, you’ll be meeting people on those boards who are perhaps on other commercial boards.

Are boards really looking for governance experience?

The smaller firms certainly are. Even if you’re not a governance specialist, as a lawyer you will intuitively know where to look. You will have a good sense and can get up to speed quickly. You can spot problems that to lawyers are common sense, but perhaps not to a commercial person, and you can come up with quick solutions. So governance is helpful.

Is it getting easier for lawyers to get on boards because of the regulatory environment?

It is becoming more important, so lawyers tick the box. Even if it’s not on the job spec and they’re not specifically looking for it, you should point out where you have an advantage.

How do you get headhunters to take you seriously?

Once you’ve been placed once, they will keep calling you, so you just need to get your foot in the door. Keep plugging at it, and after a while you will move up the pecking order. It’s all part of networking. Keep in touch. Always be helpful to them if they’re looking for names.