Junior lawyers: ‘know your priorities and non-negotiables’

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By Anuja Venkataramani on

HSF corporate associate Yusra Jafar discusses cross-border work, staying balanced and applications advice

“Day-to-day, we’re going into the office a lot more, so I’m in about three days a week. In the mornings I’ll try to map out what my day looks like and get through the chunkier tasks — you learn with time what your work habits are, and I’ve realised that I’m more of an early bird,” says Yusra Jafar, an associate in the corporate team at Herbert Smith Freehills.

Smiling, she continues: “Now, it’s really important to work out what motivates you throughout the day. For me, I make sure to prioritise a mid-morning walk and coffee run every day. It forces me to step away from my desk and get some fresh air, and it can be a really great opportunity to bond with colleagues,” Jafar explains. Energised post-coffee and walk, Jafar attends client calls in the morning and afternoon as well as internal team meetings, and the occasional evening social. ”What’s really nice about coming back into the office is that you’re never doing just one thing for an extended period of time. You’re always moving around, speaking to people, and I find that means you manage your day more productively,” she notes.

Two and a half years qualified, Jafar tells me that she doesn’t have a particular sector focus within the corporate team yet. “Partners are always asking the more junior members of the team if they have particular interests so that they can align them with relevant matters and clients, but so far I’ve maintained a more generalist approach,” she explains. Sitting in general corporate, Jafar is part of the firm’s team that handles private and public M&A, joint ventures and corporate governance advice. “Ultimately, you don’t know what you’re interested in until you try it, it’s a trial and improvement process. So, being more generalist allows me to explore different sectors and types of work within the team to see what I enjoy,” she summarises.

I then asked Jafar about what’s been the most interesting matter she’s worked on so far, and she goes on to tell me about the public takeover of transport group Stagecoach Group plc. “We acted for Stagecoach, who were initially approached by National Express in relation to a takeover offer in summer 2021. Then just as we announced that takeover publicly, a private equity company came on the scene and made a competing offer. This added element was very interesting. Public takeovers are already very dynamic — they’re in the news because they involve listed companies, you can track the share prices and see how the market is moving based on the deal you’re working on,” she explains.

Jafar goes on to explain that a competing bid, which is quite rare, adds an additional strategic element into the mix. You really must be mindful of the individuals who are working at these companies, and after all, being taken over by another company is a big deal, she notes. “You get to see that human side, and I found that particularly interesting”.

The application deadline for Herbert Smith Freehills’ 2024 Spring Vacation Schemes is 1 December 2023

Staying on the topic of navigating the people element of work, we chatted about what it’s like to work on cross-border matters. Jafar tells me that from the outset, finding a law firm that had a strong global presence and international clients was a top priority to her, having grown up in Dubai. And happily, HSF was her top choice when she was applying for training contracts. “I recently worked on a deal which involved multiple jurisdictions. We had to instruct local counsel in Poland, Ireland and Switzerland and engaged our own local offices in Germany, Italy and South Africa. I really enjoyed this experience,” she says.

Jafar also notes that it is easy to underestimate the challenges that come with working on such multi-jurisdictional matters.

“You’re coordinating with people who speak different languages, are in different time zones and have different work practices — trying to streamline that and be the central repository for information is not easy,” she says. “But it’s this same aspect that makes cross-border work so rewarding and enjoyable. The most important thing is making sure you have good communication, a clear plan of action and being receptive and flexible to spanners being thrown in the works.”

I went on to ask Jafar about the commercial awareness issues that students should be keeping an eye out for, if they find themselves being interviewed by a corporate associate or partner at an assessment centre. She starts off with some helpful advice to allay fears about the elusiveness of commercial awareness. “You don’t necessarily need to know about the exact commercial implications of rising interest rates, climate change and all the buzzwords. Rather, it’s about understanding what a client’s priorities are within the sector they are operating in and tailoring your advice accordingly. Knowing what’s going on in the market theoretically is good, but it can only get you so far. What’s more important is to demonstrate curiosity and to show you are able to engage with what you read on the news by thinking actively about what it might mean from a legal standpoint,” Jafar reassures.

She emphasises cybersecurity and technology as key considerations to keep an eye out for, both from the perspective of security threats affecting clients, as well as the internal running of law firm’s systems and software. “I think that really feeds into the wider ongoing discussion about profitability and the legal business model. Firms are coming under increasing pressure to deliver great client service as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, which is an ongoing balancing act,” Jafar points out.

Approaching the end of our conversation, I was keen to ask Jafar about how she manages the simultaneously rewarding and stressful aspects of being a City lawyer, and her advice in relation to setting boundaries to maintain a work-life balance. “Firstly, I think it’s so important that people actually talk about this — the more that we discuss this, the more we realise that people have lives and other priorities to manage outside of work,” she says.

Jafar cautions that it can be slightly more challenging to establish a balance when one is at the more junior end of the spectrum because you naturally have less control over how your work day pans out. That said, it’s key to be as structured as possible with your work day, and crucial to that is being productive, so that you don’t sell yourself short on both ends. “Know what your priorities and non-negotiables are. Set yourself off on a good foot at the outset – show you are a hard worker and will get the job done. Once that rapport is established, nobody will mind if you go home early or have other commitments, even if it means you have to log back on later to complete tasks,” she explains.

Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, are communication and trust. “If you have a really good work ethic, and people can see that you’ve got an amazing attitude and you’re a hard worker, you’ll have that groundwork of trust to then communicate your deadlines and priorities. If you learn to communicate effectively both professionally and personally with your team, they will know what your crunch points are, will be more alive to your commitments outside of work, and will want to be as accommodating as possible,” she advises.

Yusra Jafar will be speaking at ‘Life as a City lawyer at an international law firm – with Herbert Smith Freehills’, a virtual student event taking place TODAY (Thursday 23 November). Apply now to attend.

The application deadline for Herbert Smith Freehills’ 2024 Summer Vacation Schemes is 1 December 2023

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