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Career profile: Penny Newman, director of people & knowledge, Lewis Silkin

Posted on from Changeboard

Get to know your peers in the global HR community through our career profile series. Today, we profile Penny Newman, director of people and knowledge at Lewis Silkin about her most outlandish summer job, how her early work experience outside of HR helped her career progression, and the song she can’t stop humming.

Basic details

Name: Penny Newman

Job: Director of people and knowledge

Current employer: Lewis Silkin LLP

CV in brief:

  • Director of of people and knowledge at Lewis Silkin, 2007 – Present
  • Head of HR, Farrer & Co, 2002 – 2007
  • Head of HR, Davies Arnold Cooper, 1998 – 2002
  • Various roles, Deloitte, 1983 – 1998

A day in your life

Tell us about your job and organisation.

I’m the director of people and knowledge at Lewis Silkin, a law firm with a £40 million turnover and three offices in London, Oxford and Cardiff. We have 320 staff, 62 of whom are partners. The firm has particular expertise in media, brands and technology, employment, reward and immigration, corporate and commercial, real estate and regeneration, and litigation and dispute resolution.

Who do you report into? 

Managing partner, Ian Jeffery.

Tell us about your team.  

I’m a member of the strategic and operational management team led by the managing partner. I lead the HR team.

What is the most rewarding part of your role? 

Coaching and development. I particularly enjoy doing interview practice with our trainees to help them with the qualification process. I don’t think they enjoy it quite as much but it helps prepare them to do their best in the real thing.

What is the most challenging part of the role? 

Juggling many competing priorities and dealing with unexpected requests from partners.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There’s no such thing as a typical day, that’s what makes the job exciting. It’ll usually start at 8 and probably go on till at least 7 PM.

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?  

I joined Lewis Silkin for the chance to have a broader role than just HR which would enable me to use my business/fee earner background. I was also attracted by the culture and leadership of Lewis Silkin. It’s a very special law firm.

Perks and downsides of your role? 

Being on the board and working closely with the MP means I have a very clear idea of the direction the firm is taking and can get involved with projects which are important to our business. The downside is the long hours.

What skills are essential for the role you’re in?  

Resilience, flexibility and an ability to move from strategic thinking to practical problem solving. It also helps to have a sense of humour and the ability to write well (lawyers are unforgiving when it comes to typos and grammatical errors). As a former accountant I do like spreadsheets and control schedules and that’s useful too.

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

Quite a bit of serendipity. I’ve always been willing to take on new things, hence my move from accountancy to HR and now to my current role.

What were your best subjects in school? What and where did you study? 

History and Latin. I did a degree in Modern History at Oxford

What was your first job? How did you get it and why did you choose to work there?

I was a trainee chartered accountant at Touche Ross (now  Deloitte). There weren’t many jobs for history graduates at the time and so I thought I would give accountancy a go.

Have you followed the career path you set out to?

There was no grand plan. I wanted to wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work. I’m delighted I ended up with a career in HR but I picked up lots of useful skills along the way in my earlier roles.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them? 

Passing tax exams was a problem. I was lucky and I worked just hard enough to manage it. Being numerate and having an audit background has been very useful in helping my career progression.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in a job?

I once wore a sash and carried a parasol as a “Daily Mail Money Girl” in a summer job.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?  

Lewis Silkin ranking as the top law firm and number 19 in the Sunday Times Best Companies list a couple of years ago, and our six consecutive years in the top 100 list.

Do you have any career regrets? 

I wish I’d taken a year out to go travelling.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

Do something you love and don’t be frightened of moving on to get the right experience and opportunities.

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

Go travelling now! You won’t have the time to do it when you are working and by the time you can go again, you will be too old to backpack.


  • Coffee or tea?: Coffee (no sugar) – I like the taste and I need the caffeine
  • Jam or marmalade?: Marmalade – preferably dark and bitter. I’m not keen on very sweet things
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?: The Rolling Stones. Brings back memories of school discos
  • Mac or PC?: PC, though I do love my iPad
  • The Guardian or The Times?: Neither, though I read The Sunday Times at the weekend
  • BBC or ITV?: Sky plus has changed my life, so neither
  • M&S or Waitrose?: Waitrose – I like the ethos of the John Lewis Partnership
  • Morning or night?: Morning – I like to start at 8 to get on top of things before the phone/emails begin
  • Rain on snow?: Snow. I love the way it covers up the grime of London
  • Sweet or savoury?: Definitely savoury – see above!


  • App: Twitter – I like to discover online communities and it’s great for breaking news
  • TV show: Breaking Bad.  A good man is gradually corrupted, and it’s beautifully filmed as well
  • Band: Eurythmics, reminds me of my youth and I love Annie Lennox’ voice
  • Song: Happy by Pharell. It’s stuck in my head and I find myself humming it regularly
  • Book: Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo. I like the central character
  • Sports team: I don’t follow sport
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Chill out with my daughters
  • Place to eat: My dining room table, I love to cook for friends
  • Holiday spot: New York, for the energy and of course the shopping
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: You cannot take responsibility for someone else’s happiness

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