In a varied career that has spanned practising as a solicitor, financial journalism and the training of lawyers, Hogan Lovells’ Chris Stoakes has learnt to follow his heart.
Back when I was looking for a training contract things were very different. There was no internet. There was no legal press. The Law Society banned firms from publishing brochures. All of this meant there was an information blackout. The only thing you could get from the university careers adviser was a half-sheet of badly photocopied A4 paper about each of the top firms. They all sounded the same.
I was lucky. I managed to get interviews and job offers. But I couldn’t tell the firms apart. So I went for the one that people told me was the most prestigious. It was a defensive decision. It’s like the old business cliché: “You won’t get fired for hiring IBM”. No one could criticise me for my choice, even though that choice might not necessarily be me.
In some respects it was a good decision. I was the first trainee to be posted to the firm’s Paris office. I got to work on the biggest film financing to have been done at that time. But there were also things that weren’t so great. The one that sticks in the mind, over thirty years later, was the unwinding of a ship financing at a time when the bottom had fallen out of the oil tanker market. This super tanker was off Korea, ready to be broken up. The bank was going to swap the asset finance deal for a straight loan. Some lawyers in New York drafted the unwinding documentation. The problem was that it didn’t work. It was all sequential. If a party pulled out half-way through, the deal would be left hanging, part in place, part unwound. I told the bank this and was immediately summoned to their head office to explain myself. They said I had just put the commercial understanding of the deal at risk. The bank called in a partner from another magic circle firm (which was doing the refinancing) and he, thank goodness, confirmed that my view was correct.
It wouldn’t happen now (or maybe it would) but the only interest my supervising partner took in the deal was when I took a bundle of documents I’d drafted into his office for him to amend. I handed them over to him. “Completion’s next week, in New York,” I said, to give him the timescale for when I needed his comments by. “Have a good trip,” he replied, handing them back to me unread. My stress levels were high.
There must be more to life than this, I thought. There was. I’d been qualified a year when I jumped ship to become the assistant editor on a law magazine specialising in international finance. When I told the partner that I was leaving he assumed I was returning to the Paris office. When I explained I was leaving-leaving he couldn’t understand it. No one left the firm unless they’d been turned down for partnership, especially not to become a journalist.
Since then I’ve done loads of things — been the business development partner in another City law firm, taught on an MBA for lawyers, helped to set up a consultancy advising law firms, written books for lawyers, chaired law conferences, facilitated law firm retreats around the world: you name it. Throughout, the theme has been working in and around law firms and lawyers. That’s because I like them. But, obviously, I’ve wondered from time to time what life would have been like if I’d actually remained one.
The irony is that I now work for one of the law firms that I originally got an offer from. And I know that if I’d come here in the first place I would have remained a lawyer and spent my career here. That’s because the firm has a supportive and collegiate atmosphere, where it’s OK to ask questions (in fact you are positively encouraged to do so), the training is terrific and you’re not just left to get on with it on your own. You have to be good, mind, because everyone here is really good at what they do. But if you are, they’re really open and collaborative.
So what I wished I’d known then is that what matters is how a law firm feels to you, not what other people think. All of the big firms do similar sorts of work for similar types of client. But they all feel very different from each other. Some have more approachable cultures than others. What matters is being at a place where you feel happy, where you like your colleagues, the work and the clients.
So follow your heart, not what other people think. Choose the place where you are likely to stay, not the one that may be a stepping stone to something else. In the end, the only person you have to please is yourself.
Chris Stoakes is director of legal learning projects at Hogan Lovells. He is the author of a number of books about commercial awareness, including ‘All You Need to Know About the City’. Chris 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 later this month.