Sarah Gray, General Counsel, Emerging Markets, RSA
How long have you been working for your current company?
I joined RSA in January 2008.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I trained at the London office of US law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, qualifying in 2000. I spent 5 years as a Corporate lawyer before taking the decision to move in house. I moved to Rexam plc, a FTSE 100 leading global consumer packaging company in December 2005. I spent 2 years at their HQ working primarily on cross-border acquisitions and major commercial contracts and supporting the company’s growth ambitions. In January 2008, I joined RSA, a FTSE 100 leading general insurer, to head up the Affinity Legal team for the UK division. I was promoted in March 2009 to head the Commercial Lines Legal team, also taking on responsibility for M&A and Competition legal advice. In January 2012, I joined the Emerging Markets Executive team as General Counsel, leading the Legal, Risk & Compliance function of over 40 professionals across 21 countries in 3 regions (Latin American, Central Eastern Europe and Asia/ Middle East).
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Seeing someone I had coached and mentored be made up to partner.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
A challenge that I am sure many businesses face is the increased pressure to deliver more with less – both lower internal resource and reduced external spend. I’ve worked hard on this in a number of ways. Most importantly I’ve built a strong team around me, and ensured the best use of that team’s time and experience through involvement in all the major or strategically important deals, litigation, initiatives etc. I’ve also increased the focus on the business helping itself on BAU/ lower value work, making this possible by training and through the use of protocols. I’ve also reorganised our external panel to ensure they have the best skills to match the work we actually do, and used the review as an opportunity to negotiate preferential rates and value adds, and establish working practices that tightly manage and track all external spend.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
I am one of those people who enjoy the buzz of negotiating a deal or confronting a challenging business issue. I am happy working long hours and am lucky enough to have a very tolerant husband who doesn’t get upset by this! I make sure that I take time out for me and my husband to vacation and indulge our shared passion for travel, and look after myself by going to the gym twice a week.
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 have been lucky enough to have a number of partners/ external counsel who have provided support and guidance throughout my career. The support has ranged from acting as a sounding board with whom to talk through difficult legal/ people issues to coaching when I have been looking for a promotion or to change jobs.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I think corporate diversity initiatives will only be effective if they become part of the culture of a company. The tone needs to be set from the top – with a focus on recruitment and putting processes in place so that senior roles are not filled in the image of the incumbent; with the company fishing in larger or different pools of people.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
As a junior lawyer, I did, at times, feel disadvantaged being female. Corporate entertainment was largely carried out at sports events or, on occasion, at establishments that women weren’t welcome in – making it harder to build those important networks and connections. On the positive side, often being the only woman at a meeting, it can be easier to make an impact. People remember your name and your contribution – particularly if you can bring an insight that the rest of the meeting missed.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
I think the most significant changes for women (and men) over the past 5 years has been the improvements in technology. It makes a big difference being able to work efficiently remotely – whether at home or whilst travelling.