‘The whole chargeable hours thing was a bit of a pain in the backside’

By Mark Smith on

There’s a reason not many lawyers move back into practice after going in-house, says Mark Smith

It was at law school when I got my first taste of the uncompromising law of supply and demand.

All my peers also had (at least) a 2:1 from a decent university and pretty good A-levels, and yet plenty of us were staring at the end of our Legal Practice Course (LPC) with no training contract in sight. I decided that my law school fees needed paying off and so applied for jobs as a trainee chartered accountant.

In contrast to the misery of law firm applications (at least a hundred applications, only two interviews, one of which was with a recruitment partner who smelt strongly of booze, no offers), I applied to four of what were then the big six accountancy firms, got three interviews and two offers.

Why the massive increase in success?

Printed my CV on better quality paper? Nope — just straight supply and demand. Have a look at how many trainee accountants the big four firms take on compared to the number of trainee solicitors that the magic circle law firms take on. So here’s tip one: have a Plan B.

Fortunately I landed a training contract six months into my fledgling accountancy career (tip two: don’t give up) and did my training at the small firm where I’d done work experience previously (tip three: work experience is genuinely important).

Although I knew I wanted to end up doing large-scale commercial work, the hands-on training I got at the smaller firm definitely gave me a head start in developing some of the skills that can allow you to fast track a career in a larger firm (and I’m thinking here particularly of business development and client handling skills). While I think I may have struggled to move from the firm I trained with (eight partners) to a top ten firm, I made the jump to what was at the time a top 25 firm, so tip four is just to get in the profession, and take it from there. Once in a larger firm it became apparent that the whole “chargeable hours thing” was a bit of a pain in the backside. I found it incredibly frustrating that this system of measurement seemed to work against spending time on some of the things that clients and indeed partners really seemed to value.

Spend time finding out about your client’s sector and business? Non-chargeable. Spend time building strong networks inside and outside the firm? Non-chargeable. Spend time selling and winning work? Non-chargeable. Strangely a lot of the things I was doing that seemed to be allowing me to fast track my career were often not formally recognised or encouraged — but with the right mentors and supporters in the firm, the hard work paid off.

Tip five: from the six years I spent in practice after qualifying, is to focus on the client. Understand their world — their sector, their business, their objectives and them as people. Law firms deliver professional services; in my experience you can differentiate yourself as a young lawyer by concentrating on the “service” part rather than simply grinding out chargeable hours.

Moving in-house was a great move. There’s a reason why not many lawyers move back to practice after going in-house. I really enjoyed my time in-house. Free to spend my time on where it would add most value to the business, able to truly get to grips with the commercial drivers behind a deal and able to work on international projects without the constraints and politics of law firm networks.

Tip six: if you are a commercial lawyer, at the very least try and get a secondment to see if in-house life is for you.

At ten years qualified, I called it a day. I found that although I still enjoyed my job, the parts I enjoyed most were the business aspects of running an in-house legal team, and the part I enjoyed least was the law itself. I’d completed an MBA and then moved into a strategy role in the business. Since then I’ve worked as a consultant to law firms, led a legal process outsourcing business and now work at LexisNexis helping in-house counsel work in a smarter way.

Being a lawyer helps develop some brilliant transferrable skills, but a deep knowledge of a specialist area of the law itself may not be top of the list. If I were doing it all again, I wouldn’t do a law degree. My first degree would be something (a) that I’d enjoy, and (b) that would be relevant to my future client’s business. For me that would have been either a business, economics or technology-related degree. If I’d have wanted to be an IP lawyer, I’d have done a science degree.

The second thing I’d do differently is make a very honest assessment of supply and demand at the point of applying for law school. The profession is changing rapidly — make it your business to understand these changes and work out what they might mean for your career. Work out what type of law you want to practice (even if it’s only a best guess), and then see what’s happening now for the firms which practice in that area and the clients that they serve.

In my view, there are plenty of law firms that exist now that won’t be around (at least in their current form) in five years’ time. There will also be a host of legal service providers that haven’t yet emerged. These changes will likely shape your career. My final tip is to keep tabs on the shape of the profession so that you make career decisions with your eyes open. Good luck!

Mark Smith is director of in-house legal markets at LexisNexis. Previously, he was a solicitor at Morgan Cole and Olswang, and a senior legal director at Convergys.