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26 Aug 2022

Life During Law: Sara Maccallum

Senior Partner, Sara Maccallum reflects on her career to date with Mark McAteer in the Legal Business Life During Law interview series.

Boodle Hatfield is 300 years old this year. Weʼve had a number of events celebrating this milestone, all leading up to a big party for everyone at the firm, which weʼre all looking forward to!

The legacy of the firm is as a trusted adviser to private clients, starting out as a sort of in-house steward to the Grosvenor family, and we want to build on the success of the past 300 years as we are merely the custodians of the Boodle Hatfield name. It may be a cliché, but the firm really is a family of people that are working together, and I hope that we can maintain that and build on it, even in this different working environment that we now find ourselves in.

Iʼm from Sheffield and yes, I do exhibit some stereotypical Yorkshire traits. My accent is still there, although it does come out more when Iʼm talking to my family. Iʼm quite direct – not in a Geoffrey Boycott way – but I think thatʼs the trait most people can recognise in me – I hope in a good way! I can be quite stubborn. Iʼm also loyal, and to be honest that has stood me in good stead throughout my career.

I went to university to read law in Manchester, and I had to really sell that to my dad. I was the first person in my family that even thought about going to university. That in itself was quite a dramatic change and so going to Manchester for my parents felt like I was going far away – to a city with arch-rival sports teams!

It could have been worse – I could have gone to Leeds. Still Yorkshire, but very different. That would have been quite wrong from a football team perspective. But they were proud to say that they had a daughter going to university and they got over the fact that it was in Manchester and that if I went to the football, it would be at Man City or Man United, not Sheffield Wednesday!

I didnʼt set out to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a teacher. In the sixth form we were encouraged to do work experience and my mum saw an ad from Sheffield City Council offering two-week placements in its legal department. Itʼs very different to what Iʼve ended up doing – housing policy and public law couldnʼt be more different to private wealth – but they were passionate about what they did and they were really welcoming. Up until then I thought Iʼd probably end up doing history and then become a teacher, but that placement is how I fell into the law.

I did my training contract at Alsop Wilkinson, which is now DLA Piper. I got into tax because while I was doing my corporate seat, which was very much the powerhouse of the firm, I was fortunate to sit with a fierce corporate partner called Will Holt and learned a great deal from him. He mentioned the firm had a tax specialist in London but not in Manchester, and he was keen to develop that, so suggested to me that that would be something that he would like me to do!

Looking back it seems a bit mad to be honest, starting as the tax specialist as a qualifying trainee. They sent me to the London office to train with a fantastic tax partner down there, Hazel Ryan, and she was very generous with her time.

One task they set me as a trainee sticks out in the memory. In my first six months, when I was in litigation, the team had been engaged by a client in dispute with an office supply business in Manchester. They sent me to see whether I could interview and get taken on as a temp essentially – not to do any temping but to have an interview to see how it went. It was an acting job rather than a legal job, and Iʼm a really bad actor. Nothing could prepare me for that, to look at this business and try and blag my way through half an hour of interview – you canʼt learn that from a text book. It wasnʼt my finest hour – I couldnʼt rely on any of the skills I had learned.

In the end, I got my taste of teaching in a roundabout way. In 1993, I was asked to join the then College of Law. I lectured there for a while; first in Chester and then the Store Street branch. I loved it. It was fantastic and the lecturing experience has stood me in really good stead over the years in terms of learning how to present and explain tricky concepts to clients.

I knew I wanted to get back into practice and I was doing some lectures with a barrister, Chris Whitehouse, who was working at Boodle Hatfield at the time. He said his firm was looking for somebody to come in and help them develop a corporate tax specialism for their clients. I took that opportunity because it came my way rather than thinking it was some great master plan.

One of my most memorable deals was one of my first at Boodle Hatfield. We were acting for an American client taking over a UK business and the US lawyers on our side were particularly difficult, basically controlling the deal but knowing nothing about English tax. They wanted everything re-written in American legalese, which didnʼt necessarily translate well. Dealing with the other side on transactions will always have its moments but when the people you are working alongside are being very contentious on every point, it becomes a battle. But once the deal was done, I felt that having been through that, I could do anything. It gave me the confidence to kick on.

At a Christmas party one year, three partners stood up and sang a spoof song about the political climate at the time. Not only did they have good voices, it was also incredibly endearing and weird, and I thought to myself: ʻYou know what, this is a great firm. I like the culture, I like the spirit of it. I like the fact that these people have stood up to slightly make fools of themselves. Theyʼre very good lawyers but theyʼre willing to do that for the amusement of all the staff at the Christmas party.ʼ I knew then that this was the place for me.

My leadership style? Itʼs best to ask someone on my team but I try hard to get to decisions by consensus. Thatʼs often the best way but again Iʼm also direct – when youʼre in my position, if a decision needs to be made then you need to make it. You canʼt prevaricate, youʼve got to make the decision and then you move forward from there.

My advice now to myself 20 years ago would be: ʻBe yourselfʼ. People might come from very different backgrounds and there are occasions where perhaps itʼs tempting to try and be somebody that youʼre not, but Iʼve found Iʼve always been the most successful if I am myself. Itʼs always been about authenticity at the end of the day.

As Iʼve got older and more experienced, itʼs a lot easier to be authentic because you have the confidence that comes from having achieved some things.

Iʼve been really lucky: I havenʼt experienced the sexual discrimination or misconduct that many women have in this industry. At Alsop Wilkinson there was a macho corporate environment but nothing untoward took place; the College of Law was a very supportive environment and is very diverse; while at Boodle Hatfield, from the very beginning there have been a number of supportive female senior women, such as Kate Howe and Sue Laing. They are role models: both with incredibly high standards but also incredibly encouraging.

I am happy with my work/life balance now. Work has always been enormously important to me but there was a period in my life I think where it was impinging too much on everything else. There was one never-to-be-forgotten moment at Disney. We were in a queue for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and I was checking my email. My son, who had never had a meltdown before, suddenly had an enormous meltdown because Iʼd been working ever since we got on the plane. It made me think: ʻActually, you know you need to rebalance a little bit here.ʼ Since then, Iʼve been keeping an eye on things much more. You need to make sure things are ticking over but you also need to trust your people to get on with things and give yourself some space and some time for the family and for you. I learned a lesson there. Itʼs not invisible to your family when youʼre constantly busy with work.

Gardening is my big passion. Iʼm lucky, I live in the countryside and we have quite a big garden. I find it very relaxing. You can do two hours of weeding and suddenly I’ll come to myself and Iʼm not sure Iʼve thought about anything specific during that time. Isnʼt that refreshing? In five yearsʼ time I see myself in my garden, building some raised beds, finally growing vegetables.

One slightly different hobby: I collect girlsʼ school stories that take place between the wars, so Elsie J Oxenham and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. My favourite book – from so many books – is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens as we read it every year. Iʼve just seen Aaron Sorkinʼs To Kill a Mockingbird and the staging was absolutely fantastic so thatʼs very much in my head right now.

Life mantras? My children would say itʼs ʻdo your bestʼ and ʻdonʼt be complacentʼ, as I say those a lot. But in terms of career wisdom, I would say donʼt be afraid to take the opportunities that pop up. Looking at my career, opportunities presented themselves and I thought: ʻIʼll give this a goʼ and Iʼve been very lucky. Iʼve never regretted it. I didnʼt expect to do tax necessarily; I didnʼt expect to go to the College of Law necessarily; and I didnʼt expect to end up doing corporate tax within a private wealth firm. Donʼt be afraid to take those things on, even if they seem a bit left field. If youʼre attracted to them, give it a go and you pretty much will be successful.

This interview was carried out my Mark McAteer at Legal Business and was published on 26 August 2022.