Your career may take a different direction to what you expect, but if your heart’s in it you’ll be fine, advises Mayer Brown construction litigation partner Sally Davies — who’ll be speaking tomorrow at ‘How to survive in a changing legal market: Legal Cheek at Gray’s Inn’
When I was a law student I was interested in the idea of becoming a criminal barrister. Even now, as a construction litigator in the City, I’m interested in criminal law. Sometimes, if I have a spare hour, I’ll pop into the Old Bailey to sit and watch in the public gallery. But I have no regrets about how my career has turned out.
I couldn’t afford the bar as there was no sponsorship from chambers and I didn’t consider myself bright enough to win an Inns of Court scholarship. The law firms who came to the UCL milkround, on the other hand, seemed to be just offering you loads of money and a guaranteed, well-paid job at the end of law school. So it was an absolute no brainer for me and my student debts.
In my blissful ignorance, I thought I’d go to Rowe & Maw (which would become Mayer Brown in 2002 following a transatlantic merger), take their money for two years and then have a gap year and go into criminal law. But then I saw my friend at the criminal bar earning 10p while I was earning £20,000 and I decided to think again.
It wasn’t just about money, though. By that stage, I was lucky to have found myself in a dynamic, vibrant environment that I really enjoyed working in with fantastic and diverse clients. It’s a very male dominated area, construction litigation, which requires lots of time spent dealing with contractors who call a spade a shovel, but I love it.
How I got into it was a happy accident. My first seat as a trainee was in real estate. Then, a few weeks in, the trainee in construction failed her Law Society finals and that was the end of her. So the partner who would become my mentor needed a replacement. As head of construction, he pulled rank on my boss in real estate, and I was moved to work under him.
They were in the middle of a trial at the time. So I entered this very team-oriented environment — and was going to court and working with barristers, experts and passionate clients, all in this atmosphere of great camaraderie with down-to-earth, normal people. I absolutely loved it and thought to myself, “this is what I want to do”.
Having qualified into the construction litigation group, I went on to qualify as a solicitor-advocate. It suits my outgoing nature, although the very high value nature of our work means that when we go to court we nearly always instruct a barrister. The qualification comes in handy is during mediations and adjudications, which we do an awful lot of and rarely use counsel on. Doing advocacy gives you confidence — even in more mundane aspects of your working life, such as talking in meetings. We encourage all our junior lawyers to become solicitor-advocates.
Meanwhile, I was working hard to develop my own client relationships and bring in business to the firm conscious that it was what was needed to progress and because I really enjoyed this aspect of the role. I am fanatical about client service and being accessible to clients (technical excellence is assumed). I always wanted to be a partner: to be in a position where you were leading cases, responsible for training other people and developing client relationships really appealed to me.
As for being a woman: it wasn’t any more difficult than being a man. If you work hard enough at what you want you can achieve it. I do not see a big difference in men and women in this environment. It is demanding and challenging and demands a great deal of your time. People have left our department because of work-life balance and family choices, that is a choice for them which I respect. But if you want it enough it is perfectly possible to juggle work and family and other commitments and I’m pleased to say that my firm offers flexible working to everybody. Of course, being in a career that demands huge amounts of time and work, alongside phenomenal rewards, there are limits to that flexibility.
In any case, we are the lucky ones. Today’s graduates have a much harder time than we did. A 2:1 used to be sufficient to get you into a City law firm. That’s no longer the case — you need consistently excellent grades in your various university modules and an all-round very impressive CV. What’s strange, though, is that now you see lots of young people with great academics but who do not seem to be driven and enthusiastic about the law. You think to yourself, ‘You’re just doing this because your parents think that it’s good to be a doctor or a lawyer.’ Life is too short. What’s the point of not following your passion?
Sally Davies is a partner in Mayer Brown’s London construction litigation team. She will be speaking at Legal Cheek’s latest free careers advice event, ‘How to survive — and even thrive — in a changing legal market’, tomorrow evening.