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Voice of Experience: Sarah Priestley, Partner, Shearman & Sterling, LLP

Sarah Priestley, Shearman & Sterling“Aim for the top,” says Sarah Priestley, a partner at Shearman & Sterling, LLP. “It’s vital to have goals along the way, but you should also have one big ambition.”

And that is exactly how Priestley’s career has evolved.

After studying classics at the University of Cambridge, Priestley quickly realized there was no clear career path associated with that, and she would have to find an alternate avenue for her ambition. Upon graduating from law school, she took a position at Allen & Overy, one of the “Magic Circle” law firms, and never looked back.

On her first day, a partner met with the trainees, and at that moment she had her big goal in mind: She decided she wanted to be a partner someday. After qualifying into tax, she soon joined a friend at another U.S. firm in London, becoming partner in 2002 and fulfilling her ambition to head up a tax practice. As the culture at the firm began to change, she decided to make a move with two other private equity partners, and after scrutinizing the market, determined that Shearman & Sterling was the best culture fit by far.

Priestley enjoys her experience heading Pan European deals and growing existing clients and finds the firm to be uniquely qualified to serve its clients because of its global viewpoint. “What happens in the States leaks into the UK, so as we see the trends crossing the pond, we can talk to our clients about what’s next.”

Women in the Industry

Although there continue to be strides in the industry, there still is a lack of female partners. “The barrier is that women leave, but I truly believe there is an answer to this: I refuse to leave my career thinking we’ve not solved this,” Priestley asserts.

She believes the lack of role models prompts women to check out too early. “Women say, ‘I can’t go through all it takes to succeed, when I might not make it,’ so they leave,” she says, advising women to instead take the mantra of “Lean In” to heart. “You shouldn’t hold yourself back because you’re worried it won’t work out in the future.”

A better focus on work balance can help. “It’s about having a life,” she says, adding that it should be easier, given today’s many paths for working remotely. She believes barriers will start to erode, and the goal, she says is “full-time agile work,” particularly since the more senior you become, the more control you have over your schedule.

And that’s why she advises women considering a legal career to go for it. “It’s a brilliant career: fascinating and interesting and you can still have a family.” Priestley herself has a daughter, age six, and a son, age nine.

Championing Diversity

In addition to making partner, Priestley counts as one of her other passions helping women succeed in law. To that end, she heads up the London and European Women affinity group for Shearman & Sterling and is also a member of the steering committee in the United States. She has found Shearman & Sterling to be very entrepreneurial in its support of the women’s group, which focuses largely on skills such as networking, personal branding and how each individual must take control of her career.

Priestley also heads up London’s Lean In initiative and enjoys forming “Circles” with clients. “It’s enlightening to participate in circles with people outside your firm who have different pressures,” she says. She also is an “Ally,” denoting a safe haven, as promoted by the LGBT program Purple Rain.

Priestley has also been active in the firm’s women’s inclusion network, WISER (Women’s Initiative for Success, Excellence and Retention), which works to support and advance the hiring, retention, development and promotion of women lawyers.

In April 2015 Priestley was named to the Women in Law Empowerment Forum’s (WILEF) advisory board. WILEF is the premier organization for women in law exclusively dedicated to the advancement of women from the largest law firms and corporate law departments. Priestley is one of the advisory board’s first members located outside of the United States.

A Continuing Focus on Women and Children Outside Of Work

In addition to prioritizing time with her kids, Priestley spends some of her out-of-office hours literally “spinning her wheels.” A spin fanatic, she loves that no one can get hold of her for a solid hour while she’s in class.

An avid volunteer, she participates in fundraising and pro bono work for a UK charity called Refuge that protects women and children from domestic violence. And she is a board member for Working Chance, an organization with the goal of helping female former offenders find steady employment as they leave prison. “It’s proven that the re-offense percentage plummets when they have a job to go to.”

1 Response

  1. Preeta Arora

    Well done Sarah. You are one of the hard working/focused person I have ever met. Certainly well deserved for all the praises.