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City lawyers need to be street smart as well as book smart

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By Warsha Kalé on

Ahead of ‘How to make it as a City lawyer’, Mayer Brown Of Counsel Warsha Kalé recalls the transition from university to practice


I think it’s fair to say that people expect a lot more from trainees coming into the job these days.

When I was starting out in the late 90s, good academics were the key to netting a training contract at a respectable City firm. Nowadays the academics are (almost) a given. Aspiring lawyers also need to show that they are commercial — ‘street smart’ even — and that is not necessarily something you learn at university, or even law school. So your individual character becomes very important.

I definitely was not street smart when I began my career as a trainee at a magic circle firm. It was a quality that I had to develop — usually by realising after the event that I hadn’t been sufficiently savvy. That’s a hard process to go through, and can come as a real shock when you arrive from an academic environment where you have been used to getting top grades. Not everyone manages that transition well. And people who look good on paper don’t always live up to expectations…

Learning to prioritise is exceptionally important: what needs to be done and how much time do you have to do it? When do you bother the busy partner? What decisions can you make yourself? One thing that took me a long time was learning not to panic when I received something new or unfamiliar. Gradually, you begin to recognise that you have the skills and experience to find the answer.

After making mistakes (but hopefully not the same ones twice), you start to trust your own instincts more. Then confidence becomes the challenge — for example, sticking to your guns when you feel that something isn’t quite right even when someone more senior has given it the all-clear.

But that’s only one part of the job. It may sound trivial, but being liked is important. There are many excellent lawyers practising in my specialist area of competition law. What sets you apart as you become more senior is how you get on with people.

This relationship aspect of being a City lawyer has in the past perhaps been a bit harder for women and people from ethnic minorities, in that many client entertainment events have revolved around sport or alcohol — or often a copious combination of both! It’s easy to see how that might impact disproportionately on female BME solicitors. Happily, I feel that the City has changed a lot – particularly over the last five years — as clients and law firms have become much more aware of diversity and issues such as unconscious bias. Research by organisations such as McKinsey shows the business case for diversity to be increasingly compelling. Indeed, being a BME woman has almost become a calling card.

What has certainly impacted my career has been motherhood. Before joining Mayer Brown as Of Counsel last year, I worked part-time for a number of years. Now, having more time freed up for my career, I hope to be able to develop it further. That greater flexibility is something else that is changing as firms become more open to creating different career paths, enabling ambitious women to progress through non-traditional career routes.

Many City lawyers move in-house to join the legal team of a company after several years of private practice, but I have always enjoyed being a ‘fee-earner’ — integral to the workings of a law firm. For me, competition law is a vocation, with an amazingly broad spectrum of contentious and non-contentious work that cuts across law, economics and politics. It’s an incredibly rich — dare I say diverse — mix and I certainly didn’t come into this to do a ‘nine to five’ job.

At the same time, while it may be a great job, at the end of the day it is only a job. As a trainee I remember being very stressed about pretty much everything. If I knew then what I know now, I might have cut myself a bit more slack!

Warsha Kalé is Of Counsel in Mayer Brown’s London competition law team. She will be speaking at ‘How to make it as a City lawyer — with the Black Solicitors Network’ on Wednesday 6 July. You can apply to attend here.