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Leaders with Ambition - Lee Curtis

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​Lee Curtis, Head of Global Sales at Simmons & Simmons.

The travel bug – with its freedom, independence and insights into cultures of all kinds – attracted Lee Curtis from an early age. As he shares on this episode of Leaders With Ambition, his father’s decision to launch the family on a two-year sailing adventure maps directly to a peripatetic, entrepreneurial career that has led to Lee, from Nottingham, becoming Head of Global Sales at Simmons & Simmons.

Having developed business and marketing teams across three continents (Australia, Asia and UK), Lee brings all the skills, passion and curiosity that make him an intrepid traveller in his role selling legal services. He explains to Host Nicky Acuna Ocana the trajectory of his career development and how he has arrived at the forefront of Fintech, taking Simmons & Simmons’ innovative suite of tech tools to clients with tremendous success. “I’m passionate about the application of supporting technology to enable efficiency in the way we deliver legal services,” says Lee, “That’s what I do on a daily basis.”

He’s also challenging the status quo by demonstrating that BD and marketing functions are critical to promoting legal services in today’s fluid, competitive marketplace.

With his engaging personality and great ability to form connections, Lee’s career highlights will come as no surprise. But he also talks about some of the hurdles he faces day to day as a non-lawyer working among the brilliant legal minds.

The episode closes with three pieces of advice that anyone working in the corporate world won’t want to miss. “Five years ago at Simmons, we were still talking about sales as a dirty word,” says Lee. Find out why that’s not the case anymore and how more and more law firms are getting onboard with business development and marketing as being essential to global growth and success! 

If you enjoyed this discussion, please clickhere to find previous episodes of Leaders with Ambition.

Key takeaways from this episode with Lee Curtis

Starting out

Lee’s early life and character was shaped by his dad’s decision to take the family on a two-year sailing trip to Australia and back, with lots of stops and wide variety of cultural experiences along the way.

Lee had a bumpy transition to university life after his travels and independence, including a switch from management studies and psychology to management studies and information systems (“a bit more grounded”).

Lee discusses his first job out of university at Allen & Overy as a business development graduate trainee – the start of a gratifying career journey. Lee navigated the sting of being made redundant early into a stint with BT Global Services by searching internal job boards for what turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to learn about internal communications for over 18 months in Leeds.

Lee reflects on the diversity of experience and skills he embraces in others as tools for his own growth and development.

Bouncing back

Less discusses how a failed bid on a huge BP project indirectly inspired his decision to decamp to Australia, where (with the help of his network) he was on his way to a BD job with Clayton Utz in no time.

After his stint at Clayton Utz, Lee’s “itchy feet” prompted him to take a chance on an opportunity to work for Clifford Chance as a Client Focus Manager based in Hong Kong.

Lee shares his thoughts on the different business culture and environment in Asia, as well as lessons learned while travelling across the region.

Lee found himself enticed when Simmons & Simmons came knocking with an opportunity to head up the marketing and business development in Asia.

Coming back to the UK

After a decade, Lee then took on a new role at Simmons & Simmons as Global Head of Clients & Sectors, which he eventually traded for Head of Global Sales – a better fit for his skill set, interests and personality.

Lee identified the gap between the development of tech initiatives and marketing the firm’s new product suite effectively. He proved that as a non-lawyer, he could sell legal products!

He then persuaded the Partners to let him sell directly to clients by working on a sales contract basis with a much lower base salary and greater commission upside potential.

Lee’s career highlights

  • Living and working in three different countries and cultures.

  • Getting the word “sales” into his job title at a law firm.

  • Convincing key stakeholders at Simmons to take a chance on his BD skills.

  • Blowing targets out of the water last year and on track to do the same this year.

Lee’s career challenges

  • Dealing with Lawyers! (For all their brilliance, they don’t necessarily know as much as they think they do!)

  • Earning the trust of Lawyers, who are sceptical of marketing and sales.

  • Managing through his firm’s partnership model and risk averse posture.

  • Working with relatively small R&D budgets.

Key quotes

  • “Law has become a passion of mine because I’ve been in it for so long, but I really didn’t have a clue … what I wanted to do (starting out).”

  • “(Mentors) really did teach me over the course of three years about what it takes to succeed in a corporate environment. They took me under their wing and showed me how to get things done – a lot of the skills I still have today.”

  • “No one is perfect and the great thing about life is the diversity of people you meet in all walks of life, personal and professional.”

  • “The power of team is something instilled in me at three years old and it works in business as well, very much so.”

  • “Instinctively people like to help other people. Some people are a little hesitant to ask for that help but in my experience someone comes up trumps.”

  • “Because of my skill set and probably my personality, I got increasingly frustrated at being in the background, if I’m honest. And what I really relished and wanted was direct client-facing opportunities and roles (at Simmons & Simmons).”

  • “I really believed we could materially change the way we went to market with our products and I think the fact that I was willing to personally put finances at risk and back myself gave (decision-makers) confidence and downgraded the risk.”

  • “(Simmons & Simmons) is a really entrepreneurial firm, but what you have to do – in my experience – is build the business case. If you build the right one, then people listen and it’s fantastic.”

  • “I spent a decade away from the UK and had some experiences that will take me to my grave, really. Made a bunch of friends around the world … and you get to open your eyes to a lot of stuff!”

  • “Five years ago at Simmons, we were still talking about sales as a dirty word.”

  • “I’m passionate about the application of supporting technology to enable efficiency in the way we deliver legal services. That’s what I do on a daily basis.”

  • “We are a business partner in whatever role we’re performing and we have a set of skills that we’ve been employed to perform (for the firm) because people in the other roles can’t do it. You are as entitled to your opinion as anyone else.”

  • 'Be confident in the abilities and skills you bring to the role you’re performing. BD & Marketing are as valid as any other function within a firm.'

  • 'Stay curious and know your firm and its products inside-out, positioning yourself as a dot connector across the organisation.'

  • 'Never, ever, ever, ever give up at anything!'

About Lee Curtis

Leading a global team, Lee works alongside Partners and senior management to deliver a sustainable business strategy. Practical, driven and results-focused, he is highly experienced in managing stakeholders at all levels and influencing Partners towards an agreed course of action. Lee has developed successful client account programmes in a number of organisations and has coached client teams to plan and execute tangible results. Having spent 10 years in the international legal market (eight in Asia), Lee understands what it takes to sell legal products and differentiate yourself from the competition.

About Nicky Acuna Ocana

Nicky Acuna Ocana has led high performing recruitment teams for over 20 years. As the Regional Managing Director of Ambition UK, Europe and US, she leads a team of highly-skilled recruitment consultants who are experts in their niche specialist areas. 

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