Lawyer of the Month: Joanna Robinson

Lawyer of the Month: Joanna Robinson

Pictured: Joanna Robinson, partner at Pinsent Masons in Belfast.

Joanna Robinson is used to long and demanding journeys. The partner at Pinsent Masons in Belfast is already preparing for the Chicago Marathon in October, having completed her first such event in Dublin last year. On the promise, she rather ruefully recalls that it was going to be a very flat route — which wasn’t an entirely accurate description.

Her arrival in Belfast had been via a distinctly unconventional route: a childhood in Zimbabwe, university in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province and further training and legal work in London. She is, then, used to challenges and her latest was taking on the role of global co-chair of Female Futures for Pinsent Masons, which has more than 430 partners and 3000 staff around the world.

Female Futures is one of the inclusion network groups working together to contribute to the firm’s diversity activities and she took over the role in November last year with Justine Howard in London. International Women’s Day is therefore an exciting time for Jo.

“We will be hosting a lunchtime event in various Pinsent Masons’ office locations, both in-person and online. This year’s theme is #InspireInclusion and to embrace this theme we’re hosting a panel discussion covering inclusion at various stages of the employment and career lifecycle,” she says.

A social media campaign asking colleagues across all offices and aspects of the business to pen a letter to their younger selves is running all week, and various International Women’s Day discussions are focusing on issues including social mobility, returning to work after family or parental leave, and perimenopause and menopause — addressing challenges and issues which lead to experienced women struggling and sometimes leaving the workplace.

Jo and her co-chair, she says, wanted to reset the agenda for the day. “International Women’s Day is one day a year — but we don’t want everything to be focused on that alone. It is however the day we set the aims for what we’re going to be doing for the rest of this year, but we will then revise it every few months and then annually.”

Passionate about gender parity, Jo is a mentor for SistersIN in Northern Ireland, whose leadership programme helps to enable, empower and develop female pupils to become the leaders of tomorrow. “I’m also a mentor across our offices for more junior females so I have a mentee in Munich, one in London and one in South Africa.

“I have a daughter and want to inspire her to have sort of a fantastic career, whatever she chooses to do. So it doesn’t really feel like work for me as it’s something I’m very interested in.”

The nature of her work can, on a routine basis, inspire all her three children. She specialises in the commercial property sector, including acquisitions and disposals, lettings, development agreements, joint venture arrangements, disposals and re-financing projects.

“I love the tangible nature of commercial property where you can do a large-scale development agreement and then a couple of years down the line drive by with my children and that they say ‘oh, Mummy worked on the contracts for that building’ or ‘look at that stadium, she was involved in some of the financing for that’. It’s great to see the end result if everything has gone to plan.”

With 90 per cent of companies committed to re-establishing their physical presence by the end of 2024 developers expect an increase in demand for best-in-class grade A workspaces in Northern Ireland — but why did Jo move from Zimbabwe to Belfast?

She initially studied Roman-Dutch law in South Africa. “I met the person who is now my husband when he was studying with my older sister in England but was determined I wasn’t going to move to the UK simply because of one man. But we got married two weeks after I finished my law degree, secured a training contract in London and took the Legal Practice Course at BPP.”

Working for Ashurst in the city, she was involved in BT’s £2.4 billion sale and leaseback of its 6,700 properties, a deal she says which was “fantastically large and I think sealed my fate to be real estate lawyer for the rest of my career”.

When the couple decided to have a family, they moved back to Belfast where her husband, an accountant, had come from. She moved to Arthur Cox, where she became dual-qualified in Northern Ireland and English law.

Then, after Pinsent Masons merged with L’Estrange & Brett, she was headhunted to join the augmented team. “The opportunity to be involved in more deals in high-end commercial property work really appealed to me. That was 10 years ago this year, so it’s obviously gone quite well,” she notes with a modicum of understatement.

In meantime she has been encouraged with developments in the commercial property sector. “In the period after 2009 you saw a lot of lonely, static cranes with not much activity going on, but we are now seeing a more invigorated Northern Irish market. The hotel sector has boomed and we are now getting to a plateau there with very high occupancy levels.”

Purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) has also been thriving and while she says there is some catching up to do in the build-to-rent (BTR) market, Northern Ireland is seeing new developments breaking ground. “That’s exciting because it will really invigorate Belfast city centre and attract an increasing number of young people to live close by.”

For Jo, the immediate task at hand is coordinating Pinsent Masons’ activities around International Women’s Day. “We are actually having our event on March 7 because the day itself tends to become very busy,” she says.

“The event in London will have three panellists and will be streamed to all our offices globally with additional events at other times underlining the theme of inspiring inclusion which fits into our ongoing activities where we try to exchange ideas and network, both internally and with our clients, organising joint events to raise awareness.”

Those in Female Futures, she adds, act as representatives of Pinsent Masons colleagues and play an important role in the development of the firm’s policies and initiatives with a particular gender focus.

In Northern Ireland that focus is a particularly promising one. “Head of office Andrea McIlroy-Rose is a champion of diversity and inclusion and is a previous global chair of Female Futures, and we are something of a beacon as there are more female than male partners — so we have some powerful females in the Belfast office.”

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