Having begun his career in the 90s recession, Mayer Brown head of banking and finance Dominic Griffiths has plenty of sympathy with those applying for training contracts today.
I can’t quite recall when I decided that the law was the profession for me. At school I loved arts-based subjects such as English and history and disliked science and maths. Looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t have to choose subjects too early that classify as “vocational”; it is disturbing that the current trend in schools is to try and adduce before the age of 18 what subjects will lead to the best career in adulthood.
I always loved reading and in that respect I ended up doing something that came naturally to me. My choice of history at university (I studied economic and social history at Bristol University) provided a first rate training in analytical technique. It wasn’t a deliberate move — after having abandoned the idea of studying land economy (too rural) or theology (too much ancient Greek) I chose the course that left my career options very much open and which also appeared to have the least amount of compulsory lectures and tutorials.
So why law? My work experience ranged from having set up a gardening firm in my gap year, to becoming a bar manager at a golf club, working at surveyors Knight Frank & Rutley in Hereford and two mini-pupillages (26 Essex Street and 4 Gray’s Inn Square). The experience gained on these ventures into the working world was helpful. I learnt a lot about customer service, particularly as a barman — the knack of letting people know you are getting to them soon and that they won’t have to wait long has set me in good stead over the years. The small gardening business gave me early exposure to pricing models and handling challenging clients (I am always disappointed if I hear someone referring to a “difficult client” — my old adage is that clients pay us well and therefore have the privilege of being as demanding as they like; the only difficult clients are those that don’t pay the bill!).
I enjoyed my mini-pupillages tremendously, but decided ultimately to become a solicitor instead. I felt that the Bar was a little elitist; it also required a level of poverty in the early years that was not to my liking (unless of course you had a private income, which I did not). Having made that decision I secured two work placements, one at Bevan Ashford in Bristol (now Bevan Brittan) and another at Richards Butler in London (subsequently subsumed into Reed Smith). I then set about making applications.
I was applying to law firms in troubled times. The effects of the recession of the early 1990s had taken bite and good firms such as those in which I had worked during the holidays were making a number of lay-offs. In that respect I have a lot of sympathy for those applying for training contracts today. Circumstances, until recently, have been similar — increased demand for the perceived security of a job as a solicitor, with fewer places available. I made over 50 applications to firms in London and in the provinces. A number of rejections followed, including one from Rowe & Maw (the London office of my current firm, having merged with Mayer Brown in 2002) — I should have had it framed! Some interviews resulted and I accepted the first offer that came in, from Barlow Lyde & Gilbert (sadly another great firm name relegated to the annals of history) who were also prepared to sponsor me during my two years at law school.
I look back on my training contract with fondness. Litigation seats in the years before the Woolf Reforms meant full exposure to County Court applications and appearances before cantankerous Masters in the High Court. I sat in property with a partner who was also a gentleman farmer (literally — I once went to visit his cows in Suffolk). My reinsurance seat was during the aftermath of the Lloyd’s of London crisis. Banking was my final seat; a small and ambitious six-lawyer team with super clients.
I learnt some good lessons on my journey into the profession. Work experience certainly helps in finding the right career and type of firm. Try not to decide too early on the area in which to specialise and, most importantly, have lots of fun along the way.
Dominic Griffiths is one of seven contributors to the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series who’ll be answering law students’ questions at Inner Temple next month.