Eleni Alexiou: "Unfortunately women are still treated with mistrust, especially in Greece"
The renowned lawyer and managing partner of AKL Law Firm describes in In.gr her career in the industry so far and talks about everything that has changed during her career and what remains to change, as part of the Women Empowered issue, for International Women's Day.
In high school she wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, later she considered studying physics. Eventually, her family's historic law firm, later to be renamed AKL Law Firm, and her sister's encouragement pushed Helen Alexiou into law school. Her current position as Managing Partner of the firm, and her induction into The Legal 500 Hall of Fame for Real Estate & Construction, which includes attorneys who receive "constant praise from their clients for their continued excellence," prove that she acted wisely.
To mark the International Women's Day tribute, In.gr asked the accomplished lawyer to talk about her successful career in the challenging field of law, to describe the challenges that lie ahead for a woman with ambition and goals, and to share what she wishes she had known herself at the beginning of her career.
Although she had not imagined herself as a lawyer when she was still in school, Alexiou explains that "obviously there was a tradition in my family, with my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my parents being lawyers. The Alexiou firm was founded by my great-grandfather in 1891. So already, when I was asked to choose a direction in my junior year of high school, the firm was celebrating 100 years since its founding. This also influenced my decision, but I was mainly influenced by my sister, who 'warned' me that if I chose something as introverted as the sciences I loved at that time, I would have a hard time socially, as I was closed and shy.
Somehow, she chose Athens Law School ("and I caught up with great professors", she recalls) and then did a business master's degree at Alba, with the aim of "being able to help more with the management of the - then family - firm, now renamed AKL Law Firm".
Her master's degree prompted her to go deeper into M&A (mergers and acquisitions), but her love for real estate came a little later, which led to her further specialization in the field. "I didn't end up studying at the Polytechnic, but I am very lucky because I have managed to work almost exclusively with engineers, working on plans and diagrams and participating in studies of really huge projects, such as the redevelopment of Elliniko," Alexiou observes. "And so I have been able to preserve and hopefully enhance the family's history, but also to work on a subject that moves me more and more every day."
The road to the top
Although, as she points out, she was fortunate to have the support of her family right from her early years, Ms Alexiou's career path has not been free from the problems that most women face in the workplace - especially when pursuing a 'prestigious' profession. As she says in In.gr, "Unfortunately, women [in the industry] are still treated with mistrust, especially in Greece. I remember that for several years I attended meetings and was not even 'heard'. Sometimes I was frustrated, sometimes I was angry at the injustice, sometimes I tried to impose myself, sometimes I was silent."
"Eventually, with AKL's support, I learned to stick to what I knew, to keep offering what I could, until at some point I was actually heard," he continues. "I think that's the biggest difficulty for women. Getting them to believe us."
That wasn't the only way AKL contributed to her development. "The company started as a family office and that's where the principles come from, which we all embrace and hold us together," she notes. "In my early years as a lawyer, I was taught that while I must strive for the best, I am bound to make mistakes. Then, I learned that very rarely is there a clear answer to the questions we are asked to answer and that discussion and collaboration with other members of the firm multiplies knowledge and enhances analytical thinking. In these ways and many others, AKL has taught me how to be effective in my work, how to believe in my abilities, and how to treat colleagues. I don't know if my development would have been the same without all this support, because let's not forget that my parents were at the 'helm' of AKL."
Work and family: a difficult balance
Her establishment as one of the best lawyers in her field in Greece is certainly a cause for joy and pride - but also an indirect challenge. After all, it is not enough to reach the top. You must also manage to maintain it. What does this translate into in her own industry and how easy is it for a woman who has a family and a personal life at the same time to achieve it?
"A difficulty common to everyone is staying up to date and evolving in all areas at the same time," explains Alexiou. "Managing partners of law firms have to keep up with all the scientific developments, be aware of what is happening in the market, but at the same time keep in close contact with partners and staff. And, of course, to keep up to date with the ever-evolving technology and make the most of it, since AI is now an integral part of our lives."
And if on the business side the conditions for success are more or less clear, the same is not true for the more important "arena". That of family and balancing its own needs with our professional ambitions. We ask Mrs Alexiou if there is a secret that provides a solution to this difficult equation. "To sleep less!", she replies with humour and adds: "Unfortunately there is no secret. But there is no secret. All I can say, as cliché as it sounds, is to be present in every role.
"While we are working, to give 100 per cent of ourselves without guilt that we are away from our family. And when we are with our family, no matter how little time we have, to be completely committed to them. To give our full attention to those we love."
The changes that have come and the changes we expect
In the years between her graduation from Athens Law School and today, Alexiou has seen the industry change - for the better. "We have moved away from the conservatism of decades past," she argues. "In law firms, I believe that there is now an equalisation of pay for men and women, as I appreciate that gender is not a factor in determining pay. Also, there are many women in senior positions and younger and younger colleagues are gaining recognition and achieving the position they deserve.
"I hope and pray that everyone will gradually place more emphasis on ESG principles, because unfortunately few people link these criteria to the real value of the company. It is also our primary goal at AKL to focus on Human, Physical and Social Capital, as this is the real essence of our offer."
As for the advice she would give to a young woman who wants to chart her own course in law? Ms. Alexiou's answer is simple, but substantive. "Apart from the classics - work, dedication, perseverance, patience - I would give two pieces of advice: First, it may be that during our professional career we may have to give a little more than we can bear, sometimes unfortunately it is necessary. The important thing is to recognize this and get back to taking care of ourselves as soon as possible.
"Second, to identify in time what is critical at any given time and focus on those. Not everything happens at the same time," he concludes.
Follow Eleni Alexiou on LinkedIn.