Lesley MacDonagh is one of those people who unintentionally makes normal mortals feel as dynamic as the average pot plant.
She has just been re-elected for her third term as Lovells’ managing partner after standing unopposed. Which, as the first and only female managing partner of a top 10 firm, is remarkable in itself. However, when she started as managing partner six years ago, her third child was a mere babe in arms and her second term coincided with the birth of her fourth child, bringing her family to “three thugs and a wayward daughter”, as she puts it.
Until about a year ago, MacDonagh also had a place on the Law Society Council and became involved in an NSPCC campaign to improve justice for children.
Not only that, but she has immaculately painted nails. Bright red, with none of the dints that betray someone who has had to rush off and do something else before the varnish has dried properly.
Oh, and I almost forgot: she and her husband (also a partner at Lovells) renovate old houses in their spare time. Presumably, MacDonagh has trained herself to survive on about two and a half minutes sleep. Trying to imagine her life leaves me with barely enough energy to put my fingers on the keyboard.
Now, those of you who have yet to enter the 21st century may be imagining that MacDonagh is some sort of 1980s shoulder-padded throwback, the sort of woman who schedules time in to have a conference call with her kids before striding down the corridor to kick ass on some high-powered deal.
But when we are not talking about Lovells (a subject that she approaches with the utmost gravity), MacDonagh is warm and appealingly lacking in armour. While the photographer is snapping away, she beseeches him, with a nervous giggle, to get the airbrush out afterwards. Which, it must be added, would be wholly unnecessary.
After six years, MacDonagh is still enjoying the job. “It’s so varied,” she says. “Although you have all the interest of any chief executive, the job is intensely people-orientated. Here we have intelligent, motivated people, and that requires a particular temperament.
“This is a big, successful law firm, but that brings other things in its wake. We’re not just talking about how to get the best law from people, but about what motivates people and what new interest they need.”
Since she started in the job, Lovells has doubled in size, due mostly to its merger with German firm Boesebeck Droste at the beginning of the millennium. Further mergers with French outfit Siméon et Associés (which will become official in exactly a month’s time) and the marriage with Dutch firm Ekelmans Den Hollander back in May, will provide Lovells with a headcount of almost 3,000. Rather neatly, Lovells’ percentage growth exactly mirrors that of MacDonagh’s family.
MacDonagh was involved directly in the Boesebeck negotiations, which were remarkable for both their speed and lack of rancour. The former was due, says MacDonagh, to corporate partner Marco Campagnoni, who drove it through like an M&A deal. She says that the negotiating teams would often break up at 2am, and as soon as she got back into the office there would be a voicemail asking whether she had churned out the letter or whatever that followed on from the meeting.
Now the firm has its own merger swat team which swoops in to forge deals, so MacDonagh stays out of the day-to-day talks, although she remains on hand to advise. While she says she misses the close rapport that is built during such intense negotiations, she has more than enough on her plate.
“If you’re closely involved in merger discussions, then it’s very time-consuming. One of the things that’s really helped in bringing our mergers together is that we had a rule that everyone had to be at every meeting. Otherwise, you get into the situation where you’re taking two steps forward and one step back.”
While staying out of merger negotiations, MacDonagh has been busy with preparations to move the entire firm into new offices in Holborn’s Atlantic House in a year’s time. From the way her face lights up when she talks about the move, MacDonagh seems to be relishing it. She explains that it is a chance to change the image of her firm. And, at least with this project, she is starting with a blank canvas – unlike the listed houses that she refurbishes for a hobby. Her latest mercy mission is to convert an old police house, a property that sounds rather like an old-style law firm building in that it has 12 urinals and no bathroom.
In her office, underneath a framed child’s drawing, is an Alex cartoon in which one of the characters wangles a day off from a blushing female boss by citing “men’s problems”. Which is a rather self-deprecating way of dealing with the inevitable question of how an establishment deals with having a woman at the helm.
MacDonagh herself believes that, as a woman, colleagues find it easier to approach her about personal issues, which she is not in the slightest bit embarrassed to deal with.
“I’m very keen on lifestyle issues, trying to make sure that it’s a good place to work,” she explains. “Obviously, it’s a place you come to work and not a holiday camp. But there are cultures and behaviours that you can reinforce. Courtesy and fun are catching – if someone is fun, you’re likely to pass that on.” It is a message that she herself received from the partners when she was junior within the firm, and it remains a message that she is keen to nurture in these more competitive times.
While I can imagine MacDonagh adding a very human side to Lovells, I do wonder about the Superwoman guilt syndrome she might create among those parents struggling to cope with the perennial family •work battle. Do people not find it daunting to admit to home crises when their boss is a champion plate-spinner?
“I don’t hesitate to say that you need a large dollop of luck to make a career in law and a family life spin together,” she says. “I’ve had a dollop of luck in that I have an other half who’ll muck in and help, and I also live reasonably close to the office.
“It’s all about the stress and strain you put on yourself. I think that children are remarkably resilient, and if you don’t see them for three nights in a row, no one is going to fall apart.”
And her role has helped in trying to balance the two, as she is no longer called upon to stay up all night on deals. But she does admit to having had butterflies when it came to telling senior partner Andrew Walker that she was pregnant with her fourth child.
“I wimped out and did a little letter to him when he was due to get on a plane, telling him to get a large drink and that I’d talk to him when he landed. But he was completely brilliant,” laughs MacDonagh, adding that his only reservation was at the thought of such a “geriatric mother”.
Now, she says, the one thing to go is time for herself and the occasional disappointment in not being able to join colleagues for an after-work drink. “These days my greatest luxury is getting half an hour to tidy my underwear drawer,” she says.
This is the final straw in my transformation into a pot plant: Lesley MacDonagh has a tidy knicker drawer. And if you were wondering about the nails – she does them herself in bed. I am off to listen to Gardeners’ Question Time about repotting myself.