Why media law partner Mark Stephens has always felt like an outsider in his profession
This is the first piece in a series of editorial by Legal Cheek exploring the different motivations and stories of successful lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds. First up is Mark Stephens, a media law specialist and partner.
Mark Stephens’ career decision was, in his words, “naïve” and “uninformed”. His lodger, who just so happened to become Pink Floyd’s manager, told a teenage Stephens to become a lawyer because “they make all the money.”
“He tricked me into it,” Stephens confesses. “Now he lives in a flashy house in Holland Park. Had I stuck with the entertainment industry, I might have been a lot better off than I am now.”
At the time, a young Stephens lived in Surrey and was enjoying his time at stage school acting. His father, an artist, “never had any money”, meaning Stephens was entitled to free school meals. Stephens reckons the ‘future Pink Floyd manager altercation’ was set up by his dad, who just didn’t want him to go into arts — and be poor — like he had done. And, he admits:
At stage school, I knew I wasn’t the best.
After making the switch back into the normal state school system and taking six A-levels to make up for his lack of GCSEs, Stephens began to warm to the idea of becoming a lawyer. He tells us:
I began to see law more conceptually. I realised that there were parallels between performing on a stage and performing in a courtroom, so I thought I had transferable skills that some of my peers didn’t.
At the age of 17, Stephens was diagnosed with epilepsy and his grades took a tumble. With the help of local authority grants, he secured a place at the University of East London — which he now chairs — to study law. His university peers were “an eclectic bunch”; there were no “public school boys”.
Degree over, Stephens (pictured below) had aspirations to become a barrister, but felt “financially precluded” from doing so. The bar didn’t pay a minimum wage at this time, law firms did, so he punted for the solicitor route and fought to make a success of it. He scored a full grant for his Legal Practice Course (LPC) — one of the benefits of being a poor kid living in a rich area, he tells us.
Stephens’ first experience of the strong social hierarchy in the law came when he started to practice. One firm he applied to train at admitted it was in no position to hire people from non-Oxbridge backgrounds. He even met one “chap” whose family used to wear black tie when they had dinner together.
Stephens tells us that, in a profession dominated by people from more traditional backgrounds, he’s “always been an outsider.”
His dad taught him to be creative and see things in a different way. Law is all about getting your client from A to B, and sometimes that can’t be achieved through simply following a fixed set of rules. The firm he set up aged 24 now employs 350 staff and 80 partners. In his words: “not understanding what the limits are has helped me advance my career in an unorthodox way.”
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