Partner Spotlight: Stairway to Success

Ian McDowell
28 June 2021
Shan Greer, you’re a Spencer West Partner based in the Caribbean, specialising in commercial and construction work. Can you tell us what first made you embark on voluntary work in addition to your legal work?

When I was younger, my father worked on a poverty alleviation project funded by the World Bank in the Caribbean Island of Saint Lucia. Part of his role was to identify projects which helped rural and poor communities out of poverty. My mother was also involved in charity work, having worked for various non-profits for most of her life. Through their example, my parents taught me to recognise my privilege as an educated Caribbean woman and appreciate that others were not as fortunate to have the same access.

As an engineer, my father understood the importance of infrastructure in supporting communities to meet their basic needs and build capacity. He strongly believed that all people were entitled to clean, dry accommodation, good sanitation, and the ability to get from A to B safely and reasonably quickly.

When I was at university and on holiday during the summer months, I visited his various projects around the island. It was compelling to see how quickly you could regenerate and empower an entire community with sanitation, access bridges and walkways.

One of the experiences that stands out for me is building steps in Soufriere, a small community in St. Lucia . For this community to access schools, shops and other amenities, they had to walk up a steep dirt path. It would take them 15 or 20 minutes to get up or down the path, which was just the start of their journey. Children from this community would have a 45-minute walk each way to get to school.

The situation was made worse in the rainy season when the steep dirt path would become very muddy. Residents would have to take off their shoes and walk barefoot up the path to avoid dirtying their shoes. Recognising this challenge, my father supervised the funding of a proper footpath to replace the unpaved path, which made the main road more accessible to the community.

I distinctly remember one woman from the community, an older lady, maybe 50 or 60, a street vendor in the main village. She struggled to transport her goods up and down this path. We met her on one of our visits after completing the project, and she thanked my father, saying “. Yesterday, I walked to the road, and my shoes did not get dirty.” Something as simple as putting in steps made such a difference to her, to her business, to her family.

That moment stands out for me because, up until that point, I did not truly appreciate my father’s passion for his work. I would often resent the amount of time he spent trying to ‘change the world’. Meeting this woman made me realise that he was doing his part, and I should do the same when I graduated from university.

Is there a relationship between engaging with grassroots communities and the skills you need as a lawyer?

Absolutely. Many of the skills I have acquired as a commercial attorney help me work with grassroots communities. I understand how to implement legal strategies pragmatically to suit my client’s business needs. These skillsets allow me to advise communities on the best legal strategies for operating their businesses. Like my father with the steps, I empower communities to improve the delivery of their goods and services, thereby making them more attractive in the market.

It cuts both ways. Taking what is, on its face, a complicated process and presenting it in a way that makes sense to small farmers or agro-processors who may not have had the benefit of higher education is a skillset all on its own. My work with these communities has improved my communication skills, making me more valuable to my clients. I have become better at talking about the law in the language of business, and I owe this to my pro bono work.

What kind of pro bono work are you involved with now?

Most of my pro bono work revolves around education and public sensitisation. A project worth mentioning is the work I did with the Caribbean Association of Rural Women Producers. This organisation improves the standard of living of rural women producers through training, cultural exchange, networking, and the promotion of regional and international trade. It was rewarding to see the excitement on the women’s faces once they understood how properly drafted contracts and trademarks could help protect their businesses and intellectual property.

I also learnt that not knowing is not the same as lacking the capacity to understand. Many of these women were limited in their education but more than capable of understanding the training materials. The moment they got the information, you could see their natural-born intelligence working with that information. Their businesses took off!

Two years later, I remember meeting one of the participants who now sells her products in the US market. She said to me, “Don’t worry, I know now that I have to make sure I trademark my things. I’m not gonna let them steal my recipes.” Knowing my work made a difference felt great.

Currently, I am working as a co-founder of a non-profit called the Caribbean ADR Initiative (CADRIn) together with my colleague Baria Ahmed.

A recent Commonwealth survey found that empowering small and middle-sized companies to resolve disputes effectively is a critical element to promoting trade between Caribbean islands and the wider international community. Through our organisation’s work, we sensitize and educate SMEs about how to implement dispute resolution processes that protect their businesses in the event of a conflict.

SMEs rarely think about the impact disputes have on their business’ profitability. Sadly, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a plan for the worst-case scenario and why for SMEs, this seldom means going to court. In the Caribbean, local courts are struggling to deal with their caseloads and waiting three years for a decision on a dispute can have a devastating impact on SMEs. We show these companies how they can use various dispute resolution strategies to lessen the impact of disputes on their businesses. We are making a significant impact, and that is gratifying and fulfilling.

Shan, thanks so much for speaking with me.
Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.