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How I became a competition lawyer

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Be ready when opportunity knocks, recommends Shearman & Sterling’s James Webber

Instagram (subini77)
Instagram (subini77)

Looking back at my experiences as a trainee, I’m reminded of just how key it is to keep an open mind, be flexible and to always develop wide ranging skills and knowledge.

I was set on doing intellectual property — I’d studied it extensively at university and done two IP seats as a trainee, but by the end of my training contract it became clear that there was no business need for an NQ in IP. The next most interesting area I’d worked in as a trainee was competition. There was an opening which also meant moving to Brussels. So that’s what I did.

Competition law has continued to grow and evolve over the years, and has provided me with a fantastic career trajectory for four main reasons:

1. Growing demand

I’m a big believer in the importance of growth in creating opportunities. Luckily, demand for antitrust/competition legal advice has continued to grow significantly throughout my career; creating niches that you can become expert in which helps differentiate yourself for clients.

2. It allows you to get really close to your clients’ businesses

Competition causes companies to innovate, seek opportunity to grow, generate efficiency, and enter new product markets and geographies. To advise a client well you need to understand how they compete — which gives you a truly privileged insight into the business. Proximity and knowledge of the business also allows you to become the ‘trusted advisor’ — as well as making the job of a lawyer far more interesting!

3. It is legally broad

Competition law encompasses EU and UK private and administrative law. The breadth and depth of legal knowledge required to succeed in competition law is really significant. If you’re into the law this is a great area to practice.

For me, there have been some real standout moments such as: protecting a client against divestitures in a long running investigation and against very significant odds; winning a land mark case against the Competition Commission which changed how parties can access evidence against them; and successfully navigating mergers through the agencies for major clients such as Albemarle Corp., Anglo American, Viacom, Singapore Airlines and the Qatar Investment Authority.

4. Public policy interactions are key

You need to keep up-to-date with public policy issues relevant to your clients’ businesses. The way in which companies compete is often only understood in the context of the regulation they face. Of course, the antitrust authorities are heavily influenced and rightly so, by the policies that they and government are trying to achieve. Clients will expect this knowledge and it will become evident very quickly if you don’t have it!

A current area to watch out for is the EU referendum vote which may have far reaching implications not only to the competition framework in Europe and UK but also on the City of London — to which our English law practice is inevitably tied. We have teamed up with Legal Cheek Careers to hold an exclusive Brexit or Bremain debate to answer any questions on Wednesday 15 June.

I never predicted a career as a competition lawyer but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. I remind our trainees and aspiring candidates that it’s important to remain open-minded and flexible as to how your careers will pan out and to always be looking at developing wide ranging skills and knowledge.

James Webber is an Antitrust partner at Shearman & Sterling, he has been with the firm since 2006 when he joined as an associate. James’s work focuses on EU and UK competition law across our London and Brussels offices. In 2015 James was named as one of the “40 under 40” by Global Competition Review, an accolade given to only the brightest antitrust lawyers across the globe. James is one of the firm’s Graduate Recruitment partners. He will speaking at ‘Commercial Awareness Question Time: EU referendum special’ on Wednesday evening.

Shearman & Sterling’s Antitrust Practice focuses on, merger control, market investigations, cartels and State aid. We work with our antitrust colleagues in the US and Europe on antitrust clients as well as supporting our larger transactional groups and litigation.