The Accidental Lawyer: Kate Gibbons
ABOVE: ACCIDENTAL LAWYER KATE GIBBONS AT HOME WITH HER DOG OLLY.
Kate Gibbons did not set out to be a lawyer — English Literature and Drama were her great passions. And yet she’s been a Finance and Capital Markets Partner at Clifford Chance, one of the UK’s top five law firms and a member of the elite Magic Circle, for 25 years. In an industry where women are underrepresented at partner level — according to Gender in the Law 2014 Survey, only 24% of the partners in UK law firms are female and in Magic Circle firms, the percentage is closer to 18% — Kate has garnered respect from clients and peers alike as well as gained herself a hard-earned freedom to forge a unique and individual path in the world of corporate law. So how did this accidental lawyer become the Global Head of Knowledge of a leading international law firm? Join us on our recent visit with Kate in the busy home she shares with her husband, a fellow partner at Clifford Chance, their three children and Labradoodle Olly, to find out.
ABOVE: “GEORGE ELIOT IS A FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND HERE SHE IS PAINTED BY OUR BRILLIANT FRIEND AND ARTIST SARAH PICKSTONE,” KATE SAYS. “I HOPE THAT OUR DAILY FAMILY LIFE, OVER WHICH GEORGE PRESIDES, ISN’T TOO PROSAIC FOR HER.
FF – How did you become a lawyer?
KG – My unconventional 1960’s education in an experimental school was fantastic but left me ill equipped for an abrupt transition to boarding school at aged 10. My parents, who were in the RAF, were being stationed out of the country and decided to keep me in the UK by sending me to boarding school where I pretty much fell through the cracks. I didn’t do any work and developed some rather gaping holes in my education. The result being that I was not good at languages, no longer good at maths and sorely lacking in self confidence. The only thing I felt I was good at was English because the one teacher who took an interest in me during this time told me I was. When I was doing my A-levels (English, History and Religious Studies), I didn’t tell anyone that I had intentions of going to university because I was worried they would laugh. No one had any expectations of me and I was more or less left on my own. I wanted to read English Literature at university, but I didn’t think I could do it because as I read through the UCAS book, I clocked that a language at A-level was advised. And then I discovered a subject called “Law” where there were no language or maths requirements and that’s how I ended up applying to read Law. UCL offered me a place and I accepted.
FF – What was it like reading “law” – this subject into which you happened?
KG – I am afraid I found my Law degree boring and tried to change to English Literature. I spent much of my degree acting in plays — “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello for example. I had hoped that studying Law would discipline my mind but I’m not sure it did. I worked very hard though, stuck with it, managed to get a training contract offer by the end of my second year and qualified at the age of twenty-three.
ABOVE: DRAWING HIGHLY DETAILED SKETCHES IS KATE’S UNORTHODOX METHOD OF PROCESSING LARGE AMOUNTS OF INFORMATION AT MEETINGS.
FF – Tell us what it was like being a female lawyer when you started?
KG – I started my degree in 1977, a day into being eighteen, and it was right at the beginning of a cultural shift when women were beginning to enter the profession. For example, when I entered the course, 30% of the students enrolled were women. By the time I left three years later, that figure was up to 70%.
FF – Your favourite part about being a lawyer?
KG – It’s always been about the people for me. I get satisfaction from giving clients expert advice about what I know and the huge sense of team play that exists when you are working on a deal.
ABOVE: MUSIC IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF KATE’S LIFE. SHE SINGS IN TWO CHOIRS AND PLAYS THE PIANO, WHICH SHE HAS BEEN PLAYING SINCE CHILDHOOD.
FF – When did you realise that you were no longer an accidental lawyer?
KG – After university, I went straight to work in a law firm but kept exploring other avenues of interest outside the day job, including applying to Cambridge to read English Literature and taking evening classes at The Guildhall to become a drama teacher. By 1986, I was working for Clifford Turner, who later merged with Coward Chance to become Clifford Chance, and they needed someone to go to Japan to work on aircraft finance. I volunteered when no one else wanted to go. This was an untested market and at the time they couldn’t be sure about how the Japanese would react to a female solicitor but Clifford Turner took a chance on me. And as it turns out, Japan turned into a great success for me. The Japanese considered me to be a foreigner and therefore their rules of hierarchy didn’t apply to me, which was quite liberating. I took on many jobs that I never would have been given to do in London and began to build a broad and deep knowledge base on anything from general banking to acquisition finance. I was twenty-seven when I returned to London from Japan. Soon after, I remember going for a run and having a rather serious conversation with myself. “Kate, you have never committed to anything,” I said. “Maybe it’s time you did.” And that was when I realised that I was a good lawyer and that’s what I wanted to do. I became a partner at Clifford Chance 4 years later at the age of thirty-one.
ABOVE: THE WOULD BE ENGLISH LITERATURE STUDENT BELONGS TO TWO BOOK GROUPS. ON HER SHELF: 40 SONNETS BY DON PATTERSON, THE TRANSYLVANIAN TRILOGY BY MIKLÓS BÁNFFY AND MIDDLEMARCH BY GEORGE ELIOT.
FF – Smooth sailing after that, right?
KG – Not exactly. Three children and a husband with an equally demanding job later, I woke up one day and realised we had created a punishing and unhealthy regime for ourselves. With 7-day work weeks and the demands of family life, I developed into an obsessive workaholic. And with our unpredictable hours and travel schedules, we were told that we were “unnannyable” by a nanny agency. Something had to give and it wasn’t going to be the children so I felt my only option was to resign. It says a great deal about Clifford Chance that they didn’t let me. Instead they worked with me to find a new role where I could still play to my strengths but yet have more flexibility in terms of schedule and working from home.
FF – And what is this role?
KG – As Global Head of Knowledge at Clifford Chance, I lead the firm’s Thought Leadership initiative. I am responsible for ensuring our lawyers know what we know to serve our clients with the best work and in the best way. (In 2015, Clifford Chance were named the number one law firm in the Chambers Global Top 30 for the third consecutive year.) This is quite a broad brief if you think about it and I absolutely love it. I was always willing to take on anything and developed a wide range of experience while practising an unusual number of specialisations: real estate, aircraft finance, acquisitions, refinancing debt, securitisation and capital markets. This has given me a holistic view of financial law.
ABOVE L: RIGHT BEFORE KATE WENT TO BOARDING SCHOOL. ABOVE R: KATE AS A YOUNG LAWYER WITH HER FATHER, BRIAN KEVIN WORKER GIBBONS. “IF MY GRANDMOTHER HAD HAD HER WAY, MY FATHER’S CHRISTIAN NAME WOULD HAVE BEEN ‘LABOUR,'” KATE SAYS. “SHE WAS QUITE SOMETHING. THANKS TO HER THOUGH, MY FATHER WAS A TOTAL FEMINIST. “
FF – How did you cope with the transition?
KG – I enjoy what I do now immensely but at the beginning it was extremely difficult for me to stop and see myself from this new perspective. I had to transition from being an equity partner into a non-billable partner. There are advantages and disadvantages to every situation though and not being an equity partner has given me my freedom, which I cherish.
FF – The key to running your work life and home life smoothly?
KG – I am very organised — I love a good chart. But I also have to give thanks to my husband, Michael, who is the bedrock of everything and our wonderful nanny Victoria, whom we have been extremely lucky to have for the last eight years.
ABOVE: “I WORRY ALL NIGHT ABOUT THE FAMILY AND THANK MY LUCKY STARS WHEN THE DAWN APPEARS AND DISPELS THE FEARS,” KATE SAYS. “I FIND MANY THINGS VERY FUNNY.”
FF – Any Wardrobe Wisdom?
KG – When I went on sabbatical travels and was limited to eighteen kilos of luggage I was torn between books and shoes and only resolved the conflict by purchasing a Kindle. I believed several pairs of stilettos to be an essential part of the trekking toolkit for cocktails in the jungle. In my training period I mentored a summer student who told me I only looked like a proper lawyer when I wore 4 inch heels. This is a lesson that my 5 foot 4 inch (and shrinking) self has never forgotten. My (my husband’s and my daughter’s) favourites are various Jimmy Choos which my husband has bought for me over the years and the 7 inch pair of rope weave wedges I purchased from Topshop several Summers ago. When I wear them there are few I cannot look (nearly) in the eye.
FF – What’s in your Prescient Pantry?
KG – In our family, we all have different tastes. For a meal taken together chicken and leek pie with curly bits (pastry rolls) is the only thing I can think of which works for everyone. That and the world’s most expensive beef slavered in peppercorns and roasted for an hour — served pink in the middle for them and cooked well at the ends for me. Indispensable pantry items for everyone except my daughter — spices, all sorts, and lemon grass. Personally I can never have enough garlic or coriander. Even a whiff of the latter makes the rest of the family go out for dinner immediately — something to do with the smell.
ABOVE: EXAMPLES OF THE THOUGHT LEADERSHIP INITIATIVE TOPICS THAT ARE HIGHLIGHTED TO THE SOLICITORS AND CLIENTS OF CLIFFORD CHANCE. CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: “NAVIGATING DANGEROUS WATERS”, “BRICS AND MORTAR”, “BREXIT: WHAT IF THE UK GOES IT ALONE?”, AND “DAWN RAIDS: DON’T BOTTLE IT”.
FF – How do you stay strong and well in body and mind?
KG – I get up at 5.45 each morning and after unloading the dishwasher, I do 30 minutes of Pilates-based stretching exercises. Otherwise my back goes into spasm because like practically every other lawyer, I know I have back trouble from sitting down and reading all my working life. I like to walk Olly for at least two hours at a time whilst listening to podcasts of In Our Time or talking with a friend. I go on piano courses and typically have several pieces on the go in an effort to prepare the perfect performance. I have never played a piece perfectly and the humiliation is good for the soul. My children are all much better musicians than me – something which makes me very proud and makes up for the misery of years of nagging them to practice. I sing in two choirs and belong to two book clubs for the buzz and the laughter. With my first child at university, the second one going imminently and a busy fifteen year old, it’s getting more and more difficult to carve out family time when we can all be together. We solve this by going on family ski holidays. On these trips, the Jimmy Choos stay home.
ABOVE: KATE AND OLLY PREPARE FOR ONE OF THEIR TWO HOUR WALKS.
FF – What else is dear to your heart?
KG – My charitable interests, which are all extensions of my life’s interests and passions; Index on Censorship, an international charity committed to the freedom of expression; Poet in the City, a charity dedicated to finding new audiences for poetry and Pro Corda, a chamber music charity which is committed to outreach work for disadvantaged children and where I do my piano courses. I only recently realised that the three charities I support arise directly from the influence of my parents. My Scottish father was very political and passionate about freedom of speech. My Irish mother was very cultured, loved classical music, had a beautiful voice and inherited her interest in poetry from her father, who owned a first edition of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland.
A Fabulous Fabster thank you to Kate Gibbons!