‘Sticking To What You Love Is A Better Formula Than Even The Best Laid Plans’

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Ed note: This is the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem an awful lot of room for creativity or self-expression in law. Certainly, my City training sometimes felt like it was designed to sap every ounce of spark and individuality out of me, writes Berwin Leighton Paisner partner-turned-entrepreneur Simon Harper…

As a trainee I was variously told to cut my hair, keep quiet in client meetings, not wear Chelsea boots to work and that green gingham wasn’t an appropriate colour for a work shirt. Actually they’re not all unreasonable suggestions in retrospect – indeed, in the subsequent eighteen years I have implemented at least one of them.

I wish I’d known when I was starting out that the future might look quite different to the present. Despite finding the commercial area of law I’d qualified into genuinely interesting, the newly qualified me felt a daily deflation at the apparent rigidity of a lifelong legal career. My first salvation came in the form of a secondment to a cutting-edge biotech company. It showed me that law didn’t have to be about traditionalism and conformity, and that it was possible to give advice in a positive way that made clients smile. My subsequent move to a media firm may have brought in less money but it introduced me to the rise of the internet and the start of the dotcom era. I was also exposed to industries disrupted by this new technology, which appealed to my quietly radical side.

Another thing I failed to appreciate fully in my younger days was the importance of relationships with clients. Over time these would give me the foundation for partnership and leading a team – although I didn’t know it yet. Happily, when I returned to the City at the beginning of the millennium I found that it had changed, with my new law firm’s clients wanting a different flavour to their legal advice – and even a little creativity. Being in a firm that allowed me room to handle client relationships how I wanted to was the final piece in the jigsaw.

Still, you have to keep your eyes open for a passing opportunity. After watching various client industries go through upheaval, I had a hunch that law wouldn’t escape unscathed. In 2006 I felt that changing attitudes to work and changing technology could come together to offer something new for clients. The result, Lawyers On Demand (LOD), which offers an alternative legal service model, was meant to be a little side-project. However, it took off and eventually became a separate Berwin Leighton Paisner Group business – on which I now work full-time.

Since then, many more people have embraced new ways of lawyering. It’s great to see lawyers who are interested in working differently and general counsels who want a new way to solve problems and to reduce costs. The radical is now feeling comfortingly mainstream.

So what, other than the lesson that green gingham should remain firmly in 1995, have I learnt from this meandering route? First, trust authenticity over excessive planning. No-one can predict the future, and sticking to what you love and being genuine seems to be a far better formula than even the best laid plans. It’s easy to seem like a rebel in a law firm (though I’m not sure I ever really was) but my love of the mildly disruptive did come good in the end. Second, within even a traditional industry like law, there are an increasing number of ways to do things differently, and those who are innovating are succeeding. That applies to legal careers too: being a good lawyer doesn’t necessarily just mean the slow burn towards partnership.

Simon Harper is co-Founder of Lawyers On Demand, a Berwin Leighton Paisner company