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Aysha Fernandes - Commercial Finance Director at UK Finance

Alumni spotlight

Dawn Sanderson

Global Head of Legal at Al Dahra Holding

Dawn Sanderson started her career with us as a corporate associate in the UK. In 2008, she helped set up our office in Abu Dhabi where she has remained ever since. Today she is Global Head of Legal at Al Dahra Holding, a multinational leader in agribusiness operating in over 20 countries.

Dawn reflects on her move to the Middle East and why she jumped at the chance to co-chair our new UAE Alumni Network.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Yorkshire, England but my family relocated south to Hampshire when I was five. I went to an all-girls secondary school which I loved. It was a pressurized environment, but I had a great group of friends, and performed well under pressure there. It set up me for the future.

Who is your biggest role model?

My mum. At primary school I was called bossy, but my mum taught me to develop this into assertion and use it to my advantage.

I used my “bossy” and “pedantic” attributes in the Debating Society, and turned my tendency for picking holes in arguments into a strength. I learnt that there can be many views and opinions expressed in a disagreement, and many of them will have merit. So it comes down to the art of persuasion, and trying to convince the people involved that your view is the right view. I have to do that daily now!

How did the firm influence your development as a lawyer?

Eversheds Sutherland has a culture of excellence in client service. With that comes a commitment to making sure everything that you produce is precise and accurate. At first, I felt intimidated by its reputation as a top-quality firm, particularly as I had just left a firm where I had been bullied so was feeling rather inadequate.

However, Corporate Partner Stephen Hill, then a senior associate, took time to mentor me. My secretary, Sofy Varley, was also hugely supportive.

Were it not for the time and encouragement I received from Stephen and many others, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.

Eversheds Sutherland has a culture of excellence in client service. With that comes a commitment to making sure everything that you produce is precise and accurate. At first, I felt intimidated by its reputation as a top-quality firm, particularly as I had just left a firm where I had been bullied so was feeling rather inadequate.

What is your most vivid memory from your time here?

In 2008, I worked on two major deals in parallel – ‘Project Gresty’ and a divestiture for Tyco (now Johnson Controls) and ‘Project Canon’. Project Canon came at a time when Eversheds Sutherland secured a ground-breaking contract whereby the firm offered a fixed fee in return for sole-provider status on Tyco’s external legal needs globally.

We began closing for Gresty on Wednesday and had to complete by Saturday – the last day of the tax year. I remember my husband bringing me clean clothes from time to time, and me bombing it up and down the stairs to the meeting room, to get it over the line. It ended up winning the Midlands’ Deal of the Year. All the while I was managing Project Canon, involving five jurisdictions (including the UAE).

On the Saturday morning, my husband picked me up and we drove to Woburn Abbey for a friend’s wedding. By that point I hadn’t slept in four days so, needless to say, I didn’t make it through the event. It was exhausting but exhilarating.

You were part of the team that opened our Abu Dhabi Office. What was that like?

An email came around asking for volunteers to set up an office in Abu Dhabi. It was the firm’s second wholly-owned office in the Middle East. I was selected from Nottingham, along with Geraldine Ahern, who is now the Abu Dhabi Senior Office Partner.

We built the office from scratch. There was no facilities team so we had to roll up our sleeves. We made trips to Carrefour and loaded up on everything from bathroom supplies and cleaning products to tea bags, pens and pencils.

Everyone said it was a brave move. I just felt motivated by the thrill of an adventure.

Everyone said it was a brave move. I just felt motivated by the thrill of an adventure.

You joined Al Dahra eight years later. How did that happen?

The move came out of the blue. It’s quite uncommon for a white western woman to head up the legal function for a local company. But Al Dahra has always been forward-thinking entrepreneurial, having started in a villa and grown exponentially.

Mine is a typical GC role covering everything from restructuring, joint ventures and M&A, through to real estate, litigation, employment, IP and commercial contracts. I might work on up to ten different jurisdictions a day.

It’s a challenging role, but what His Excellency has achieved in fifteen years is mind-boggling. And there’s still so much opportunity – the future is exciting.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of going in-house?

Research – make sure you choose an organization that will suit you.

Once you’re in, develop strong relationships with the senior management team. If they understand your value, you’ll get the support you need.

Develop the art of listening. It’s easy when taking instructions to form a view without having all the requisite information. Interrogating the business thoroughly means you will understand exactly what’s required, probably unearth some other pertinent issues, and be able to provide better, more holistic and commercial advice for the business. That will add value for them.

And don’t underestimate the intensity. External lawyers put in long hours so have difficulty understanding how working 08:00-18:00 can be hard. But often you’re pulled in many directions simultaneously, with lots of shifting and competing priorities, so your to-do list can easily spiral out of control; and in-house, according to the business, EVERYTHING is urgent.

What do you value from external counsel?

A combination of technical, interpersonal and project management expertise. Above all, I prize the ability to take something off my desk, deal with the problem, and provide a solution, in a concise and commercial way. It is said the job of external counsel is to effectively make their client look good within their organization – that’s true. Working as a partnership is key.

What motivated you to co-chair our UAE Alumni Network?

I was very happy to be invited to co-chair with Geraldine. I’m quite a nosy person so I’m keen to catch up with former colleagues. It’s a good opportunity to establish a network in the UAE, particularly where there’s the common ground of a shared experience.

I’m very proud of my time at the firm. When Eversheds Sutherland won ‘Law Firm of the Year’ at this year’s Legal Business Awards, they were credited for the “strategic masterstroke” of spinning-off of its alternative legal services arm, Konexo.

I recall they had a consulting team before most law firms, because they have always been innovative, cost-effective, and had strong but approachable and friendly lawyers. There aren’t many firms that tick all of those boxes.