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Talking Head with Barbara Levi, Group General Counsel at Rio Tinto

08 Sep 15:00 by Angela Boffy

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Clare Beresford (CB):  Good morning Barbara, thank you for taking the time to chat to me today. Please can you tell me about the moment you decided to be a lawyer?

Barbara Levi (BL): I would like to tell you I have always wanted to become a lawyer and when I started school at the age of six, my career was perfectly lined up, though the reality is very different. I had no clue on what to do and decided for law school since I thought this was the faculty that gives the broadest options later.  I loved law school, it has been the first time I really loved studying and loved the topics.

I decided to study to become a notary. In Italy, differently from many other countries, it is one of the most prestigious professions, and one of the most difficult state exams to pass. I was so eager to get there that the day after I graduated from law school, I started practicing in a notary firm, (carefully selected, in my mind this was the place where I would have spent the rest of my life), but after a year, surprise, surprise, I did not like it at all. I left and, searching for something different, I moved to New York where I started working in a law firm as a trainee. After working there for six months I was certain that I wanted to be a lawyer and I have truly enjoyed my career ever since!

CB: When were you most challenged as a lawyer and how did you overcome it?

BL: I had many challenging moments in my career, but the moments that really kept me (and still do) up at night are matters that relate to people, when you need to have difficult conversions with colleagues or members of your team. I believe the key is transparency and empathy, trying to understand how the person feels and showing empathy is very important.  I always say to my children, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, how would you feel’’?  It does not change the message, but it alters how you say it and with no doubt the receiver will feel that it comes from your heart.

CB: Looking back on your career – not that it is over by any means - what are you most proud of?

BL: I am extremely proud of what I have achieved.  When I moved to the US, I did not speak a word of English, I had never previously been to the US and I still remember the moment I landed at JFK. I looked around, with everyone talking a foreign language, walking fast, moving fast, and I thought ‘Oh my gosh! Did you really think about it before jumping on that plane?’’

With insights, it has been one of the best decisions of my life and I am very proud that I had the courage to get out of my comfort zone. Even now, when I face a difficult situation, I think back and say to myself, “C’mon, you have made it there, this is a piece of cake compared to that”! As Frank Sinatra said, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!”

CB: What advice would you give to your younger self?

BL: One of my favourite sayings is “The best way to predict your future, is to create it”. I would tell my younger self to go, fly, imagine, you can do what you want, follow your passion, do not limit yourself. 

CB: How do you deal with stress whether personal or professional?

BL: It is always important to put everything into perspective, look at the big picture, is this so big, are you overreacting? I try to take a pragmatic approach and think about solutions.  Something that I find extremely helpful (especially for long periods of stress) is running. I try to run every day and when I am stressed it is the only thing that can really relax me and move my mindset to solutions instead of problems.

CB: Are there tools or techniques that have made you more productive?

BL: Yes, a few things:

  • Physical activity – as mentioned, I try to go running almost every morning. I work a lot with Australia, so generally I wake up very early, do my calls, take the children to school and go for a run.
  • Focus on one thing at time. I have spent my life multi-tasking and showing off how good I am at multi-tasking and I now realise that it is such as a waste of time, you end up in doing many things, without adding value to any. I prefer to allocate a specific time to a specific issue, work on it and move on to the next one. Of course, this is not always possible, but at least for the big topics, I try to block the time so that I can devote full attention.   
  • Keep blocks in my calendar reserved purely for strategic thinking.

Although not a tool or technique, my children have made me more productive. I enjoy spending time with them and in the years, this has proven to be the best source of productivity. The more productive I am, the more time I can spend with them.

CB: What is the biggest challenge facing lawyers in the next 5 years?

BL: The biggest challenge for lawyers in the next 5 years (and it has been already for a while but it will continue to grow), is the blurred line between legal and ethical behaviour and the expectations of society. We talk a lot about ESG, but I think this will be the focus for the next few years. The expectations of society are changing much faster than the laws and as a function you have an obligation to think above and beyond what is strictly legal. The reputation of a company is the most important asset; if a company has a strong reputation it can hire the best people, find huge opportunities to do business and at the end, investors get their returns. I still see many lawyers who take a very legalistic approach but in today’s world, lawyers need to strategically think continually above and beyond the law.

CB: What is one growth area/rising trend in the legal profession and why?

BL: I would say technology. For years I have been hearing about the transformation of the legal function through technology but in my opinion, as a practical matter, there has been almost nothing transformational. Many companies are still struggling on filing (and retrieving!) agreements electronically!

CB: Diversity and inclusion are both topics which I know you care about enormously – how can we ensure that change happens both in the legal profession and more widely?

BL: We made some progress in the past few years, but we are far from where we should be.  One of the reasons I was determined to become Group General Counsel is that the more senior you are, the more impact you can have, within the organisation and above and beyond that.  In my role I have the responsibility to foster diversity and inclusion within my function and company, but I can also move the needle externally, for instance on how we select service providers, including law firms. We can have a huge impact and we cannot afford to be complacent.

CB: And finally, best location you have ever worked?

BL: The terrace in front of the sea when I work from home in Italy.

CB: Barbara, thank you very much for your time today, it has been great talking to you.