Helen Hancock

When banking partner Helen Hancock decided to leave Simmons & Simmons to be closer to her family, the firm offered her an alternative working arrangement. Tamzin Hindmarch meets a woman worth keeping.

Simmons & Simmons banking partner Helen Hancock just cannot help coming back for more.

Her decision to leave the firm for a second time, this time in favour of Bristol’s Bevan Ashford, was scuppered at the last minute when Simmons’ eleventh hour rescue attempt safely returned her to the pack.

When personal circumstances led Hancock to make a life-changing choice between career and family, she chose the latter.

But thanks to a compromise package drawn up by Simmons, she can now continue with both by working from home. Her decision to leave was not easy, having been with the firm since 1986.

Hancock joined Simmons in London as a Bristol University graduate. She received a first class honours degree in law but only, she says, after being called back by the examiners. “[They] asked me to dictate the answers to three of my papers because my handwriting was so bad they couldn’t read it.”

Her principles for discipline learned from her years of study – both at university and at law school in Guildford – remain the same to this day.

She says, therefore, that she will not be tempted to nip into the kitchen for that umpteenth cup of coffee once she is working from home.

“I would study or revise from 9am until 5pm then go out and party. I have always worked hard then played hard, though I have to admit that now the stakes are higher I work harder and play less.”

Hancock joined Simmons’ banking capital markets department when it was still very young.

Originally established as a group within the corporate department, it carried a capital markets capability which did not exist in the firm until that point.

She remained there until 1994, working mainly with David Dickinson, then the capital market division’s main driver for growth, and now the firm’s managing partner.

As an assistant, Hancock’s areas included banking, acquisitions, finance security and derivatives. Through her experience, she became interested in the structured finance side of capital markets.

She then won a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the US and study security and investment law, as well as gain work experience with US law firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius, an opportunity she says she could not miss.

On returning to Simmons, she believes her “insider knowledge” of how US firms operate proved invaluable, and remain so.

In 1994, she was head-hunted by NatWest Markets to become director of transaction management at its Bishopsgate headquarters. She says she left Simmons “on immensely good terms”.

She adds: “They were sorry to see me go and I was sorry to leave. But I was 29 years old and felt that if I did not try it I would have always wondered what I had missed.”

She says she enjoyed her job and learned a great deal about how investment banks work. But she missed private practice and after a year was back at Simmons.

She rejoined the firm in 1995 as a senior assistant and was made a partner the following summer.

She says: “I could have chosen to go into a more established practice but I decided to return to Simmons, not because I wanted to get my feet back under the desk, but because I could see the practice was seeking to expand. I thought it was exciting and wanted to be part of that.”

It was only when family circumstance meant she needed to relocate that she began searching for a local practice in Wales. However, her specialism, ideal for the City but not so useful in the provinces, meant it would be hard to find a firm which suited her skills.

She was offered a job with Bristol firm Bevan Ashford and, although it meant a move from banking to project work, she decided to take it. On breaking the news to Simmons, top table talks began at once.

“When push came to shove, Simmons showed its extraordinary human side. Unlike some other firms, it is not a faceless machine. Its employees are not treated like robots and it prides itself on listening to people and working things out.”

Bevan Ashford’s chief executive Nick Jarrett-Kerr says: “Obviously we are disappointed, but we respect her decision, we can understand why and wish her well in her career.”

Hancock adds: “It had not been my intention to let Bevan Ashford down. I think it is a good firm and will do well with or without me.”

She believes Simmons’ landmark decision to allow her to work from home will benefit Simmons too.

“Lawyers, in particular juniors, no longer want to be seen as cannon fodder and I think in that respect Simmons distinguishes itself in that it nurtures a very caring culture instead of chewing people up and spitting them out when their personal circumstances change.”

When Hancock begins work in her own office in June, linked by fax, phone, e-mail and a video conferencing facility, it will be the first time Simmons has tried the remote partner concept.

Managing partner David Dickinson says: “We think it is extremely important to support partners, particularly when they have children and need to look after them.

“At the same time we need to retain the best talent we can for the future and that is something we try to be flexible about.”
Helen Hancock
Banking partner
Simmons & Simmons