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‘The longer they could keep their young hungry bucks down, the better it was for the firm’

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In this week’s ‘If I knew then what I know now’, former Bond Pearce solicitor Julian Summerhayes wonders how things could have turned out if he’d focused less on the daily grind of law and thought more about positioning himself to react to the changes sweeping through the profession.

I feel privileged to have the opportunity to share my experience. But I don’t want to come across as one of those atypical ex-lawyers who has nothing but negative tidings to share.

I’m working class. Yes, your classic ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’-type of lad (eek… how stereotypical!). I won’t bore you with the totality of my upbringing. It was, though, unremarkable. However, if there’s one thing that stands out, it’s the fact that having had the (non) privilege of attending a fourth division school in Devon, it’s remarkable that so many of my peers went on to such great things.

Like a lot of kids of my generation, we drifted around a lot. First this job, and then another. In my case, don’t ask me why, but I decided to apply for a job as a recruitment consultant in London. My first position was short lived. But my three months was a lot longer than the other 28 people who were turned over in less than nine weeks. Oh, and one other thing, the business, which shall forever remain nameless, was raided by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and closed down within a year of me leaving — it was nothing to do with me, honest.

After this debacle, I started my own recruitment agency. I had a ball. It lasted until 1991, by which stage the recession hit and I had to contend with a fellow director who well and truly lost his nerve and decided to wind up the business. I can’t say it was the best time of my life, but the experience I gained gave me a taste of some key legal issues: breach of contract, enforcement of restrictive covenants and debt recovery. So by the time I finally made the decision to go back to university to study law, I had a smattering of what to expect.

I should perhaps add that the genesis of my decision to study law, as opposed to something else, wasn’t predicated on anything more scientific than my best mate, Mark, calling me up and persuading me it would be good to do the same course. If someone had asked me to explain the life of a solicitor or barrister I wouldn’t have had a scoobies.

I started my law degree in September 1992. I was full of vim and vigour, and was intent on getting through the course in short order. I was lucky that at least 50% of the students were of the mature type, meaning they didn’t urinate most of their evenings up the wall. In my case, I was living at home with my future parents-in-law, and when I wasn’t studying I was collecting dead people. Yes, you heard correctly. My father-in-law was the local undertaker!

To cut a long story short, I qualified with a 2:1 but it wasn’t until the last year that I decided to train as a solicitor. I dallied with the Bar. I did some great mini-pupillages in Bristol. The only reason that I didn’t go to the Bar was because I wanted to work in Devon, and I couldn’t see how the hell I was going to make a living from one of the handful of local chambers, particularly as I had zero interest in crime and family which would have been the mainstay of any practice.

When it came to my final year, knowing that I would have to self-fund my LPC, I had already secured two training contracts. I make it sound easy. It wasn’t. I don’t recall now how many people had to read my tired looking CV but it was well over 200. In any event, wearing my recruitment, hard-as-nails hat, I was determined that even if I got a rejection or a ‘no reply’ I would follow it up by phone. Can you imagine it? Some law graduate twerp telephoning the senior partner! I remember getting through to one of my legal brethren who was horrified I should have the temerity to ask why I hadn’t even had a response. Little did he know that I would in end up working at the firm that he too moved to a few years later!

So I got a training contract. With it had come a big fat debt. Not uber by today’s standards but I was still out on a limb given that I would marry the same year I started my degree and have my first child the same month as my training contract started. Paternity rights. Pah! I had three days off.

From there I worked my way through five different regional law firms. I can’t say the experience was memorable. In fact, they were by and large the same type of beast. To use a retailing example, it felt like they wanted to pile them high and sell them cheap, meaning that the longer they could keep their young, hungry bucks and buckesses down, the better it was for them.

I suppose in hindsight I have no one to blame but myself. Studying law was brilliant. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It made me think in a completely different way. Yes, perhaps, it was a bit left brain, but as a slightly cynical young man, it gave me a legal framework to understand when my angst was misplaced. It was the thereafter that so left me wanting. I had these high hopes of making the most of my degree, my work ethic, my determination and willingness to work hard in the face of some pretty hostile clients. But even though I was known to bill regularly in excess of £200k (I billed £360k one year), it didn’t count for much.

What else would/could I have done?

Who knows?

It seems so long ago now.

But one thing is for certain, if I was doing it all over again, I wouldn’t have sat back and let the system run my life. More than likely, I would have bailed and started my own practice. Towards the latter part of my legal life I managed to combine my love of sport with my disputes practice. I think that, together with IP, is where I would have put my eggs.

My advice — eek, here he goes — to all you aspiring lawyers is not just to get some experience outside of law before you enter the legal profession, but to start with the end in mind. Where do you see yourself in ten years time? Please don’t say an equity partner earning six figures. Think like an entrepreneur. Work on your life, not in it…if you get my drift. Invest in your skills beyond black letter law. Read, read, read. Too many lawyers think that being a fantastic technician is the be-all and end-all. It’s not. In time all the back room jobs will be taken by cheap labour. The expensive partners will be expected to grow a business, and not just a legal one. Think McKinsey or some other top consulting business. That’s where the money is.

In summary, if I knew then what I know now, I would have gone to work on my career in a way where I didn’t immerse myself in the work and looked much, much further ahead. Perhaps I too could be giving Mr Dragons Den a run for his money if I had…

Julian Summerhayes spent most of his legal career as a solicitor with Bond Pearce. He now works as a consultant advising small businesses, professional services organisations and entrepreneurs.