Realm Hotspot Talks to... Sally Penni

Posted on 12/10/2017 by Katherine Memery

This month, we spoke to award-winning Barrister and founder of Women in the Law UK, Sally Penni. Points of discussion included Sally’s career highlights, her advice for today’s young female lawyers and who she’d invite to her dream dinner party.

When and why did you decide to be a lawyer?

I decided to pursue a career in law because I was too short to be a policeman and didn’t want to take up my place to do Medicine at University which is what my parents wanted! Also, whenever I was allowed to watch Rumpole of the Bailey, (which wasn’t very often), I used to think:  ‘I could do that!’  

I continue to practice law as I love the job of being a Barrister. It is a privilege to present clients in Court and to advise companies and individuals.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

There have been so many highlights.  When I was a trainee pupil, I did a pro bono Criminal Injuries compensation case by myself and I won winning damages for a severely disabled young woman who lived with her granny.  Since then, I have won several employment cases for women who have brought sex discrimination cases and pregnancy-related claims. 

A recent highlight for me was interviewing actress Maxine Peake for Women in the Law UK. It was so nice to see a glimpse of her world and hear what she thought of Barristers when she researched for her role in the BBC drama, Silk. However, above all, the highlight has been meeting amazing people and clients and appearing in the highest courts in the land.

As the Founder of Women in the Law UK, what do you see as the biggest obstacle facing female lawyers?  

Things are so much better in 2017 but there are still issues. I think self-confidence and imposter syndrome are huge obstacles actually, with some women talking themselves out of things or going for things too soon and then getting knocked down. I also think that while a lot of female lawyers are gutsy and have an entrepreneurial spirit, there is a fear about setting up on one’s own. 

All of these things really boil down to confidence. That is what Women in the Law UK tries to tackle, by inspiring and encouraging the generation of lawyers, both male and female, to equip themselves to be future leaders in law. I mention men as well as women, as men can sometimes find it challenging to go to anything with women in the title. We must bring our male colleagues with us in the conversations and the debate; I want my sons to feel included not excluded.

What advice do you have for young women entering the profession?

I would give young women the same advice as I’d give the young men entering the profession: be yourself and aim high. Work hard, plan for the future and invest in your career. Attend courses, learn from leaders and look for mentors and sponsors; it’s so important to have a role model in mind and have a mentor that you can bounce ideas off. 

Lastly, give back. Most modern law firms have a community day or charity team as well as some form of social responsibility programme. Get involved and read in schools in deprived areas if you can.

What do you think can be done to close the gender pay gap?

That is a hard question and I am not sure I have any one single answer. In my view, initiatives like flexible and agile working, having visible role models and encouraging male colleagues to take paternity leave are positive ways we can close the gap. As I have stated widely as a fellow of the RSA, as a Companion of CMI, recently at Alliance Business School when I spoke with Ann Francke from CIM and at the pro-Manchester Gender Pay Gap Panel, the problems related to the gender pay gap are largely cultural. In this country, the gender pay gap has developed over time and simply having equal pay is not the only answer. We must remember that many SMEs cannot afford to make up the difference in pay. However, I do think that the Gender Pay Gap Reporting Regulations are a good step by the government.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I love food, so I love dinner parties. Firstly, I’d invite JK Rowling. I’d love to learn about her mindset and mental resilience when she was writing the Harry Potter books and how it felt being rejected by publishing houses and living as a single parent during the worst time in her life.

Next, I’d invite Helena Morrissey and her husband. Helena was the chief executive of the Newton Investment Management company, is frequently, a champion of women in the boardroom and the founder of the 30% Club. She’s also a mother of nine children (yes, nine!) I am not planning on having nine but I am always interested in tips on work-life balance and how people manage their children and work life. I’d love to meet Barack Obama to learn what he sees as his legacy and what he really thinks and also Janet Yellen, the first female Chair of the American Federal Reserve. She is the equivalent to the Governor of the Bank of England and I would love to speak to her about money and what her role has entailed.

I am not sure how many people I am allowed but I would also love to invite Kofi Anan, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott and Michael McIntyre, who I think is just so funny. As this is a dream dinner party, can I have Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and David Bowie too? You’re probably wondering, why all those people? Simply, I think there’s so much I could learn from them and ask them so many questions. (I just hope none of them is vegan as my knowledge of vegan dishes is only good in January!)

You’ve said that you’re a foodie, where you like to eat out?

We are so blessed with the food and drinks scene here in the North West, but eating out in London is still a treat when I am working down there. In Manchester, I like Lime Tree in West Didsbury, and in the city centre, I love El Gato Negro, Randall and Aubin and The French at The Midland.

When you get the chance to go away, where is your favourite holiday destination?

I love going away with my husband and children to just relax as it’s my time to switch off from work. I love going to the South Coast, especially Salcombe in Devon. Abroad, I love the South of France living off baguettes and cheese and rosé (it's the only place to drink rosé in my view).

About Sally Penni

Sally Penni is an award-winning Barrister, based at Kenworthy’s Chambers.

A huge champion of equality and diversity within the Profession and throughout wider society, Sally is a supporter of the 30% Club and an Ambassador for Women on Boards UK. In 2012, she founded Women in the Law UK, a women’s networking organisation that aims to encourage, inspire and support the next generation of Lawyers and Businesswomen.

In 2016, Sally was nominated to be a fellow of Royal Society of Arts and Commerce (The RSA) and in 2017, was nominated a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute in 2017. 

Outside of her work, Sally sits on a variety of boards including the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

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