Global Women Entrepreneurs & Leaders in Law - Lorna Phillips

In Conversation with Lorna Phillips, Jamaica

Lorna Phillips

The Global Women Entrepreneurs & Leaders in Law (GWELL) series is a collection of interviews and stories about women from around the world who are working with the law in a leadership capacity. Each of the women featured share the realities of their successes and failures. The GWELL series gives women in leadership roles a platform to share their stories, which are a source of inspiration for all women.

In this article we speak to Lorna Philips in Jamaica who is the Managing Partner of law firm Nicholson Phillips. Lorna has more than 25 years of experience in corporate and commercial law and focuses mostly on commercial property investment law. She speaks to us about her chosen practice areas of law (where fewer women delve), her journey in setting up her firm, the challenges and about her work outside law.

Lex Conscientia: Hello Lorna, tell us more about yourself. We understand you were born in England, grew up and studied law there – what is your Jamaica story?
Lorna: Yes, I was born in Birmingham, England, was educated and trained there. I benefited from good experience, both in insurance which was my former career before I entered law and from working for a large corporate law firm in Birmingham. My education included a Master’s Degree in International Development Law which I took at Warwick University. The course enabled me to explore some of the questions I had pondered on while studying black letter law: questions like – was common law the same everywhere? Do all people relate to law in the same way? Was the rule of law the same in India and in Kenya and did it operate as it does in England? In my interest area, commercial and corporate law, I wondered how commercial transactions were impacted by the international economic environment and especially by large international organisations and multinationals. I met some wonderful people; including practicing lawyers from all over the world: Indonesia, South Africa, Guyana, Bermuda, Zimbabwe and so many other places. The stories they shared of legal practice in their parts of the world fascinated me. Intrigued by it all, I finally left England to pursue a legal career in Jamaica in 1994.

Lex Conscientia: How different are the laws in UK and Jamaica and in particular, is the legal culture different in both jurisdictions?
Lorna: Most people think that because the laws in Jamaica originated from England, they are the same. They couldn’t be more wrong! No doubt the legal method is the same since it is based on common law; and many older laws were bestowed to Jamaica during colonialism. However, since then the laws in both jurisdictions are now very different (at least in most of the areas that I practice in).

For instance, property law was influenced by the Australian Torrens system and Jamaica’s Companies Act was heavily influenced by Canada and Barbados. The culture of practice is in some ways quite parochial. With the legal community being relatively small in Jamaica, it is quite easy to become recognised for one’s work. I’ve enjoyed that aspect of practice in Jamaica tremendously - after 22 years of living here, I feel I am well-known within my areas of practice. This can only be a good thing.


Lex Conscientia: When did you decide to start up your own law firm and what motivated you?
Lorna: Somewhere at the back of my mind, I always knew that I would paddle my own canoe at some point. I am an independent thinker and whilst this is excellent for my practice, it does make me a challenging employee! For example, I love to explore non-legal considerations with my clients; I encourage conversations about values (which I believe are important, but rarely discussed) in dealing with business relationships. I also consider myself as a facilitator of business deals. In short, my aim is to assist my clients to achieve their commercial goals whilst performing at their personal best. Being a trained life-coach, I cannot help but bring these skills to my practice of law – thankfully many clients are appreciative of this.

Lex Conscientia: You lead and develop your law practice. What leadership and entrepreneurial skills do you bring to your firm?
Lorna: I would say that I am somewhat of a “reluctant leader”. “Reluctant” because I rarely offer myself for such roles, but when situations demand it, I will step up. My entrepreneurialism grew out of my ideals of wanting to nurture a law firm with greater standards of professionalism. By focusing on providing value work within optimal timelines and by introducing a flatter management style in the firm that was appreciated for its inclusiveness and growth opportunities, we expanded our client base and succeeded in becoming well known within a very short span. Our innovations in our practice management style led to our law firm winning the first and (thus far) only law firm Entrepreneurial Award by the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce! Looking back, I feel my creative side enabled my sense of entrepreneurialism and my leadership skills in putting things into action despite scepticism, allowed us to succeed in the manner that we have today.

Lex Conscientia: We hear you built a solid track record practising in an area of law dominated by male lawyers and also one where your clients are mostly men. How do you navigate yourself to ensure your voice gets heard?
Lorna: This is an interesting question. With the numbers of women in the profession growing each year, it is fast ceasing to be male-dominated. Yet, male values still dominate and though women lawyers are as technically and legally well-versed as their male colleagues, it is regrettable that a certain proportion of the mostly male client cadre assume that women lawyers are a walk over, emotionally weak and generally not worthy of handling the larger, more complex deals. Furthermore, deals are still frequently struck in bars, men’s organisations and other places that professional women are much less likely to frequent, sometimes excluding competent women all together. I have not allowed this to distract or discourage me. Some things are hard to challenge and so drawing heavily on my earlier corporate experience I channelled my energy to focus on perfecting my legal knowledge, my communication skills and keeping my integrity to the highest levels.

Lex Conscientia: Have you faced any difficulties since establishing your own firm?
Lorna: The main difficulty I experienced was the speed with which we grew in a short period of time and the subsequent challenge with keeping up with the standards that we had set for ourselves! I experienced some very long days and short nights and numerous “testing” moments. Translating my requirements for speed and efficiency to a team that was not prepared for it was challenging. I have certainly had some interesting encounters over the years!

Lex Conscientia: Do you have any regrets or if you could turn back time, would you have done anything differently?
Lorna: Not one thing! I love the diversity of my work and clients and my involvement in their businesses, plus the satisfaction of being able to put my own business ideas into my practice has made all the work that has gone into it well worth it.

Lex Conscientia: Do you have a specific business philosophy? How do you compete and stand out to your clients?
Lorna: I have tried to manage my firm in a principled manner. The closest ideology that equates with mine is probably what is known as ‘conscious capitalism’ whose followers seek to contribute to social evolution through their business endeavours via integrated partnership with all those who are involved and impacted by the business. It draws on the twin principles of agency and empowerment. I just love the idea of viewing my practice as an engine of social change and having a higher purpose.

Lex Conscientia: Did you have any women mentors in your life?
Lorna: Not really. I wished I had. I did however have the benefit of working with a woman business coach. Through her, I realised the benefit of working with someone who had a similar lens on the world to me. I could articulate some of my experiences without self-judgement, blame or excuse and she would be able to empathise simply because she had experienced some of those same things herself. I love the idea of a conscious successful business woman or lawyer, who doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice her femininity or values in order to fit into a business world created by stereotypes. I wish more women would offer themselves in mentorship and that younger women take up these opportunities.

Lex Conscientia: You have achieved much – are you a perfect example of well-balanced career woman, mother and spouse?
Lorna: Unfortunately, we cannot have it all. I have found that there is no such thing as multi-tasking; when you are at work, you are not at home, and when you are reading with your son, you are not drafting your client’s agreements or something else equally important to the work you have committed to do for your client’s business. What I have learned is to try not to over commit in any particular area, and to carve out specific times that are personal and private. However, like most professional women I imagine, I spin out of control at times and become exhausted attempting to achieve perfection.

Lex Conscientia: We hear you are also active in the community and occupy different positions outside your legal practice.
Lorna: This is my expression of conscious capitalism. I am the co-founder of two very different but extremely important organisations – the Real Estate Reform Consortium whose role is to introduce cutting edge practices to the real estate industry and to lobby for change, and BACK2LIFE Foundation which works for the upliftment and empowerment of boys and young men. Both organisations seek to add value to people’s lives either through the improvement of the individual or the improvement of a process or system. Yes, I also hold several board positions and am currently a Commissioner for the Consumer Affairs Tribunal.”

At the firm-level, we support and sponsor a home for girls where we connect and share with them several times in the year.

Lex Conscientia: Where do you get your energy from? What inspires you?
Lorna: My purpose in enabling people to achieve their highest and best inspires and energises me. Whenever I am doing this, time melts away and my spirits are lifted.

Lex Conscientia: You describe yourself as a people motivator and a mentor. What success advice do you have for young aspiring women lawyers practising in Jamaica?
Lorna: The profession is growing at a fast pace and many more women are joining our ranks. These are very different times to when I first joined the profession many years ago. And yet, certain things are timeless. The need to be dedicated to the development of one’s craft and the qualities of sincerity and integrity are priceless. Most of all I would say find your purpose and seek to express it through your work. These may not guarantee you immediate financial gain, but will likely enrich your life and that of others on your journey to professional success.

Lex Conscientia: We enjoyed speaking with you Lorna, any famous last words or quote to share?
Lorna: Don’t permit anyone to define you, your story or what success looks like for you. Only you can ultimately know your purpose and the unique gifts that you can express through your profession or business. Refuse to play small. Insist on expressing your purpose in your own voice in ways that bring meaning to you and don’t let anyone tell you that your voice is not enough or that your meaning is not appropriate. That goes for men and women.

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Lex Conscientia is a bespoke management consultancy and legal support provider to those who work with different aspects of the law.