While she is loath to admit it, Sharon Blackman, managing director and general counsel in Citi’s global legal affairs and compliance division, ‘hated’ her law degree. Clearly this has not held her back though, as her GC of the Year gong at the Legal Business Awards in September testifies.
Despite not falling in love with the law at an academic level, during her degree, Blackman took on pro bono work at her local Citizens Advice Bureau, and it was there that her passion was first ignited. She recalls: ‘It was really useful for developing the practical piece and I found that much more engaging than just the theoretical piece.’
And her initial disinterest did not stop her from qualifying as a barrister after graduating from Brunel University in 1996, albeit Blackman then took a year out after failing to secure a pupillage. During that time, Blackman says she was ‘extremely lucky’ to land a role at Colonial Financial Services, where she gained experience in life assurance, pensions, lending, securitisation, investments and general company commercial work.
Blackman says: ‘That company then sold, and I could’ve gone with them. They were an amazing company to work for in terms of developing staff – they would have facilitated anything I asked for. But at that point, after three years, I wanted to move on to derivatives because I thought it was more interesting having worked on a bespoke securitisation.’
And so at the turn of the millennium, Blackman landed a job at building society Abbey National Treasury Services as an equity derivatives lawyer. She quips: ‘At the time you could write the amount I knew about derivatives on the back of a stamp! So there was an opportunity to grow my knowledge of equity derivatives, a calculated risk as it was a growth area.’
It is safe to say that it served as another vital learning experience for Blackman, who says the company ‘taught her everything’. She clarifies: ‘Not just the lawyers, the businesspeople and middle office too.’
After four years in the role, Abbey National was on the cusp of being sold to Santander. This coincided with a testing time internally for Blackman: ‘I loved the company, but my team had gone from 15 people to three. We’d interviewed for our own jobs three times in the 18 months preceding and I was one of the ones kept. It made everyone think: “Maybe now is a good time to make a move.”’
Move she did, and it proved to be a fruitful decision. In 2004, Blackman joined Citi as a trading floor lawyer in the equity derivatives division, the most junior in a team of three. After five years, Blackman was asked to move to Citi’s fixed income division, working on credit derivatives and foreign exchanges. By this point, she was eyeing a director-level promotion.
‘I was told you typically need to “own” something if you wanted to become a director, and to do that you need senior support and engagement. FX was the only area which had never had a dedicated lawyer in EMEA, so I decided FX was going to be the area that I focused on.’
Seizing the opportunity, Blackman was able to develop the FX practice over the years. ‘I loved the FX business – it was an amazing source of interesting work. But after a year or so, I realised there was a gap in resource, and I was allowed to build my team. I built it up from just me to a team of six in total.’
Eighteen years since joining and now Blackman is a managing director and GC in Citi’s global legal affairs and compliance team, a long tenure by any standards, but particularly in the profession of in-house law. Blackman reveals what has made her stay put for so long: ‘I just have really enjoyed the culture and style at Citi. It’s very employee focused. I loved being on the trading floor. I had opportunities to move asset classes and learn new things. You know what they say – the more money you make, the more problems it creates. It’s the same here – the bigger the institution, the bigger the issues! You can go to a level of depth on a narrow topic as deep as you like. But you can go broadly as well, across anything.’
Some GCs admit choosing the in-house route for more philosophical reasons, but Blackman concedes that she rather ‘fell into’ her career. Despite this, she is confident that she is in the right lane: ‘I wouldn’t rule private practice out, but it’s not the first thing on my mind in terms of the future. Although there’s a lot more willingness these days to have people move about, from the Bar to law firms, from in-house to the Bar and so on. I’ve actually had a couple of conversations about moving to a law firm but I really enjoy how close I am to the business so I can’t imagine a circumstance where it would feel genuinely appealing. But it’s nice to flirt with the idea!’
If there is one word to sum up Blackman’s time at Citi, it would be ‘crisis’. She goes as far as to describe it as ‘the theme of her career.’ It is hard to dispute when considering the events that have unfolded during Blackman’s tenure. She recounts the Lehman collapse, the 2008 financial crisis, the FX scandals, various currency crashes, Brexit and, more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But Blackman wouldn’t change anything: ‘It’s at the crunch points where you learn the most. Yes you “know” things, but when you’re tested and asked really hard questions, pertinent questions, it changes your appreciation of the documentation, the industry, your business, your own level of knowledge! You grow so much.’
This is not to say that crisis does not take a toll, as Blackman notes, ‘it’s the exhaustion that gets you’. After Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Blackman says she had seven or eight consecutive weeks where she and a team of five worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, supporting the business. The marathon was gruelling.
‘It’s important to prioritise your mental health and wellbeing. I remember one Saturday being so exhausted I said: “I’m not going to be available today.” We’d already had some hard discussions and made some hard decisions, and analysed the position on the Friday, which we thought should last the business through the weekend. When I woke up on the Sunday I was dragged into four-hour calls because the law had changed. There were new sanctions. And actually we had to go back to square one.’
But Blackman is alive to her duty as a leader and role model, and readily accepts managing the workload of her team as a key aspect of her role. During these difficult periods, she endeavours to catch up with her team members multiple times a day to make sure they are coping, and having ‘very deliberate’ conversations about their capacity.
Blackman says: ‘As leaders what you have to do is demonstrate how you’re taking care of yourself. I encourage people to be open about when they’re overloaded. If you’ve got too much on you should be able to at least ask if other people have capacity, to give yourself the ease you need.’
This philosophy spills over into Blackman’s relationships with her external counsel, where possible. Blackman opts for a formal panel arrangement which is understood to include Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Cleary Gottlieb, Norton Rose Fulbright and Fieldfisher.
Blackman says she expects her advisers to be ‘excellent in their field, commercial and all that good stuff ’, but appreciates it is a two-way street: ‘I don’t believe in dumping things on law firms, but I have to hold my hand up and say yes, sometimes the 5pm call to say you need something does happen. But I try and moderate things so that we’re being fair to external counsel.’
Typically, Citi’s panel firms are brought in as an additional resource for one-off matters, or to provide a second opinion on tricky legal grey areas. But Blackman is keen to ensure her team is involved in crisis matters, rather than sending it all out externally: ‘I need to make sure my junior lawyers see what it’s like to be involved in something massive, so they understand it for when I’m not there and they’re in charge. You have to make sure people get a broad experience.’
As co-chair of Citi’s EMEA Pro Bono Committee and a member of the company’s EMEA Legal Diversity Committee, Blackman unsurprisingly champions legal advisers who go beyond just supplying high-quality counsel. But unlike other GCs who stipulate specific targets, Blackman is less prescriptive with her external counsel when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Having said that, Citi does have a ‘supplier diversity team’ which seeks to promote diversity throughout the supply chain. Blackman says: ‘The requirement is that the suppliers must have 15% diversity with an expectation that they also insist on 15% diversity with their own suppliers.’ She adds: ‘We have become increasingly alive to the idea that we have more leverage on this subject, and we are observant of how a law firm presents itself to us. We don’t have targets, but if you present a panel which has zero women, it will be noticed.’
And it was the subject of diversity and inclusion which helped propel Blackman to 2022’s GC of the Year honour at the Legal Business Awards. She beat five other nominees after being recognised for her committee work – and her OBE in June 2021 for services to the financial services sector helped too.
Blackman summarises her feelings: ‘Is it bad to say I’m still contemplating the award? I was incredibly shocked to win. People say a lot that they were humbled, but genuinely, I feel like I’ve had a lot of accolades recently and this one is pretty high up. I’m really delighted and still slightly shocked. It tends to bring a smile to my face when I think about it.’
At a glance – Sharon Blackman
1997-2000 Legal adviser, Colonial Financial Services Ltd
2000-04 Specialist lawyer, Abbey National Treasury Services
2004-present Managing director and general counsel, markets, Citi
Citi – key facts
Size of team 16
Legal spend Over $500,000
Preferred advisers Clifford Chance; Linklaters; Cleary Gottlieb; Norton Rose Fulbright; Fieldfisher