The HR leader: Shiree Murdoch, CMS (previously Nabarro)

Shiree Murdoch has been on a journey. It is one that helped modernise Nabarro, the law firm she joined as HR Director in 2012. It took her to the role of COO at the firm, which was a much broader position, taking in a firm-wide programme of change and focused on technology as a powerful enabler. And it now stands her in good stead as she embarks on the next stage of her career within the post-merged firm of CMS, Nabarro and Olswang.

It is perhaps her work on flexibility and wellbeing that has particularly propelled her career in law so far. ‘When I first arrived [at Nabarro], people were still facing the challenge of allowing maternity returners to work part-time,’ she says. By 2017 all fee earners were allowed to work one day a week from home, and serious investment had gone into remote working technology, as well as ‘lunch and learn’ sessions on a wide range of topics from nutrition and sleep to caring for elderly parents. 'I have done a lot of work to move the wellbeing agenda forwards,’ she says. Being experimental, creative and engaging senior people in new ideas have all been an important part of her approach to HR.

Murdoch says that the change had a dramatic cultural impact on the firm. It achieved external recognition too – her work helped Nabarro win a ‘Best Health and Wellbeing’ award at the HR in Law Awards 2016. And while she doesn’t accept all the credit, she is clearly proud of her ability to bring leaders together to implement new initiatives.

She thinks that success stems from her broad industry background. Nabarro was, in fact, her first foray into law after years spent at big brand firms including ten years at Mobil Oil, and six each at UBS and E&Y, prior to joining Nabarro. ‘Ten years of my career include seven that were in retail sales, not HR,’ she says. ‘So I came to HR with a strong understanding of the commercial aspects of running a business.’ As the first woman working in her particular division of Mobil Oil in New Zealand before coming to the UK, she also felt she learnt important lessons early on – how to stand up for herself, be brave and think on her feet. ‘I developed a lot of relationship building skills early in my career. So by the time I came to HR in law, I knew how to work with all sorts of people to successfully develop business, and I could bring to bear wider expertise than many of those who have only been in the law.’

So convinced is she of the merits of a broader background that she says she gets frustrated when she hears of firms that only want candidates with law firm experience. ‘When I seek to recruit, that is not a requirement. I prefer non-law candidates,’ she says.

Not that her own decision to enter law was particularly straightforward. With a CV littered with big brands, she was resolute that she wouldn’t join law or a firm she’d never heard of. Nabarro didn’t score high on either point. But she changed her mind for three reasons:

1. The partnership structure appealed – ‘I liked the idea of looking the owner in the eye and knowing how investment or cost reduction would impact those I’m working for.’

2. Law is a profession that needs to modernise – ‘I’ve seen a lot of change in the five years I’ve been here and I knew that as a middle market firm, we would need to consolidate,’ she says. ‘Little did I know this would mean a three-way merger.’

3. Wanting to make a difference – ‘As I would be following someone into the role who had been there for ten years, I thought this would be a good chance to do that.’

Given Murdoch’s initial reservations about law, the recruitment process was incredibly short – just two weeks from start to finish. She describes the first interview as very structured, technical and competency based. It was enough, she says, to get her interested but she also wanted the firm to sell itself more – ‘this was, after all, a firm I’d never heard of,’ she says.

Nabarro did just that. The second meeting was a panel with the Senior Partner chairing and a mixture of executive members, those who she would be working with as a member of the Partnership Board. ‘It was just like a meeting, it felt effortless and I liked what they had to say,’ she says. Out of the blue, the firm offered her the job the next day.

On arrival, she found the people far warmer and friendlier than she had anticipated – ‘I thought law firms were old fashioned, which is probably why I avoided it, but it wasn’t like that at all,’ she says. She also discovered quickly that you have to be on top of your intellectual game. ‘This was probably a point of my career when I could have cruised, but you have to be at your best every day, when you are in law,’ she says.

As of May 2017, the three-way merger of Nabarro, CMS and Olswang has completed, resulting in one of the largest global law firms. For Murdoch this will surely be further opportunity for both career challenge and change. No doubt, she will once more relish the chance to make a difference in a profession that has proved to Murdoch that it is anything but stuffy.

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