Partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya, Susan Breen talks career building, confidence and warrior women.
Fiercely protective in every sense of the word, we talk to Susan Breen about what it takes to thrive in a male-dominated industry and the women she wants to inspire.
In a sea of grey suits sits Susan Breen. Wearing a psychedelic orange blouse and statement pearls. Unashamedly herself to the core with a passion for lifting up the young women around her – her `band of warriors`- as she refers to them.
Fast forward a couple of decades and, with a wealth of experience in UK and international law firms, she’s a self-confessed ‘blunt force’, but there is also an undeniable warmth to her. This dedication to lifting up/opening doors for women around her, a heartfelt appreciation for her family and friends and an undeniable pride in her Irish heritage. She’s a joy to talk to and an example we should all learn to live by.
You’ve been at Mishcon for 17 years, tell us a little about that?
I don’t look that old do I? (laughs). Like so much in life, it was the right opportunity at the right time. I spent several years in UK and US firms building a very interesting portfolio of gaming and tech clients. There was definitely a sense that I could build something different at Mishcon – the possibility of creating a leading brand focused on an industry that was growing at a huge pace and was dynamic. I had been fortunate to work with some of the most innovative entrepreneurs in the sector (women and men), learned a lot in the process and felt I could bring some of that thinking to Mishcon and create something new.
So what inspired you to choose this career path?
I’d say that the lawyer has always been lurking in me, although I have my dad to thank really – he planted the seeds early on. I was toying with a career in politics. Some gentle shuffling on his part probably had a lot to do with directing me towards law as a career. Perhaps he saw, before I did, that politics would require too much diplomacy (laughs). I was never going to shy away from telling it as it is. That’s been a good philosophy in life- not just in the day job of serving my clients, but also when fighting for colleagues or just making sure the truth finds its voice. Sometimes this is tough and it doesn’t always make you popular.
It's been a great career choice for me. I love the challenge of complicated international deals but I also adore working with smaller businesses helping them grow – it becomes a real partnership between adviser and client.
Yes, and trust is so important for someone when they’re selling a business. Tell us more about that.
There is no doubt that this has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job – helping businesses to grow and protecting them when they sell – whether they’re large or small many of the issues business owners face are the same. My clients know that I’ll stand in front of them and protect them when things get difficult. Sometimes all that is needed is a supporting hand in the background keeping a watchful eye.
I’ve lived and breathed that philosophy (I hope) in my personal friendships and with my colleagues as well as with clients. I have a strong sense of wanting to help and protect and a huge interest personally in their success. When you spend so much time with a client on a big deal or an investment round you get to know the real person. Many long-standing business relationships are more than that now. They have developed into friendships – we’ve been through a lot together.
Is that what you’d say you love most about your job?
Yes! Of course, you have to be technically able and commercially astute no matter what business you're in. But as with any service provider, it’s the human element that can add a special feature to business relationships. If you give of yourself, it's likely to make a difference to others. I can't say this always works of course in real life, but it often does. What has been really fantastic has been the journey with my clients. At its heart, it’s looking after people and protecting them.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge or achievement in your career?
We are all on a constant path of change and learning. I'm not sure what my biggest achievement is – perhaps it is yet to come.
But one of the joys has been the opportunity to work with and help mentor young lawyers. – all genders but especially younger women. I’ve been privileged to have had many opportunities to do that over the years. You often see your younger self in them as they start their careers. They’re a really bright bunch of gritty women who are hungry to learn, to be successful and they care, but many of us suffer from insecurities from time to time. I really don’t know why we do that. Perhaps it's not natural to think that women can carry all the way to the top. And of course we can – in every sense of the word. I have grown up in a profession historically dominated by men. It has changed over the past 10 years – there are more women in the profession – but not in the higher echelons and not at the board table. It's not good enough, we need to do more.
I mentioned earlier the inspiring young women I met over my career. I called them my baby Amazonians – my band of warriors. They have developed into the most wonderful human beings and achieved great success. Many now work in senior executive positions in global companies. We remain firm friends after all these years. We still support and comfort each other when things get tough. They now teach me!
I often get asked what they can do to be better. My response has never varied. I’ve said to them “Don’t feel like you need to wear a great suit, we’re surrounded by grey suits so wear whatever you like, be who you are and be proud of being a woman.” They are most definitely a big part of the pride and joy of my career, it’s a real privilege to know them.
Don’t feel like you need to wear a great suit, we’re surrounded by grey suits so wear whatever you like, be who you are and be proud of being a woman.
Can you recall a challenge you’ve had because of the male-dominated environment that law is, and tell us how you solved it?
Well, I grew up in a family of men, one girl and four brothers, so I never saw myself as a woman in a room full of men – it was always normal to me. When I first came to London, it completely escaped me that I was surrounded by men. It was about 10 years later when I happened to pause for some reason in a meeting and noticed that there were no other women in the room except for myself. And everyone was in grey suits and I was wearing some psychedelic orange blouse with big pearls.
I realised that there was an unequal playing field and I’ve been so aware of it ever since. That’s why I’m so passionate about encouraging young female lawyers to develop their full potential, to be brave and confident and just free the spirit.
We love that story about you and the ‘warriors’. Were these all women that you hired?
Not all of them. Some were already in the firms I joined. But I would have had a natural affinity with them. Being heard and valued for your contribution is still a challenge for many women. I love that we are all optimistic and persistent. Perseverance certainly helps.
So how would you describe the team you’ve built and what do you think makes them successful?
When I joined Mishcon I had the germ of an idea, a sort of vision to build a particular type of gaming advisory team. Working with inspirational business owners across the globe had been a kind of catalyst. My instinct told me there was something worth pursuing in the idea and I couldn’t see any other firms with the same approach. I knew that the sector was ripe for transformation, and it would need advisers who could identify with the business need and the vision.
Transformation would provide huge opportunities but also big challenges. So, I needed to work with lawyers who understood the vision and the potential and then build something together. We were also learning as we went along so we had to be resilient.
There were plenty of gainsayers and it took several years to refine the model. Looking back over the past 17 years I think we've come a long way and built something really interesting with a great team. And we've wrapped that team into a dedicated Innovation group at Mishcon. I suspect my mind will naturally turn to the next idea or challenge now.
So how did you find and recruit those people?
I am sure we should have been much more sophisticated in our recruitment process but in the early days, it was really about instinct for me, having a conversation and understanding the DNA of the person in front of you. Really understanding what they wanted, and how open they were to the possibilities in front of them. For me, it was important that candidates got the message and the vision and were happy to step outside of their comfort zone and look at things differently when nobody else in the market was doing that.
When I work with a client I’m there 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. There's always the desire to protect them and die in a ditch for them.
What do you think made you excel in your field?
It’s a given that you need to be competent and understand the needs of the industry you service, of course. But most of all, I have a passion for helping people and fighting for somebody’s cause. I’d say it has been the personal dynamic between my clients and myself that has worked so well. When I work with a client, I’m there 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, there's always the desire to protect them and die in a ditch for them. And it's been such fun – most of the time! (laughs)
What is the one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
You have to know who you are and be true to yourself. So many want to conform to be something that is expected of them. But we are richer and better off for being diverse in every sense of the word. It's easy to be unnerved in your early years about how you should look, who you should be or how you should speak but I’ve never been constrained by any of that. And I am passionate about encouraging and guiding young lawyers, particularly female, to do the same. We all flourish when we are valued and appreciated. Being different is good.
With such a demanding career, how did you have a personal life? Did you have one?
(Laughs) Not really. For the first two decades, there was no work/life balance. I was committed, enthralled, energised and loved being in London. I came from Ireland as a young lawyer and I was just so excited to be here and to learn.
My friends were horrified and couldn’t understand why I kept going missing for 6 months at a time. But I've tried to rebalance in recent years. I think the pandemic may have helped some of us to reassess a lot from a mental and physical perspective to see what’s important and who is important. My husband is a great inspiration and leveller!
Part of the work/life balance for me now is trying to make sure my friendships and family don’t ever take a back seat again.
Tell us something about you that not many people know or would surprise people?
I am pretty much an open book, but when I was young I used to be a dab hand at Irish dancing and took this up again during the pandemic. Think Riverdance but this time around it was done really badly. It was a complete shift from sitting at a desk to getting some much needed physical exercise but it was also a great way to do something fun, let off steam and just use my brain in a different way. It was really uplifting. And in terms of the work we do with brain condition charities, we know that working the creative part of the brain is really important. I’ve been slow to learn this lesson. We only get one life and I think the pandemic has been a wake-up call for many of us to get that balance back.
Finally, what do you think makes you a real Hedoine?
My greatest pride must be in the wonderful band of women I’ve (hopefully) helped to inspire over the years. We all need a nudge to remember to have faith and belief in ourselves especially when the going gets tough. I have plenty of grit but also optimism that the playing field gets better with time and effort and resilience. If some of that grit and belief in yourself rubs off on others I will be happy with that – for now.
You can keep up with Susan Breen on LinkedIn here. While you’re here, share this article with someone who you think it might inspire or sign up to our newsletter to be the first to know when the next Real Hedoine lands on the blog.