Janet Gaymer – the head of employment at Simmons & Simmons who is widely tipped to take over from senior partner Bill Knight when he retires – is exhausting.
I am receiving an explanation of a modern art painting in Simmons’ new Citypoint offices, when suddenly Gaymer appears at my side. She quickly says hello before racing off to finish her last meeting.
In no time at all she is back in the meeting room and flops down in a chair as if her batteries have run down. However, this must be a cunning ruse to lull me into a false sense of security as she proceeds to talk at a rate of knots for the next hour.
Looking at how she lives her life, it is no surprise that she has got such energy. She has just finished writing a book on employment law, is on the board of governors at the Royal Shakespeare Company, advises the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) as an independent member, and is arguably the most influential employment partner around.
But she refuses to give away the secret of whether she will be adding the role of senior partner to her list of achievements, smiling coyly and suggesting that I should ask Bill Knight.
There are many highly successful lawyers who in the flesh are puzzling because they fail to exude any charisma whatsoever, let alone that extra special something that distinguishes the proles from the stars.
But with Gaymer you instantly can tell exactly how she has got where she is today. While she clearly has 1,001 thoughts rattling around in her head, Gaymer gives the impression that when you are with her, she is thinking only about what you have just said.
And while open and frank, she also has that slightly steely edge combined with a quick wit that would make her a formidable opponent.
Gaymer is excited about the book she has just finished, The Employment Relationship, and while it is possibly not top of everyone’s Christmas list because of its weighty nature, the author gave it to her family as a present.
“The book arrived on 23 December so I wrapped it up in wrapping paper then put that in a shoe box and then a bigger box until it was [about two foot wide] and put it with the Christmas presents,” she recalls. It was her younger daughter Natalie who first twigged what the box contained. With all due respect, the episode must have reiterated that great truism of Christmas that the biggest box is never the most exciting.
As much as she and her husband John, who is a property partner at niche firm Bracher Rawlins, have tried to dissuade her because of the heavy workload, Gaymer’s elder daughter Helen has opted to follow her parents into law and is just about to start at Allen & Overy. Perhaps it was her destiny, as Helen’s arrival into the world coincided with Gaymer’s decision to do a part-time LLM in employment law or “master and servant” as the specialism was then known. “It was all about butlers being tempted away from stately homes,” says Gaymer, rolling her eyes.
Gaymer tells me all about her home life within five minutes of meeting her – negating her claim that she tries to keep work and family life separate. The book has made that slightly difficult. The former au pair’s room was requisitioned as a study after the sheer volume of paper produced by research forced Gaymer to move out of the study she shared with her husband. Thus the room became known as the “Law Zone”. She is hugely proud of her daughters and they weasel their way into our conversation many times, as does her husband, who she met at law school where they went for “tea and meringues” after seminars.
If that anecdote brings to mind a different time and way of life, then so do Gaymer’s recollections on how she got started in the law. For women who have grown up with the Sex Discrimination Act, the tales could have come from the last century and not just three decades ago.
In 1969, when Gaymer was applying for articles, a City firm that is still up-and-running but shall remain nameless, sent her a letter which she still has, explaining that it was “prejudiced against” women articled clerks and so therefore would not be taking her on. Gaymer swears that one of her very last acts will be to send a copy of the letter back to the firm.
Yet, says Gaymer, at the time she thought nothing of it, just as the signs on the Simmons toilets reading “Partners” and “Partners’ Secretaries”, did not rankle. Of course, when she made partner four years after qualifying, the firm had to change the signs.
She had no sense at the time of fighting a battle against discrimination, she just got on with her job. But Gaymer did, she recalls, have to “jump up and down” to make Simmons let her do company and commercial law. In 1971, four years before the Sex Discrimination Act was brought in, the “proper” areas of practice for a female City lawyer were property, planning and litigation.
Simmons backed down and, Gaymer says, she has stayed ever since because the firm lets her do what she wants. She could not have chosen a more interesting time to enter employment law. In 1971 the Industrial Relations Act was introduced, followed by the UK’s entry into the European Union three years later, which opened the floodgates for employment legislation.
Fraser Younson of McDermott Will & Emery, a contender for the leading employment lawyer crown, says that Gaymer’s strength lies in the fact that she realised before most that employment law was set to become increasingly important.
With each major new bill, says Gaymer, the full impact is never initially appreciated. “With the Human Rights Act, everyone laughed at me when I said we had to do something on it. But its going to be a vibrant area of change and will, I think, change the way we think about things.”
So has there been any legislation that she thinks has gone too far in according rights to either side of the working relationship? Gaymer scarcely pauses for breath before recalling her reaction when the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations were introduced by statutory instrument. “I remember telling corporate partners about it and saying it might be quite important,” she says. “That was in 1981 and it is still rumbling on when you look at the amount of trouble caused by it. And we still have to hedge our bets with clients. It’s a very laudable aim [of the regulations] but is life really like that?”
A lower-profile part of Gaymer’s practice is handling claimant work, although she admits that the proportion is quite small and the clients very carefully selected, for example she advised Bob Ayling on his departure from British Airways.
But this is all part of her life philosophy to maintain balance. “It’s good to be in the sun and the rain so you don’t get very hot or very wet.”
And with that, she’s off again to pack her bags for a trip to New York the next morning, leaving me to catch my breath again.
Head of employment
Simmons & Simmons