At Laurence Simons, we’re interested in what makes lawyers tick; what motivates them, pushes them, drives them to be the people they are today. In light of this, we sat down with Maaike de Bie, General Counsel to the Royal Mail Group, to find out about why not being afraid to speak up is important, the challenges of A.I, and the one time she met Rutger Hauer in a first class lounge…
Tell me about the moment you decided to be a lawyer?
It was the year after I finished secondary school. I went to Montreal when I had just turned eighteen and worked in the hospitality sector in three different places. At that time, many of the people working with me were from the USSR working as maids or in the launderette. None of them were native English speakers but most of them were highly qualified – doctors and vets – however, they were working in menial jobs and not always treated well. This triggered my concern to have justice for people. As I have always been a people-oriented person, I was originally thinking about going to the Hotel School in the Hague or a similar establishment in Switzerland (hence the reason I went to Montreal to gain work experience) but after the experience in Montreal I wanted to pursue doing “the right thing.” It wasn’t an easy decision; I was the first person in my family to go to university. My father thought it was a complete waste of time and that I should learn a job using my hands instead! I have always wanted to help, particularly the underdog and the disadvantaged, so becoming a lawyer would allow me to do this.
What was your most challenging time as a lawyer and how did you overcome it?
I think this question should ask when I was most challenged as a person - and I will give two answers. First, I have always tried to balance in my career the wish to “make the world a better place” and aligning this with working in large organisations. Integrity is important to me and I have a strong moral compass guiding me, regardless of where I am working. In some organisations and in some roles this has been easier than in others. Secondly, in what capacity are you sitting in the room? We lawyers tend to forget that we are more than “just lawyers”; it is important not to just answer the question whether or not we can legally do something but, “Is it the right thing to do?” must be at the forefront of our minds. We bring a unique perspective and have a lot to offer. As we are trained for many years to always come up with the (right) answer, when working in-house we need to unlearn some of this and not be afraid to speak up – even if you don’t have all the answers.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?
There are many moments which make me proud. In my current role, I am pleased at the success we have in my team. I believe in empowering people and creating an environment in which others can thrive. Previously [at Royal Mail Group], the team’s employee engagement scores were low, people worked long hours and felt that the legal team was not strategic. Now we have a clear vision and strategy, we are empowered, work more collaboratively, come up with lots of new ideas and are doing things differently – leading to improvements at so many levels: engagement scores are up, people feel they have more balance in life, productivity is up, legal spend is down, innovation is up, we are more engaged with the business. This is also reflected by feedback from our business colleagues. [Note: Maaike won a Life Time Achievement Award in May this year. Her career, though, is far from over!]
What advice would you give to your younger self?
You are enough. You are allowed to be here. I grew up in the middle of the countryside and didn’t have a role model to look to. I worked really hard and think that perhaps I should be less hard on myself. There is always a part of me that is surprised to find myself where I am.
How do you deal with stress, whether personal or professional?
Keeping perspective is very important. I like to discuss things like stress and well-being and believe that it is important to create an environment where others can do this, too. Balance is key – whatever that means for you. We typically work long hours, and to counter-balance this, some people like to go to the gym, or read a good book. My preference is a long walk or a nice meal with friends or family. I do believe that by looking after yourself, you are better able to do your job. It matters that leaders are seen as doing this – as we are role models to the younger generation. Finally, it is okay to want balance and be happy: lawyers are allowed to be happy!
Are there tools or techniques that have made you more productive?
I come from a generation that when I started work there was no e-mail! Technology is both a blessing and a curse. I do believe that not having to sit at a desk and having mobile connectivity is great, but it should not take over your life. I take time away from emails, having made commitments to my team that I won’t email them in the evening or on the weekend unless it is urgent. In terms of techniques, I will answer with ‘coaching’. I have always been interested in people and am fascinated by how psychology works. For instance, I am a Master in NLP [Neuro-Linguistic Programming] and have done a number of executive coaching courses to learn techniques to help me be a better leader and to empower the team. It is important to continue to learn – it is cliché but true, the more I learn, the more I realise how little I know.
What is the biggest challenge facing lawyers in the next five years?
I immediately see two challenges, the first being the commoditisation of law. This is not necessarily bad. A.I. can take over a set of tasks in a particular set of circumstances, however judgement comes with experience and if A.I. does the work where one previously gained experience the challenge is what route will lawyers be able to take to get that experience? The second challenge is that the world is more complex; more regulated; more “on” than it has ever been. There is an expectation for lawyers to have all the answers and to prevent mistakes and any wrong-doing. Help and support to keep all those balls in the air is required.
What is one growth area/rising trend in the legal profession and why?
I think that is in the area of risk, as being able to identify risk is increasingly important. Lawyers are good at issue spotting and thus we can play a strong role in risk management and governance.
Best location you’ve ever worked?
When I was a student I worked in KLM’s first class lounge at Schipol airport – I think it may even have been called the Royal Lounge. The guests were people flying all over the world and many were celebrities and royalty. It was quite surreal as a student to be in that environment, but it was fun. In the Netherlands we are fairly egalitarian. We believe people are just people and we would speak to a street sweeper and the president in the same way: they are normal people, like us. I had no idea who many of the people were, although at the time I was excited to meet Rutger Hauer, a Dutch actor who was in Blade Runner.