Margaret Casely-Hayford

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in April 2010. Read more about Margaret Casely-Hayford in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Margaret Casely-Hayford, General Counsel, Director of Legal Services and Company Secretary for the John Lewis Partnership, one of the UK’s top 10 retail businesses.


Margaret was born in London in 1959. She is from a renowned family of high achievers – her grandfather, Joseph Casely-Hayford, was a barrister, politician and journalist, her father, Victor Casely-Hayford, trained as a  barrister and later became an accountant and her uncle Archie Casely-Hayford was a barrister, too, and was Attorney-General under the administration of the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Her siblings are also high achievers: Peter is a television producer, Augustus is a curator and art historian and Joe is a designer.


Margaret read Law at Somerville College, Oxford (the same college as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher) and graduated in 1982. She did her Bar Finals at the Inns of Court School of Law and was called to the Bar in 1983 (Gray’s Inn). Her pupillage was at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, a mix of Administrative and Commercial Law set, and she describes  it as “a fantastic background of both Public and Commercial Law and it was where I started doing Planning Law work”.


After her pupillage, Margaret joined the Association of District Councils as an in-house counsel. However, she missed planning work and in 1986 joined Denton Wilde Sapte, the international law firm and one of the UK top 100 law firms, as an employed barrister where she continued doing the planning work she greatly loved.


By 1997 she was frustrated at the reduced right of audience and being referred to as a “non-practising barrister” because she worked for solicitors as well as the requirement  to first disbar as a barrister in order to qualify as a solicitor at that time, she decided to take action against the Bar Council. She enlisted the help of Cherie Booth QC whose opinion was favourable that there was no legal justification why a barrister must first disbar to qualify as a solicitor, particularly when solicitors were never required to come off the roll to qualify as barristers. The Bar Council accepted her argument and changed the rules, benefitting many barristers in a similar position ever since.


Also in 1995 Margaret left Denton Wilde Sapte for Berwin Leighton Paisner but was persuaded to return back to Denton in 1996 as the joint Head of Planning and Public Law Group (with Stephen Ashworth). In 1998 she became a partner, the first black partner at the firm and possibly the first black female partner of a large City law firm. Under her joint leadership her team was regularly voted top of the Legal 500 list of planning law teams in the country. She played a lead role in many high-profile projects, including the £2 billion King’s Cross Central regeneration project in June 2004, acting as lead adviser to the London Borough of Camden. She was also the lawyer for Chelsea FC for over 17 years.
In 2006 Margaret became the General Counsel, Director of Legal Services and Company Secretary at the John Lewis Partnership, a company with 70,000 employees and with a £7 billion annual turnover. She currently leads a team of 13 legal staff, plus support staff. 


She featured in the Power List 2008 – Britain’s 100 most influential black people – and it was said that in her 20-year career as a City lawyer she became renowned as one of the country’s foremost planning practitioners. The panel said: “A serial pioneer throughout her career, Margaret has trail blazed wherever she has been.”


Between 2000 and 2008 she was appointed Special Trustee of Great Ormond Street Hospital and Trustee of the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch, East London, the only museum in the UK specialising in the history of English domestic interiors. She was also a committee member of the Leisure Property Forum.


Margaret is a trustee of the English Concert, a baroque orchestra and has been a freelance contributor to the Building & Design Magazine.


Margaret is married to an architect and they have a 16-year-old daughter. 


Below is our interview with Margaret.


BLD: What was your first job?
MC-H:  An administrative job at the British Council in school holidays, which was a good experience in an office environment.


BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?
MC-H:  It almost chose me! My great passion is ballet and I really wanted to be a ballet dancer and my mother used to say: “Get a qualification first and then see what happens.” Given my family history and the fact that my father was so influential in my life, it is not a surprise that I ended up in Law. The thing is, I like to be taken seriously and for me ballet, if I was going to do it, meant that I had to be prima ballerina if there was to be any substance to it!


BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
MC-H: If I were young enough, I would dance. I would so love to be a Cellist - that wonderful mournful tone of a Cello is hauntingly beautiful. Journalism is another attraction, particularly political journalism or focussing on social commentary would be how I would like to end my days.


BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
MC-H: From my parents – whatever you do, do it absolutely to the best of your abilities.


BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
MC-H:  I’ve met with some fantastically patronising people who looked at a young black person and thought “you won’t amount to very much”. For example, at school my Chemistry teacher assumed that I was going to be a housewife. That sort of patronising comment gave me an inner strength to feel “I will show you!" (Mind you even if I’d been a housewife I’d have tried to be superwoman!)


BLD: What career advice would you give to others?
MC-H:   Lawyers are ten-a-penny, so think of something that makes you special to your client, which means you have to be a rounded person with a rounded life – be culturally, politically, socially and commercially aware in order to engage with your client.


BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
MC-H:  Such a cliché to say Nelson Mandela. However, if I were to spend all that time in prison, I would probably come out and say: “fight”. To then say make peace and not to set black people against white people is so admirable. The other figure I admire is Queen Elizabeth 1, who was strong and inspirational, culturally and socially skilled, philosophical, intelligent, mentally strong and politically aware and astute. She also still had a strong feminine side.


BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
MC-H: Integrity.


BLD: What are your dislikes?
MC-H: People with no social responsibility because they blame everyone but themselves – for example it’s inadequate to blame the teacher, the school etc if you do not take personal responsibility for yourself or your own children.


BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
MC-H: I remember before qualifying when I was doing a holiday job, I was told to file a document at the Crown Office. At that time the document was to be filed by 4pm and it was an application for a mandatory injunction to house some young girls otherwise they would have had to stay another night in a bus shelter. I got to the Crown Office at 3.59pm and the official refused to process the application because he could not finish it by 4pm. I remember thinking: “I cannot allow the girls to stay another night in a bus shelter” and pretended to burst into tears. He took pity and processed the application. But it was a low tactic!


BLD: Tell us about your professional high point(s).
MC-H:  There are so many. I’ve had a fantastically good career. I enjoyed working in private practice, particularly when I was working for Chelsea FC and saving the grounds for the club. I love my job at John Lewis and working in-house for a company with integrity has been great.

BLD: Any professional regrets?
MC-H: I was once offered a directorship of a company which I turned down. Soon after, the company was floated and all the board directors got millions of pounds. It was not a shrewd move!

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
MC-H:  If there was any way to undo the mindset: “there is no such thing as society”, then this is what I would do. As we live in a global society, this is ever-more important, that we have responsibility not just for ourselves but our children, the society and the environment.