Spotlight: interview with Benedikte Malling Bech, Partner, North Star Law

"Stop thinking of the profession...as male-dominated. I don’t like people to think they have been victimised by their gender-pave your own way."

Celebrating Female Entrepreneurship: Meet Benedikte, Founder of North Star Law.

In honour of International Women's Day today and Mother's Day this Sunday, we spotlight Benedikte, the trailblazing founder of North Star Law in London. Setting up her boutique firm at 32, Benedikte prioritised client-centricity and flexibility for parents, including herself, breaking traditional law firm moulds.

Benedikte's relentless pursuit of excellence defied gender biases, fostering a culture where hard work and expertise prevail.

Benedikte, you set up boutique law firm, North Star, in London 13 years ago. What were the founding principles behind the Firm? How does it differ from the traditional law firm?

There were two founding principles behind North Star.

First, to focus on the client, the pro-active clear advice and the service. Not on targets and profitability. I felt the values of why I wanted to study and practice law – helping the client – was often lost in other firms. They are businesses driven by profits rather than the beauty of the advice. And, if we focused on just doing great work, I believe inevitably profitability will flow as a result.

Second, rather selfishly, North Star was to provide the ability to give flexibility and support to parents being able to work around the demands of children, including myself. My daughter was only a few months old when I launched North Star. In my experience, there’s a very stark choice to be made for female partners who has children working within traditional law firms. Women are still sadly leaving the profession because they are unable to find the right balance and this is a real loss. I have always worked really hard, this has never been compromised by becoming a parent, and I’ve been able to continue to do this because I had the flexibility to work around my family and make it work.

While the legal professional has made strides in recent years towards gender equality, women continue to be underrepresented in law firms, particularly in senior positions. It’s a unique role for a female partner to set up her own law firm as you have done. Have you encountered gender biases along the way from peers, clients? What have been the most significant obstacles you’ve had to overcome if any, along the way?

I am sure there has been bias amongst peers but I have quite frankly chosen not to notice. I have not encountered bias amongst clients even though I’m working within a male dominated world. In fact, many clients have often commented on the benefits, skill sets and female touch they feel I bring to the table because of being a woman. It is true though that I have not developed a network by getting a drink after work, playing a sport or going to watch a sport feature. I have let my hard work and my “value add” speak for itself.

I have experienced plenty of other gender bias from others, but not clients. Interestingly, in other professions there still remains an expectation for females to take the lead with childcare and we have received comments on “mother’s lack of presence”, for example when my daughter was little and my husband would do the nursery drop. It’s taken for granted that this should be the mother’s role. My husband and I are both active parents and we split the routine – I may well be the parent involved getting the children up and dressed and ready for their days actively working behind the scenes, however there still remains this gender stereotype in the world today even though Covid and flexible working has done a lot to break down traditional barriers.

What key qualities does it take to succeed as a lawyer in a male-dominated profession?

Be a hard worker, know your values and your worth and stop thinking of the profession or the business world as “male-dominated”. I don’t believe it helps. I don’t like people to think they have been victimised by their gender - pave your own way. I do not see myself as having ever been passed over because of my gender. I set up North Star at what is considered to be a very young age of 32 as a knew I was not going to be able to have the life I wanted in the firms where I was working. It was a bold choice but you must create your own opportunities if you want to succeed.

North Star has broken the mould in the industry by operating a flexible working model for 10+ years since its inception. How does your model benefit your clients in terms of client delivery and expertise and what difference does it bring to employee engagement and productivity?

Flexibility doesn’t just mean flexibility for the solicitor, it means flexibility for the client, so being available delivering a client focused service. We have worked flexibly since we started but it was easier when we were a smaller team - all experienced hard working solicitors. When I started North Star it was not about the solicitor being more engaged or productive it was much more simple – it was a reality that as a woman it was almost impossible to be a partner in a top firm and have a family. The female partners I knew either chose not to have children, couldn’t get them or never saw them.

The model I built at North Star was selfishly not about employee engagement or productivity, it was about allowing me the flexibility to be able to work for great clients with lots of interesting work and being able to have and see my children. The first few years I took none or almost no holiday but I had the flexibility of seeing and spending quality time with them daily.

I am sceptical and increasingly negative about the increased “hype” about “working from home” and flexibility for what it will mean for our profession. I appreciate the balance for so long has been one way, so an over correction may be needed which Covid brought. Whilst North Star was ahead of the curve 10 years ago, I am careful now not to be “too flexible”. We are a growing firm and I believe it is crucial for team spirit, motivation and teaching of the juniors that there is a healthy balance of allowing some flexibility whilst working predominantly in the office.

North Star was entered into Chambers and Legal 500 as a leading firm and you Benedikte have been individually nominated in 2021, 2022 and 2023. What makes you most proud of the firm you have built? Or what factors do you attribute to this success?

Nominations and accreditations are great, but I am most proud of the clients we are consistently able to attract, the great work we do and the wonderful atmosphere amongst colleagues every day. We are privileged to have the best international clients and international work. We have grown slowly but steadily, we don’t fire and hire, we don’t overwork team members and whilst work has to come first, we recognise that people have a private life that needs to be balanced.

Our success I believe is down to the team’s strive for excellent work and in part my grit in constantly driving the firm forwards.

You have a city background having worked as an Associate lawyer at Freshfields in 2002 in their London and New York offices, later moving to Skadden. A lot must have changed over the last 20 years. What’s been the biggest most instrumental shift in the legal industry that you’ve experienced? And for the better or the worse?

The debate about working from home. I believe the debate has some way to go and that a balance for most firm is still to be reached.

If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be?

The reality is I have always wanted to be a solicitor. At university I briefly toyed with the idea of being a journalist but I never really considered anything else than the law. I have always loved advising and assisting clients and I still do. Knowing that I make a difference to the clients I help is what gives me joy. Properly a very boring answer but it’s true.

What’s the best advice you’ve even been given and who gave this to you - or the best advice you could pass onto lawyers hungry for success?

I have always been told that my great grandfather had a saying “doing more than others do, alone can bring success to you”. I guess a lot of my drive has been underpinned by that. My most common used phrase that I use amongst the people I teach comes from Colin Powell’s 13 rules, namely “check small things”.

Has there been a memorable event, decision made, person you’ve met, book you’ve read, which has changed the course of your life?

I believe there have been two – firstly, getting into Peterhouse at Cambridge to study law. I know there are many many other great universities but for me, the people I met and the opportunities Cambridge allowed me I believe have been fundamental in assisting me. This was a huge turning point and where I’d say life started.

Secondly, meeting my husband. I believe meeting him was instrumental in my decision to leave the big international city firms and ultimately have the constant support to start and run a firm. I couldn’t work and have a family without him.

Who would you most like to switch places with for a day (could be anyone — a celebrity or even an animal!)

A boring answer again, but I believe in being happy with who I am and what I do. If a person isn’t and longs for something else, they should do something about it. I’m not a dreamer and say “oh I wish” and do nothing about it. If you want something, go for it, don’t set yourself a ceiling.

Since starting the firm, I have always wanted to acquire a building for us to work out of. Finally, two years ago, we acquired a beautiful 18th century house in London for the North Star offices. It is more amazing than I thought it could be and has given me true joy. It’s a stunning property for the entire team to work from. You can have dreams and a vision but only you can create your own success.

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