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‘Despite their unbridled ambition and long hours, my Clifford Chance contemporaries ended up leaving too’

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In the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, a lawyer-turned-blogger and property entrepreneur recalls, with mixed feelings, his days in the magic circle.

I studied modern and medieval German and Dutch for the first part of my degree. Realising that being able to recite 14th century Dutch love poetry might not be the skill that would lead to the career of my dreams, I took advantage of the Cambridge Tripos system to jump ship and read law for the rest of my undergrad.

The major preoccupation of other law students was apparently getting summer placements and training contracts. I wasn’t so fussed: I applied to just one firm for a placement (Clifford Chance), was accepted there, and somehow fell into doing the LPC in York. I really had no intention of actually being a solicitor: it was simply that I genuinely couldn’t think of anything else to do…

The training contract was at times somewhat gruesome. No, let’s make that entirely gruesome, for two of the four seats anyway.  I’m convinced you get a far better, more all-rounded, and confidence-building experience at a non-“magic circle” firm. The hours weren’t particularly horrendous for me: it was simply the mundane nature of the work, and in the first seat (banking) a feeling of total confusion and not understanding anything other than how to operate the photocopier. This at times was beyond my limited capabilities too.

My seat abroad was Amsterdam (thank you medieval Dutch love poetry!) and in this smaller office I got a bit more sense of what it would be like to be in a “normal” firm.  There was more client contact and responsibility for a start. I learned ALL about Dutch company formation and share issues too: hey, useful stuff…isn’t it?

My last seat (commercial litigation) saw me with a brilliant supervisor and a “dream case”: a Swiss Austro-Hungarian baron suing his son for $2.8 billion in Bermuda. “Sexy” cases like this didn’t come up ever, essentially, and my German, Dutch and French secured me a place on the team. I qualified into the department. Stints in Bermuda (almost two years), Zurich and Monaco followed, working in a small team, with people I got on very well with. I still wasn’t really learning anything, though, other than becoming quite the expert on Swiss family and inheritance law. At one point I recall being told: “We are orbiting at the highest levels of Swiss civil law!” It was all just a tad niche.

When the case eventually settled (after four years), I resigned. I remember getting multiple “well done” comments and my hand shaken, as if I’d escaped some terrible fate. I’d never really intended to go into law; I’d fallen into it. And I felt it was now or never to make a break for it. It took a bit of courage to do so, particularly given that I still didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. Nonetheless the partners’ reaction was rather telling about how much they must enjoy their own jobs.

Now I work doing a number of things. Mostly it’s property: my latest project with my business partner is converting a beautiful 35-acre redundant farmstead into a 50-bed eco-friendly, organic holiday retreat. It’s intended to be an exemplar of rural diversification. It follows on from an urban regeneration project we completed in Brighton: the conversion of a derelict factory. I also lead American kids on educational tours around Europe about five times a year for a week or two at a time. I adore that job and it fulfils the quiet desire I’ve always had to be a teacher.

Would I do anything different if I knew then what I do now? Probably not. Training in a City firm is highly, and often overly, specialised. If I wanted a general legal training so that I could actually answer questions about everyday legal stuff, it was not the place to go. I genuinely haven’t a clue when people ask me legal questions and am always a tad concerned they don’t believe I ever worked as a solicitor. However the name “Clifford Chance” on my CV and the fact I trained and worked there does undoubtedly look impressive to some people, and may make them take you more seriously in business. There’s also no question that a legal training, of whatever nature, gives you incredibly valuable core skills like drafting, use of English and critical analysis.

I never tried to climb the greasy pole when I was at the firm because I knew I had little intention of sticking around. I wasn’t one for staying at my desk until 9pm just for show, or smarming up to partners. I’m still in touch with my supervising partner on a social level, and note that a massive proportion of assistants I knew have left.

I think I probably had a much better time at the firm than many of my contemporaries. Despite their unbridled ambition and long hours, they ended up leaving anyway too. I’ve little doubt that Clifford Chance is a superb firm and have some great memories of people there, but in retrospect – 11 years after leaving – I think I played it all just about perfectly right for me. “Fraeye historie ende al waer, mach ic v tellen, hoort er naer”, as they say in Medieval Dutch…

There’s more from @PME2013 at The Blog That Peter Wrote.