Trailblazing female ceo an inspiration to others

In a world where large law firms are almost exclusively run by men, Lisa Jacobs has become a trailblazer for women in the New Zealand legal profession.

Lisa Jacobs

The recently appointed CEO of Anthony Harper, which is ranked as one of the top ten legal firms in the country, is believed to be the only woman running a large law practice in New Zealand.

While women have occupied the uppermost ranks of the judiciary and senior counsel for some years, they have struggled to proceed beyond the rank of senior partner in large legal practices.

In the case of Ms Jacobs, it would seem she was pre-ordained to assume such an exalted position, given her burning ambition to become a lawyer from an early age.

“It all sounds terribly organised, but I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer at the age of 12,” she told Law News. “I was fascinated with the legal system and that there were laws which controlled what you could do and I wanted to be part of it.”

A keen student of economics and accounting, she completed a BCom/LLB at Auckland University before getting a job at Ernst & Young.

“It was a natural use for my combined degrees and it was a fascinating area, challenging and always changing. Tax was a component of every transaction, so I quickly got to see a broad range of deals and to work with a variety of clients from a range of industries.”

From providing tax advice to corporates, she moved to the specialised area of funds management tax, working for NZ Funds Management.

“The industry was relatively new in New Zealand and often I would be breaking new ground in determining how the tax laws applied to a particular situation. Tax-driven investment vehicles provided a competitive edge in the industry at that time.”

Ms Jacobs later got the chance to work closely with Treasury and IRD Policy on the introduction of the Portfolio Investment Entity (PIE) regime, which resulted in a sustainable tax regime for investment vehicles in New Zealand.

Despite her many accomplishments, Ms Jacobs’ road to the top of the profession has not always been an easy one, as she discovered from the outset of her career.

“I remember interviewing for my first job, having finished my degrees and being engaged at the time. My engagement ring came off for the interviews, the general belief being that it would impact on my success in securing a role.

“The finance industry in particular was very male-dominated during the time I was in it. I very quickly got used to standing out in rooms dominated by black suits.”

Ms Jacobs says that during her time at NZ Funds Management, she was the first woman in the firm ever to take maternity leave.

“I’m sure other women leaders have had a number of situations where they have also had to lead the way. Hopefully this won’t always be the case.”

She says issues of gender equality are not confined to the finance industry but apply to the legal profession as well, with a pressing need for more women to be appointed to senior positions and become role models for others.

“We need to look at when we lose women along the career path and what we can do to support them. It’s not just about providing roles with flexible timing around family needs, but looking at the talents they have and how we can structure roles to enable women to grow and develop their talents even if they are outside of the working full-time career path.”

As the mother of two school-age children, Ms Jacobs is well qualified to speak on such matters.

“I had the obvious challenges around stepping out of a full-time career at the time my children were little and having that extra family time, while still seeking to grow professionally. However, I have had the benefit of working at supportive firms.

“After the birth of my first child, a new role was created for me which involved investigating new opportunities for the business. This had more flexible time requirements and enabled me to develop a skill set which has now become invaluable in my new CEO role.”

Ms Jacobs encountered another hurdle in her career path shortly after joining Anthony Harper as chief operating officer four years ago.

She was involved in a major traffic accident in Auckland when she left the office to buy her lunch.

“This gave rise to a significant number of challenges which I could only have navigated with the amazing support of the partnership. Flexible working arrangements were the cornerstone to enable me to continue and develop in my role, while at the same time working through the long recovery process.”

Despite such a life-changing event, Ms Jacobs never lost her drive or ambition and was appointed CEO of Anthony Harper earlier this year.

“My new role as CEO enables me to take a greater strategic role and I am looking forward to future opportunities and making sure we are placed to take them,” she says. “Law is no different to any other industry. We need to adapt to provide a better, more efficient service to our clients in order to enable them to meet the requirements of their businesses.

“Our clients have moved to lean business models and we operate in the same way. We are looking at how we can make better use of technology to enhance our service and provide a legal product that best suits client needs and reduces costs.”

In a nutshell, Ms Jacobs says her role encompasses creating an environment where, as individuals, “we have the opportunity to grow, that we work together as a team and enjoy what we are doing”.

It is a strategy that is clearly paying dividends, with Anthony Harper winning the “Employer of Choice” award at the New Zealand Law Awards for the second year in a row.

And under Ms Jacobs’ stewardship, the law firm has increased revenues by more than 80 per cent since 2013. It has also taken on 12 new partners, making it New Zealand’s fastest growing law firm and one of the top ten law firms in the country.

“We plan to keep growing,” she says, “but possibly not at the same pace! We will continue to build on the specialist legal areas in which we operate, adding breadth in the number of areas we cover and depth in the level of expertise and service we can provide to clients. We want to continually challenge how we work with our clients and how we can work better to meet their needs.”

Not surprisingly, Lisa Jacobs’ appointment as CEO has been welcomed by her fellow partners at Anthony Harper. Karen Kemp, for one, told Law News it fits in with the firm’s culture, which acknowledges and rewards individuals based on talent.

“For me it reinforces what senior women have known all along, that someone with Lisa’s commercial expertise and strategic judgement will advance in whatever field they find themselves in. She is also an engaged and committed mother, which is an important message for women that you can succeed in the business world while still being true to other parts of your life.”

Ms Kemp is in no doubt that Ms Jacobs is a trailblazer who will inspire other women to follow suit.

“Certainly within the legal world, the appointment of women to roles such as this is far too rare. So yes, in that sense she is a trailblazer, but women have worked away smartly and quietly for years and women like Lisa have been an inspiration to their colleagues for years already.”

Ms Kemp says the new CEO has most impressive credentials that give her an excellent and intuitive understanding of professional services, “not only what a law firm should offer but how to achieve added value for clients”.

Asked whether women in senior positions like Ms Jacobs have a different operating style to men, she says this is more likely to be influenced by someone’s personality rather than their gender.

“That said, in my experience women in senior positions are generally less abrasive and confrontational, more about inclusive and authentic leadership than their male counterparts.”

Ms Kemp says she has never personally encountered any gender discrimination during her legal career, but “I have known numerous friends and colleagues over my 20 years in the profession who have”.

However, she believes such discrimination is not the principal impediment to women climbing the legal ladder.

“The interesting thing about this is that many women get on the ladder (with junior female lawyers outnumbering men in the early years), but they just don’t want to keep climbing it. So it’s a more complex question of whether women want to climb the ladder, not if it’s difficult or not. It’s made difficult because success is still measured by billables, hours at the office and teams that work furiously day and night.

“I believe that women can, and do, climb the ladder if they subscribe to this model, but it becomes a lot harder as women become more senior and face personal milestones and family choices which don’t fit easily with the traditional model of success, so they pursue those other choices.”

Malcolm Hurley, the managing partner of Anthony Harper, acknowledged to Law News that women remain under-represented in the senior ranks of the law profession.

“There are, of course, a number of reasons for this, including the inflexible workplace structures usually found in law firms. It’s not too many years ago that Anthony Harper had an all-male partnership and a male general manager.

“But, most importantly, we increased our flexibility. For example, in my view, it’s not essential that a partner works full-time and they should be able to leave the office to collect their children from school or attend a school event. We now have five women partners and Lisa as CEO and their views and approach have, without doubt, strengthened the partnership.”

Mr Hurley says Ms Jacobs was appointed CEO after a rigorous selection process in which recruitment company Hobson Leavy researched and interviewed a large number of potential candidates.

“We interviewed all the short-listed candidates and were delighted with the quality of them. We were keen to find a candidate who was not only able to manage the operation of the firm, as a COO or general manager would do, but over time was able to be involved much more with the firm’s strategic direction and decisions.”

Mr Hurley says Ms Jacobs presented as extremely able and professional and gave the impression she would fit in very well with the firm culturally as well as being able to gain the confidence of partners and staff and work well with them.

“Her legal training and background meant that she had an understanding of our business but most of all we believed Lisa had huge potential and would be able to develop and grow into her role. This is very much what has happened and she has made a huge contribution to our spectacular growth and success over the last two or three years.”

Others in the legal profession have also welcomed Ms Jacobs’ appointment with Mai Chen, managing partner of Chen Palmer, telling Law News she was delighted by it.

“There is now a growing number of women leading law firms, so it’s great to have some company!”

That said, Ms Chen believes there should be more women in senior positions given they now outnumber men in the legal profession.

“We have been talking about ‘the pipeline’ for some time now, but there has not been as much progress as we all expected. I hope to see more law firm CEOs of both genders,” she says.

Ms Chen is in no doubt that Ms Jacobs’ appointment will inspire other women to follow suit.

“Her success will result in other women saying to themselves, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’ It’s particularly important that Lisa has two children. For a long time the view was that women couldn’t make serious progress in the legal profession unless they were childless, and that can’t possibly be right.”

Ms Chen says law is an unforgiving profession requiring “personal mastery and excellence” and that it is hard for everyone to climb the legal ladder.

“I don’t think it’s any easier for men than women, but in general more women than men are the primary carers of their children. It’s simply a matter of hours in the day and when you’re a primary carer at home it’s difficult to be ‘primary carer’ of the law firm.”

Ms Chen says she has personally encountered gender discrimination during her career and progress to change such attitudes “remains slow and more needs to be done.”

“Visually, women, and especially coloured women, don’t fit the stereotype of chief executive material because they are so few, but Lisa is changing that.

“The more women in those roles, the more the stereotype has to change”. 

Contact Us
Phone 09 303 5270
Fax 09 309 3726
Email reception@adls.org.nz