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From trainee to partner — at the same international firm

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By The Careers Team on

Hogan Lovells’ Richard Diffenthal and Rebecca Wales on their journeys to the top


At the start of the year Hogan Lovells announced that three of the appointments to its five new partner positions were home grown talent — with Matthew Bullen, Richard Diffenthal and Rebecca Wales all having been with the firm since they were trainee solicitors.

Legal Cheek Careers caught up with Diffenthal and Wales to find out more about their successful careers from Oxford and University College London (UCL), via the respective Hogan Lovells graduate intakes of 2003 and 2004.

Legal Cheek Careers: What were your career ambitions as a student?

Rebecca Wales: I studied history of art at UCL, having absolutely loved the subject at A-level. And then I graduated and still wasn’t sure what to do, although law was on my mind as I had lawyers in the family. So I did lots of work experience, including a mini-pupillage, and applied for various things — and was offered a job as a consultant with PwC, which focused my mind and I decided eventually that law was more interesting. So I went off to do the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). By this stage I knew that I was very interested in litigation — hence applying to Hogan Lovells.

Richard Diffenthal: I didn’t have a specific career in mind when I applied to study law at Oxford. I just wanted to do something that I hadn’t studied before. And having done language and science A-levels, law made sense. Then I did some vacation schemes — and thought that this is something I could definitely do. It went from there.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a partner?

Wales: It wasn’t something I felt I could make a definite decision about when I joined Hogan Lovells as a 25 year-old trainee. I found it very hard to see into the future as to what I wanted in 10-12 years’ time, but I’ve always been ambitious and have always wanted to do the best I could at whatever I do. So, looking back, I can see that becoming a partner is something I would have always been drawn to.

Diffenthal: The idea of becoming a partner first crossed my mind when I was going through the qualification process. Then it became rooted after a couple of years when I had been doing corporate work for a while. I thought: “I really enjoy this. There is an opportunity to build something — a business within a much larger business — and to be part of something”. It crystallised when I went to Tokyo on a client secondment where I was given a lot of responsibility. When I returned to London I decided that I really wanted to have a crack at partnership.

What did the other trainee solicitors in your intake go on to do?

Wales: There are quite a few who are still here. Seven or eight are in the disputes practice with me. I think that is, at least in part, down to the fact that a lot of us knew we wanted to be litigators before we started and were very committed to it as a career, allied to the fact that this is one of the best disputes practices in the City.

Other trainee solicitors from my intake are now doing all sorts of things. One is an interior designer, another is a journalist, but most, by and large, are still in the law — either in-house or at smaller firms.

Diffenthal: All sorts — a number of people have gone on to have successful careers in completely different industries, some have become freelance lawyers, or moved in-house and other people have moved to the regions.

Were there any major forks in the road when your career could have taken a different course?

Wales: I have not been tempted to go elsewhere — mainly because I already work in the top disputes practice in the City. I’m not sure it’s always about making a decision though. There is a certain amount of luck involved. Part of my fortune was getting cases from the outset as a first year trainee solicitor in my commercial litigation seat that I really loved working on. Had I been placed in a different seat, I can’t tell if my career would have followed the same path.

Diffenthal: I’ve seen friends move to other firms and it’s only natural to wonder if the grass is perhaps greener. However, I’ve had a very varied and exciting career here and the team I work with at Hogan Lovells means I never entertained the idea of working elsewhere in any real detail.

How important is an ability to bring in business to becoming a partner?

Wales: Business development is one of those things that you do all the time, not just at drinks parties. You keep yourself in people’s minds — not least by doing the best you can for existing clients. Also, as a litigator, by winning cases and developing the law you are demonstrating what you can do to others as well.

Diffenthal: It is important but there are different ways of winning work. I think credibility is key. Clients have to really believe in the proposition you are offering. That comes from understanding their business, doing a great job and delivering transactions on time and on budget.

What has been the biggest challenge along the way?

Wales: The work is always challenging. At a firm like Hogan Lovells clients don’t come with straightforward problems. And the hours can be long. For the first few years of my career I worked on a big case in the courts of the British Virgin Islands, which was exciting but meant constant gruelling travelling and having to survive on little sleep. But the biggest challenge is to keep getting up and doing it again when things don’t go your way.

My cases have generally gone the way I want them to go. But on occasions, when you’re not successful, and when an application doesn’t go as you have hoped, being able to sit down and take stock, but then get up and do it again, and not be knocked by the challenge — that can be quite difficult. You need to keep having confidence in yourself. I’ve been tremendously lucky with the colleagues I have here, who have helped me to foster that mentality.

Diffenthal: The process itself of becoming a partner is not easy, as you might expect, and it felt like a long time (most of a year) between starting the process and finally making it. There needs to be a clear business need, so I worked with my supporting partner to develop a business plan, which is then reviewed by practice leaders and the firm’s senior management.

There’s a formal element to the process, including an interview and you also need to demonstrate your own ability to operate at partner level, above and beyond being an excellent technical lawyer. At Hogan Lovells, there is a development programme for senior lawyers, which helps you identify your strengths and development needs ahead of the process, and that gives you the starting point for your business plan. After that it’s up to you to put the plan into practice, and follow up on the feedback you’ve had.

Rebecca Wales is partner in Hogan Lovells’ litigation practice and Richard Diffenthal is a partner in Hogan Lovells’ corporate team. You can apply for the firm’s first year open days and vacation scheme, ahead of the deadline at the end of the week, here.

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