Vicki Sharp Partner Thomson Geer  / 
Life and Law

story / Interview / May 30, 2016

I traveled a different journey to most lawyers.   I come from New Zealand. I left school at fifteen because I didn’t like school and I didn’t want to study any more.  I wanted to travel and I thought  that if I did a secretarial course, I would be able to get a job anywhere.   No-one in my family had a tertiary education and no-one  tried to convince me to stay at school.

My first job was in a law office in Auckland where I made the tea, typed documents on an electric typewriter and sent telexes (the forerunner of faxes!).   In my late teens I traveled to Perth and worked as a secretary for a large law firm who subsequently transferred me to their London office for a few months.  When I came back, I told them that I didn’t want to be a secretary any more so they created a position for me and trained me as a conveyancing clerk.

After a few years, they gave me an opportunity to study law through the Law Institute of WA. There was a shortage of lawyers in Perth at the time.  After observing the lawyers that I worked with I felt that I had it in me so I said ‘Why not?’   It was five years of working full time and studying part time. I didn’t actually qualify as a lawyer until I was in my early thirties.

I fell into it the law, but once I started my studies, I knew that was where I wanted to be. A lot of kids do law because they can, because they get the grades, rather than having a passion for it.   My boss was a property lawyer when I was working as a secretary so I had a lot of background in that area. Once I was qualified, moving into a different area didn’t make sense.

As it is, I absolutely love working in property, because it’s tangible. It’s one of the few areas of law where you can actually drive around the city (or the country) and say ‘I helped with the development of  that building.’  You can see what you are assisting to create.  Also, I love the people in property – generally they are pretty down to earth.

I have worked really hard to get to where I am and I think I have a good work ethic.  I don’t see it all the time in younger people.  Hard work is really important together with the acknowledgement  that no-one moves forward by sitting back and waiting for things to happen. There seems to be a sense of entitlement with some of the younger people. You know, the ‘I’ve worked hard for my law degree, so why should I do that menial photocopying task?’   I do, and always have done, whatever is necessary to get the job done and if that means rolling up my sleeves at the photocopier at 11pm then that’s where you will find me.

Be yourself.  I know it impresses some people but it really doesn’t impress a lot of us that some people just try too hard.   We had one seasonal clerk who was buying us chocolate and plying us with compliments.   My advice to him was just be yourself and do your work!  I always have the conversation with new people in my team about  my expectations.   Lawyers get paid well and we are service providers, therefore I expect people to work, on average, a ten hour day. If they have to work more than that, they are either  inefficient with their time or they have too much work and need assistance.

Believing in yourself.  I think that is really important and is something that I learned along the way. I think as women, in particular, we can be full of self doubt.   I have a friend who is a coach and recruiter.   He says it’s quite common for successful women to have ‘Imposter Syndrome,’ you know, you are in a senior position and you keep thinking that one day, someone is going to find you out and work out that you shouldn’t really be there.

Women need to sell themselves.   I don’t think it comes naturally to most of us.  I have seen so many times in my career men who are not as good as their female counterparts, being promoted because they are very vocal about their achievements and good at promoting themselves.   Generally, I find, that we just don’t talk about our achievements, which can  be to our detriment.   For female graduates, I think that’s an important lesson to learn.

Find a mentor. As well as having a mentor within your organisation, it’s great to have an external mentor because they can give a completely different perspective. I’ve had some good mentors along the way -interestingly, no females.   When I was   going through the motions of being promoted from Senior Associate to Partner, I had a male friend and fellow partner who mentored me and he kept me on track and accountable.  The PCA Mentor Program is a fantastic way to get involved in mentoring relationships within the property industry.

Throughout most of my career I’ve had an executive coach, who I see only once every couple of months.  She helps me to keep things in perspective by taking a step back from my life and looking at what’s working, what’s not and what needs to be fixed.   That has been invaluable for me.

Children .  I have three daughters – 15, 10 and 10.  With my eldest I took six months off work and my partner took six months off so we shared the responsibility.   I have always worked four days a week since having the girls and it works for me and my family.  When I had the twins that was really hard, because the firm that I was a partners at  was going through a tough period and there was a lot of competition between the partners.  I had to go back to work when my twins were only  four months old to protect my position. It was horrible and I didn’t stay long after that

One of the challenges we have as lawyers is the demands put on us by clients. Different clients have different demands. There are some who are really demanding and don’t acknowledge (or care) that you may have a life. They expect you to be on call all the time.   Most of my client’s I have a really good relationships with and they are very respectful of my flexible work practices, always knowing that if something is on and I have to be there, I will be.  Fortunately, I am in a position and at a stage in life where I can be more selective about the clients I act for.

I am a really practical lawyer.   If someone asks me a question, I’m not going to send them a sixteen page letter of advice unless they ask for it (which is rare).  I want to help them to find a solution and sometimes that’s not a legal solution, but advice on the  way forward based on my experience.  I try and keep it simple because the law can be quite complex and they just want to know ‘Can I or can’t I?’  I try and keep my clients involved and be available (within reason), when they need me.

Negotiation. When I go into a negotiation, I don’t want to be the ‘hard-nosed bitch.’ That rubs everyone up the wrong way. I can be tough when I need to be but generally I go into a negotiation making friends around the table and I find that it is much easier to get things done if you are all being reasonable, accommodating and practical!

In law, we’ve come a long way.  One of my good friends, when she had her first child twenty years ago, asked if she could come back part time and the answer was a flat ‘no’   And when I was a partner of a top tier law firm, working four days a week, I wanted to move from a salaried partner to an equity partner and again, for no good reason (other than that I worked part time), the answer was ‘no’. There are still some firms that just don’t get it.  When I moved from that firm to Hebert Geer, my current firm’s predecessor, it was like a breath of fresh air.  One of the things that was different was that most of the male partners had wives with careers, so they got it. They understood that I couldn’t always stay for the partner’s meeting because I had to pick up my child from childcare – unlike my previous firm, that was a valid reason to leave.

Too many people have blinkers on and they don’t like change. When I talk to people about working part time, they say ‘Oh no, that’s too hard!’ or ‘What happens if you’re not there?’ But you can make it work. I have a lot of people in my team who work flexibly. One woman works three days a week, a couple work four days a week and I have two secretaries that job share (not all because they have children).  I think that in leading by example, you can show people that it can work.

Emails are a trap. My phone is my alarm clock. It’s really hard to turn my alarm clock off in the morning and not be tempted to check my emails. – it is all about self-discipline.  I like to try and keep work and home separate.  I am lucky as I live close to the city so, if I have to work on the weekend (which I try to avoid and don’t do very often) I prefer to drive into work and work for a couple of hours and  then go home and be present with my family.

My mother always told me to treat others how I would like to be treated.  It’s all about respect.  That’s one thing that I’m very focused on.  If I saw one of our lawyers talking  down to a secretary, I would pull them up.   A secretary may not have a law degree, or match how much money the lawyer makes, but she is a very valuable part of the team. We are all people and no-one deserves to be treated badly It really offends me when people are rude and a bullying and I will not tolerate it – even if it is the client.   At the end of the day,  I am sure that the karma train will come get them !

 

 

Vicki was the first person we spoke to on the law side of the industry. A part of the industry that is so essential, but often far removed from our lives on site. Everything that Vicki has done, has been done with drive. Her decision to leave school, work and experience life. Her decision to go back to study. Her rise to Partner. Intensely practical and reasoned, it’s people like her, from their lofty positions, that are really reinforcing the cultural changes essential to making women in leadership a reality. Photographing Vicki in the city (our first night time shoot), we were reminded of how calm and no fuss she is. An inspiration to any aspiring young lawyers out there, or those thinking of going back to school to make the switch (it’s never too late). We thank Vicki for her part in GAZELLA and wish her all the best.

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