Sandie Okoro: Letting Down Ladders

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Sandie Okoro has rare insight into the legal profession as she trained as both a barrister and a solicitor and is currently General Counsel at Baring Asset Management Limited, a global asset management company based in London which is part of the MassMutual Financial Group. “I qualified as a barrister  first and decided it wasn’t quite for me. I decided to work for an accountancy firm and then joined a small private client firm in Mayfair where I re-trained as solicitor. During the city boom in the 90s, in-house roles became a burgeoning profession but it wasn’t something everyone did in the 90s. I’ve always liked the idea of being in the city and in an exciting, fast-paced environment.”

Sandie manages a team of lawyers that are based in London, Boston and Hong Kong and she is responsible for the management of Barings’ legal risk across the globe. “We are a fund manager, we are not part of a bank and in that sense, my team and I  are involved in anticipating, mitigating and managing all different types of legal risk facing the firm,” Sandie says. “There wasn’t a General Counsel role before I joined Barings. I was the first General Counsel and my role brings together the global legal team.  One of the main challenges you face as a General Counsel is that you only have one client and you move in with that client! That’s a real challenge as you always have to maintain your perspective. However on the flip side, you get to know an industry very well and all the other key players in that industry. You also gain a heightened ability to think commercially and get to grips with all aspects of the law.”  One of the  most enjoyable part of Sandie’s job is managing relationships with external counsel. “I really enjoy managing the relationships with our law firms. When you work with a number of law firms you get to see their different capabilities in many ways.”

Sandie has noticed a considerable change in the ways companies deal with business and the associated legal and regulatory risks since she first joined the in-house world in the 1990s. “Companies are more aware of legal and regulatory risks and the need to get the right outcomes for clients; they want to manage their legal budgets better and have a more focused approach to risk management. As these are regulated industries, we need in-house, external expertise as well as market experience. The growth of complexity of business is on a global scale and you need ready access to first class legal advice across the globe and  as such  advice needs to work and make sense for the business.”

Changing attitudes towards diversity

Overall, Sandie believes the attitude of law firms towards diversity deserves commendation. “Law firms should give themselves a little pat on the back. They have made tremendous progress in the last 10 years. You feel the momentum going forward for change rather than attitudes stagnating. I’ve been involved in Legal Launch Pad which is a programme primarily targeted at ethnic minority Law students and is run by the Black Lawyers’ Directory. I’ve seen the challenges these students have to face. They don’t give up and space has opened up for them at the top firms. I’m also seeing changes as law firms want to open up to more diverse candidates. They may not be going about it fast enough but it is in the right direction. In this day and age, you can’t afford  not reflect your client base and lack of diversity does not  go unnoticed by your clients.”

Despite her busy schedule, Sandie mentors young aspiring lawyers by providing bespoke one-to-one mentoring. She co-founded, with a Barings’ colleague, the very successful See The Possibilities mentoring programme aimed at young students at further education colleges in and around the London area. “We have been running the scheme for four years and it’s aimed at young students from further education colleges who are doing business studies courses. We tell them about Barings, about asset management and give some of them the opportunity to do a week’s work placement with  us.” Sandie ensures she dedicates time towards one to one mentoring lunches too. “It’s really important to make the time and I want to make sure that future lawyers and politicans are people I trust! It is important for both man and womankind.”

Letting down ladders

Sandie is also involved in The Law Society’s Access to Diversity scheme, one of the many strings to her bow. “I had to give a speech at an awards ceremony and a young lady came up to me. She is from the gypsy community and had completed her law degree and the firm she did voluntary work with offered her a training contract. I lent her the money to do her law society finals and she is paying me back every month without interest. She helps people in her gypsy community with their legal problems. I am fortunate enough to be able to lend her the money that will make a huge difference in her life as she can now take up her training contract and become the first female solicitor in her gypsy community.”

Sandie is a strong believer in people at the top helping others to rise through the ranks. “Every person who is in a position of success should make sure they are letting down the ladders for the people behind them,” she says emphatically.

 

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