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Business & Economy

On the cover: Gill Hunter, managing partner at Square One Law

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As co-chair of the British Chambers of Commerce’s Workplace Equity Commission, Square One Law managing partner Gill Hunter is leading the charge towards a more equitable society. Here, she tells North East Times Magazine about her role in laying foundations for watershed cultural revision across the employment sector, revealing how she is drawing on past experiences in the legal world to set a template for lasting change.

A dedicated disability rights and LGBTQ activist, vocal feminist, devoted mother, charity champion, fervent business influencer, jovial podcast host and managing partner at Square One Law; there’s more diversity in Gill Hunter’s weekly diary than most businesses.

Having seen off cancer (twice) and spent five years turning Newcastle and Darlington-based Square One into one of the region’s most well-known legal firms, she appreciates how precious time is.

For Gill, it’s not about ‘the Gram’ or LinkedIn clout, though – there’s nothing performative about the way she operates.

On the contrary, she wants to create opportunity for people who don’t currently have it, open doors for those locked outside and demonstrate to businesses the financial and social benefits of “being kind”, embracing change and refusing to “stick with how things have always been done”.

It was Gill’s first brush with mortality that was the catalyst to shake off the corporate shackles and align personal values with the hard-earned professional skills that had taken her to the top of the legal world.

She says: “Someone said that we spend our lives building a brick wall and then cancer tears that all down.

“It’s then up to us, up to me, how that wall is rebuilt.

“That moment offered a chance to re-evaluate what I wanted to do, what I wanted for my children, how I wanted to work – it was a chance to reset.

“I researched progressive leadership and benefits of being vulnerable, not being afraid to admit I didn’t have all the answers.

“Communicating this, and embracing vulnerability, was liberating.”

Gill adds: “I began talking about weaknesses and discussing things like my divorce and its impact.

“I could still provide leadership and direction, but expressing vulnerability, being open and honest and being more human, empowered me and others.

“It helped build stronger professional relationships, but if it wasn’t something people felt comfortable engaging with, then that was fine too.”

Already working with marginalised groups and a vocal ally of LGBTQ communities, Gill has created an inclusive, “kinder” workplace, where people are themselves, dress how they feel comfortable, express and share creative ideas – somewhere they don’t have to adhere to a lawyer stereotype, hide individuality and passions, or present in a way that makes them uneasy.

And she practices what she preaches.

Gill sports a nose ring, wears a Bullet For My Valentine T-shirt and proudly displays a huge peacock tattoo the length of her right arm.

She says: “I want to work with people with creativity, who think differently.

“Why stifle individuality and creativity, by asking them to cover up tattoos or wear a suit and hide the things that inspire them or are visual representations of their creativity?”

“Change can be positive, but many push against it.

“Take the effort to make everyone head back to the office, rather than work from home.

“Evidence shows homeworking increases productivity, as well as being beneficial to the wellbeing of some.

“If it works, why not embrace it?

“The pandemic gave us a glimpse of colleagues’ homes and we became tolerant of family appearing in Teams calls or dogs barking – we got on with it and did our jobs.

“If there’s a reduction in someone’s performance, it’s probably down to the person or how they’re managed, rather than their environment.”

Gill’s desire for positive change recently saw her appointed co-chair of the British Chambers of Commerce’s Workplace Equity Commission, established following the organisation’s own workforce survey, which found 25 per cent of firms had no inclusion plan and less than half had undertaken activity to attract people from marginalised communities.

“The findings were concerning,” says Gill, who, in November, gave evidence as a business owner to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on human rights in the workplace.

She adds: “The aim is to help SMEs create fairer, more equitable workplaces.

“We have issued a call for evidence to businesses, organisations and the Chambers of Commerce network, and the responses will enable us to understand what works, what doesn’t and how we support businesses to get started, overcome fears of doing the wrong thing and learn from businesses similar to their own about what can be done, regardless of resources.

“The final report, with practical recommendations, is due to be issued in September this year, and will hopefully improve participation by businesses, influence policy and spotlight issues we need the Government to address.

“I am hoping the work of the commission will highlight the tangible business benefits a diverse, engaged and inclusive workforce can provide.

“I have experienced it.

“Diversity adds new perspectives, experiences and opinions.

“It moves businesses away from becoming echo chambers and allows them to make more robust and informed decisions.

“At Square One, we have restructured to provide a greater voice to more people within the business on how it operates and is run.

“Through outreach and reverse mentoring, we engage with communities and organisations with different experiences to our own to road test strategies.

“We don’t expect our people to conform to any ‘norm’ – we embrace them as individuals and they are more engaged and have greater opportunity to reach their potential.

“And with improved engagement comes improved performance and better productivity.”

While Square One – which also has an office in Leeds – is the perfect case study for a fully-engaged and committed equitable business, Gill is at pains to point out the journey to enhancing equity is ongoing and not always straightforward.

She says: “Addressing these issues can be daunting, but it boils down to doing the right thing and being kind.

“Tough decisions can be made in a kind way – working like this can be hugely beneficial to a business’ culture, help improve performance and, ultimately, profitability.

“I’m passionate about this from a professional and personal point of view.

“I’ve worked in an industry for almost 30 years that doesn’t have a great deal of diversity.

“It’s mainly run by men of a certain age, who have been educated in a certain way, who do things in a certain style and who generally haven’t had to think much about diversity or change things in any way, because it has always served them well.

“However, I believe what we are doing at Square One can have a positive ripple effect across the sector.

“I got into business by putting on a front.

“I was the first in my family to go to university.

“I’m not from a privileged background, so I moderated my accent and didn’t talk about my background – I wasn’t skiing in France or holidaying in the places colleagues were.

“I was a heavy metal fiend, and that certainly didn’t fit the legal persona, nor did the fact I wasn’t straight, but the prospect of coming out wasn’t a consideration.

“Behaviour like that was the norm then, but it shouldn’t be now.

“Businesses must create cultures where people can be authentic.

“People should feel free – work is where we spend most of our time, so happiness is essential.

“I don’t own a suit anymore, but anyone wanting to work in a tailored three-piece suit should – more power to them.

“But being professional isn’t about what you wear, it’s about what you know, how you act and what level of service or experience you can deliver.”

Culture change is often discussed, but direct action tends to be less evident.

Gill says: “I hear stuff like, ‘we’d love to increase diversity, but we’re in the North East and it’s not a diverse talent pool’ – nonsense.

“We have a hugely diverse demographic.

“If you’re struggling to engage with marginalised communities, you’re not trying hard enough.

“We proactively engage with the LGBTQ community, people of other faiths and diverse backgrounds.

“It takes effort and perseverance, but it’s beyond worthwhile.

“It must also go beyond paying lip-service to initiatives like International Women’s Day, Pride or Black Lives Matter.

“Real change takes more than the odd LinkedIn post – that won’t change a culture.

“But by spending time and engaging with, listening to and promoting opportunity among communities, it will.

“And the more businesses do it, the faster it will occur.”

Having worked hard to evolve the culture within Square One, become a spokesperson for change within the legal sector and taken on a national role to enhance equity and diversity, does Gill have any concerns about being labelled one of the “tofu-eating wokerati”, to quote the UK’s former Home Secretary?

“‘Woke’ is an emotive word – a word that’s been weaponised,” she says.

“To me, it’s not negative; it simply means being alert to social justice and discrimination.

“But to some, it’s the worst insult.

“There are no negatives in engaging with diverse groups or working harder to understand and support an inclusive approach.

“If it makes people worried about potential backlash, then I think that’s a real shame.

“I appreciate everyone needs a starting point and it can be daunting for businesses concerned about saying or doing the wrong thing, worried about their language – there’s no shame in not knowing how positive change begins.”

“That’s one of the reasons I got involved in the Workplace Equity Commission.

“Positive outcomes can start with difficult conversations.

“I urge businesses to engage with marginalised groups directly and ignore noise from those who have made no effort to listen to views from these communities before trying to influence others.

“Quite often, the ‘issues’ people rail about aren’t hard to understand when approached with an open mind and a little bit of kindness.”

So, what does Gill hope 2024 will bring?

“This year will inevitably bring significant change,” she says.

“We are likely to have a new Government or Cabinet and, working alongside business, I’d like to think we can grasp the opportunity for positive change and set a new benchmark for creating a fairer, more equitable economy.”

www.squareonelaw.com

Photography by Christopher Owens
www.christopherjamesowens.com