Sonia M. Barber, Partner, Patton Boggs LLP.
How long have you been working for your current company?
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I commenced my legal career in Australia working primarily in insurance litigation. My family and I moved to Qatar in late 2001 and by early 2002 I was working with a highly regarded Arab law firm. At that time no international firms had an established presence in Qatar, although several international players had relationships with the key Arab law offices. Patton Boggs was one of the first international law offices to be licensed by the Qatar Ministry of Justice. With their excellent reputation I decided to accept their offer to join the firm. I made Of-Counsel a couple of years later and have since made equity partner.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Building a successful practice in Qatar which crosses many borders, servicing clients in Qatar and abroad. When I started in the practice of law I did not envisage that my professional career would take me to the Middle East and the United States, but once that course was set I was determined to make it a success. Qatar has over that time rapidly grown and changed, and to be able to keep pace with that change and develop my career in time with those changes, has been a source of professional satisfaction.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
The legal market in Qatar has become ever increasingly competitive. Working within that environment, maintaining standards and continuing to deliver quality legal services can be challenging. To overcome this quite simply requires a commitment to working hard, retaining quality professionals and attracting quality professionals to support our practice.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
I believe I have been fortunate with the law firms I have worked with over my professional career. From my time practicing in Australia prior to the Middle East to working with both firms in Qatar, I have been able to attain a significant amount of flexibility, which has allowed me to give proper attention to both my work and my family commitments.
I believe that the firms that I have worked for developed trust in my commitment to my work, and therefore allowed me to have the flexibility I required personally. While I can’t say that I have never experienced difficulties achieving a satisfactory work-life balance, building trust through performance has no doubt been important to attaining some level of satisfaction in this regard over the years. That and of course, outstanding support at home.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
I worked for barristers practicing at the NSW bar in Australia while I studied law. A number of the barristers that I worked for inspired me professionally and in my studies at the time. While one barrister in particular gave me significant guidance, it was the collective that inspired me to work hard and gave me an interest in dispute resolution.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I believe the effectiveness of corporate diversity initiatives are dependant upon the way in which an organisation implements the initiative and the motivation for implementing such an initiative. If the goal of such a program is to simply increase percentages of certain minorities and force integration within an existing corporate structure, then I don’t believe the best interest of the minority group or the corporation can be well served. Ideally, I think such initiatives require a greater depth of thinking in order to maximise the potential that diversifying a workforce can bring. I would expect in most cases some changes to the existing corporate structure would be required to properly integrate minority groups and to ensure that the special value such groups can bring is achieved.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
When I first sought work in Qatar I was informed that finding work as a professional female would be difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps due to the timing of my arrival in Qatar, I was fortunate to be offered a job quite quickly. The reality of that time was that there was a significant amount of work and much to be said for hiring someone already in the country, even if it meant hiring a female professional. That fact aside, once hired I was treated fairly by the firm I worked with, and I certainly do not believe that my gender has in any way subsequently advantaged or disadvantaged my career progression.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
In the jurisdiction in which I principally operate there has been a significant increase in the number of women lawyers. This sounds relatively unimportant but when I commenced work in Qatar there were possibly only one or two other foreign female lawyers. Looking around at how significantly these numbers have grown in both private practice and in-house roles is impressive.
Internationally, I would welcome seeing more women in key strategic positions within law firm management structures, because I do believe we bring a unique perspective and insight.