‘I became distracted by targets, billing hours and rates’

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Having strived for years to get there, Andrew Sharpe found that the salesman function of being a partner at a City law firm wasn’t for him — and wishes he had moved in-house earlier…

I joined the Royal Air Force in my gap year in 1984. In Cold War days the Armed Forces offered generous university packages. In return for five years postgraduate service, an undergraduate would get commissioned and then paid to go to any university to study any subject. I chose electronic engineering at Southampton. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the RAF. Military life suited my team and task orientation, but I was always keeping an eye on my options once the five years were up…

During my first posting, thanks to a number of “bad lads” in my flight, I became a bit of a junior officer expert in Queen’s Regulations and the Manual of Air Force Law. This gave me an introduction to criminal law, as did frequent appearances in the District and Sheriff courts (I was based in Scotland) as an Airman’s Friend (a cross between a character witness and defendant’s advocate).

With a growing reputation for law, I was subsequently appointed to a number of secondary duties that suited my engineer officer primary role and developing legal knowledge, including health and safety officer, radiation safety officer and data protection officer. On all of the relevant courses I did for these posts I met barristers who convinced me that a switch to law would be possible and remunerative. After a quick Open University postgraduate diploma course to check I could still do academic work, I went back to university in 1993.

I chose the solicitor route to law for three main reasons: to work directly with clients as a legal fixer/problem solver, for the intellectual challenge of working in a field that was constantly changing, and financial cowardice — I needed to be sure of a steady income to support my family and was not confident that this would be possible in the early years at the Bar. Beyond that, I was fairly open-minded. However, my options soon narrowed.

Despite being predicted an good result in my LLB, I could not get an interview for a training contract at any south coast law firm. Armed with a first class degree and mounting debts, I put aside a small ambition of being a claimant employment lawyer and took the first offer of a training contract I received from a City firm. As a trainee with an engineering background I then naturally gravitated toward IT and telecoms law. This included an early introduction to telecoms regulation, in the era of OFTEL and telecoms licensing. I also adopted the standard law firm ambition of becoming an equity partner.

However, what I did not consider as a trainee was how choice of subject area can shape a career. As an NQ at a magic circle firm, I specialised in European telecoms regulation. I subsequently joined a mid-sized City law firm in 2002 to do a broad range of IT and telecoms outsourcing and commercial work, but a number of opportunities from 2004 meant that I began to return to telecoms regulation, including for overseas projects and secondments. I was made a partner in 2007 in order to develop further this international telecoms regulatory practice. I had not appreciated as a trainee that acquiring a specialism at an early stage in a career would have such an effect. Be careful about specialising early.

My ambition to be an equity partner meant that I became distracted by targets, billing hours and rates and all the other financial measures important for the business of law firms and the partner function of being a salesman. I had forgotten that my initial motivation to change to law, and principal satisfaction in being a lawyer, was to be as close to clients as possible to be an effective legal fixer and problem solver.  It’s not an original observation, but surely it can only be a select minority that study law with the intention of being law salespersons?

Instead, I should have jumped ship to in-house practice years before I eventually did. All the things I wanted to be are the day-to-day bread and butter of an in-house counsel. My role is all about being a legal facilitator and problem solver. I could not be any closer to my clients. I am a member of a genuine, interesting and dynamic team, where the aims of the team members are mostly aligned. As a result, I am much happier.

Andrew Sharpe is legal counsel at Orange Business Services, having previously been a partner at Charles Russell

To read previous posts in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, click here.