With work thin on the ground after the 2008 crash, corporate lawyer Danvers Baillieu found himself scrapping for instructions from tech start-ups — and after a tricky start has never looked back
The brutal reality is that unless your dad is senior partner, you are the only person in your firm who really truly cares about you and your career.
Ideally, you will find a mentor who will promote your interests and one day retire and hand over their list of clients, but such figures are hard to come by. There will undoubtedly be other colleagues who show an interest and might even make some effort to help you along — but what might be good for them and for your firm, might not actually be good for you. There is no benevolent Oxbridge tutor, or even a Simon Cowell-like Svengali figure, plotting your ascent to legal riches and success, so as a young lawyer you need to think about the direction of your career regularly and strategically.
My own career planning was completely non-existent until I was around six years qualified, by which time it was too late to do much about the overall direction it was taking. Having failed to make enough of an impression during my training contract at Lovells (now Hogan Lovells) on anyone capable of giving me a job I was interested in doing, I was immensely lucky to join Winston & Strawn as it was opening up in London. Luckier still, I was quickly involved in a billion dollar dispute over some Russian telecom assets.
For five years I was able to clock 2,000 hours without breaking a sweat — it was a question of counting the time spent working every day and pretty much billing one client. The work was exciting, challenging and much of it involved flying to the Caribbean on a regular basis. As litigators, we all knew it might come to an end at any moment, and when it did we had about 6 months of run-off work, but as a large team in a small office there was obviously going to be a gap in the work available, not helped by the crash of 2008. In retrospect, I should have left the firm before the end came and taken my experience elsewhere while it was still fresh and the market still buoyant. I stuck it out because of a sense loyalty to the partners and the team, and possibly the fear of the unknown. I did receive loyalty in return — although another close colleague and friend on the team did not — but it was no substitute for meaty billable work.
With work a thin on the ground, I seized on the chance to do some work for a personal contact, which led me in a new direction: working with tech start-ups and entrepreneurs. The work was indeed fun and interesting and I wanted to do it, but short of changing jobs, there was not a whole lot else on offer. Before “Tech City” was discovered, the whole sector was woefully under-represented, with many established firms shying away from early stage internet companies, having had their fingers burnt in the first dot com crash of 2001. It took over a year before the practice was bringing in anything like the level of work we needed but we filled our diaries by vigorously marketing ourselves, which eventually paid off.
Attending events and conferences meant that we could immerse ourselves in the world of the tech entrepreneur — we learnt the lingo, understood the business challenges and even joined Twitter before the trolls arrived. By targeting a relatively small market, we became a fixture on the scene and experts within a short space of time and this allowed our nascent practice to flourish, and our small team moved to Pinsent Masons in 2011, taking the tech clients with us.
As more clients and contacts were getting funded and even bought out, it dawned on me that not only were they having a more fun, but that the real money was to be made inside a tech business, not advising from the outside. At the same time, I was increasingly advising tech clients on commercial rather than legal issues and managing relationships rather than doing the legal work itself. This approach to legal business should work fine provided the spin-off legal work justifies the time spent on the relationship, which I thought it did, but Pinsents felt otherwise and wanted me on the front line, billing time to institutional clients.
At nine years’ qualified, I took the biggest decision about the direction of my legal career — which was to end it. Going with the flow for over 10 years worked out well, as I have ended up doing a job that I love without a practising certificate, but I don’t recommend it as a career development strategy.
Danvers Baillieu is chief operating officer of Privax, the company behind www.hidemyass.com.