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East meets west

18 September 06

Interview with solicitor Laura Gordon, appointed Director of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Collaboration Project

by Peter Nicholson

Regular Journal readers will recall features on how the lawyer’s skillset can transfer well into the business world. Few solicitors, however, can have shown such a rapport with the commercial sector as Laura Gordon.

Even so, eyebrows were raised in at least some non-legal quarters when the associate from Boyds LLP landed the job of Director of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Collaboration Project. Could she really make a success of leading a joint venture designed to enhance the two traditional rivals’ ability to compete on the international stage? A less cursory look at this energetic career-cum-family woman’s CV, and her extensive network of contacts, might dispel any surprise.

In fact Laura Gordon’s business interests stretch further back than her connections with the law. An arts degree was followed by five years combining a young family with running two “micro-businesses” (her description) – a domestic recruitment agency and a children’s clothing agency. “They really fitted in with my lifestyle then but I sold them to devote time to my degree when I eventually decided to go back to study law”.

Support when it mattered

Success often means seizing the moment, and Gordon’s ambitions were given a boost by Strathclyde University introducing its part time LLB. “The children were still very young at this point so I felt that the part time degree was a really great initiative from the point of view of somebody who’s got lots of other responsibilities. I’d always thought about doing law and when they brought out the degree I just took the opportunity.”

Her next break came when, a couple of years after joining corporate firm Boyds (and having just completed, with the firm’s support, her LLM in IT and telecoms law), her boss left and she was promoted to head the technology and media team. “I probably had a very good background by this point which enabled me to lead the team. It was a great opportunity, and Boyds were also very good at encouraging people to take up opportunities.”

Gordon readily acknowledges her firm’s role in her subsequent progress. “Through their support I was able to focus on my skills which are communication, networking and business development, and Boyds encouraged me to go ahead and become a director with the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. Then when I was invited on to the board of management they gave their wholehearted support both timewise and also financially when I took part in Chamber activities. That enabled me to develop a huge list of contacts – and bring a fair amount of business to the firm, so it was justifiable. It also meant I could extend my skills base, with speaking engagements and high profile networking which helped put me in a position to do a job like this.”

Would she describe herself as someone always looking for a new challenge? “Yes, I think so. I think as soon as you start to work in your comfort zone the danger signs for me would come up, it’s time to look for a different challenge. But that’s not to say that one particular job can’t bring lots of different challenges, and one of the great things about law is that each case is different and every client you meet, every issue that arises, does bring in new and sometimes very interesting challenges and opportunities.”

For now at least, Gordon is carving out a role for herself away from the law, to concentrate in her initial two-year appointment on delivering success for the sponsoring cities.

Everything to win

Supported by the respective local authorities and Scottish Enterprise offices, the project was born from research that identified the need for the two cities to collaborate in order to improve their international standing. Copenhagen and Malmö, and Milan and Turin already have similar ventures. Running for the past 18 months, only now has the venture reached the stage of appointing its own head. It is not, Gordon stresses, something that means other parts of the country lose out.

“It’s completely in every resident and business person in Scotland’s interest for this project to work, because its main aim is to enhance Scotland’s economy. If you look at Glasgow and Edinburgh as being the main economic hubs, having them work together is only going to benefit Scotland as a whole. We’ve got everything to win and really nothing to lose by doing this.”

Initial work has identified three main areas of focus – transport links between the cities and with other regions (“connectivity” is Gordon’s term); building collaboration within key sectors such as tourism, financial and business services (law included), the creative industries and life sciences; and developing partnerships in, and with, the higher education sector – key to innovation and attracting fresh talent. Gordon sees her role essentially as delivering results from ideas.

“I have to drive forward the aims and objectives, but I have a great deal of support in a working group and also the steering committee [senior representatives from the partner organisations] who can identify the strategy and work through it. What I can do is project-manage it and also make sure that we’re meeting and speaking to the right people, and dealing with any issues that come up. I think that’s one of my strengths, the fact that I have a lot of good contacts and really enjoy speaking to people.”

Healthy rivalry

Each aspect of her career to date, she believes, has helped equip her for the role. “It’s like building a wall, a career’s made up of lots of building blocks that all add up to help. I think my legal background will be of tremendous help in prioritising projects and actual project management; it gives you attention to detail, the organisational ability. Also through the Chamber of Commerce [she has now also been apppointed a director of the Edinburgh Chamber] I’ve become aware of a lot of the main issues facing Scotland and Glasgow and Edinburgh – and I’ve been active in the tourism, retail and leisure committee, one of the main sectors that we’re looking at, so all that has helped tremendously.”

So just how hard will it be for each partner to put aside tribal loyalties, especially when all sides recognise that the two cities will carry on being competitors in other fields?

“It’s a bit like preparing a business case for anything. If you can show people what the end result is, demonstrate that it’s going to be in their interests, then it’s not really hard to sell. Glasgow and Edinburgh themselves are both fantastic products, they’re both very different cities with different cultures, they each have so much to offer for Scotland and working together they could really do great things. So collaboration shouldn’t be too hard an idea to sell.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with healthy rivalry. There will be times when competition is good and nobody’s suggesting for one minute that we merge the cities and become best friends forever. But with both cities now being so cosmopolitan and having very diverse cultures and populations, I do feel the traditional rivalries are basically being overcome.”

Wider vision

Gordon refuses to look beyond the two years on which she is now embarking; asked if she can envisage a return to the law she only comments “Never say never!” But she acknowledges her debt to the profession. “I do enjoy the law and I feel that my years studying and then working as a corporate and specialising as an IT lawyer will stand me in good stead for anything in my career. I think it demonstrates that becoming a lawyer means you build up excellent transferable skills to move into other areas. I know you’ve done a couple of articles in the Journal about others moving on from the law and it’s absolutely true… That’s not to say that it’s right for everybody, but it is a great background, a great platform to move on from.”And she is keen to involve the profession in her new venture, through a forum to consider how the project could work for the legal community – perhaps helping to retain talent that might otherwise be tempted south. “Please contact me if you’re interested in getting involved!”

She concludes on the same theme, that solicitors should avoid too narrow a focus and keep a business-centred outlook: “It’s important that law firms do offer the level of support that I’ve been lucky enough to have, because sometimes the danger is just to offer skills and training that are specific to being a lawyer and carrying out that job, but actually to have employees who are well rounded, who have got a whole range of skills, soft skills as well as legal skills, is very important, and the most important thing for lawyers, and for anybody working in business, is communication. Success is all about relationship building as well.”