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What I wish I’d known when starting my career as a City solicitor

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By Mark Soundy on

If you’re passionate about your job, it will all fall into place, says Shearman & Sterling graduate recruitment partner Mark Soundy — who’ll be speaking at Legal Cheek‘s free careers advice Q&A this month


I have always loved being a lawyer and I’ve never had any real doubts about the career I chose. And, having studied law at university, I didn’t seriously consider any other career paths. I am a firm believer that you should only pursue a career which you genuinely believe you’ll enjoy: that’s the best guarantee of success.

Looking back, there are a few things I wish I had known before starting my career; mainly in terms of the expectations of the work I would be doing, the firms I’ve worked in and the way that my career has shaped my life in general.

The work

Starting at the very beginning, my tip would be to study what interests you. Law degrees offer a wide-ranging and thought-provoking subject matter, but if you are more interested in pursuing languages, arts or even sciences then so be it. A law degree is not a pre-requisite for a career in the law and I have always valued a diversity of views and backgrounds from different subjects among my team. Shearman & Sterling have lawyers who studied courses as diverse as maths, engineering and even music!

It would also have been useful to know how important it is to have, maintain and develop a real interest in the commercial world and international business. A career in law is not just about the technicalities of a water-tight contract. There are a million and one people who can give that advice. What clients really want is a lawyer who understands their business needs and is adept at finding workable solutions to real commercial problems. I now realise how lucky I was to qualify as an English solicitor — English law, along with the English language, has become the mainstay of international legal work, particularly in emerging markets.

Having progressed from trainee to associate, as you begin to consider partnership it’s important to appreciate the significance of building a personal brand and investing time enough to develop your business relationships. Being a partner is not just about being a good lawyer and knowing your practice area. You need to be able to win people’s trust and confidence: colleagues and clients alike. It is also important to take ownership of your career: don’t expect your firm to do that for you.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of networking. Starting at school, through university and law school, you are surrounded by future colleagues, clients and contacts. Nurturing this network as you progress makes the whole process more natural and should result in your being surrounded by a deep pool of talented people who may well be valuable contacts, and who may even be your friends.

I would also encourage everyone to grab opportunities when they arise. Secondments abroad are invaluable; they give you a perspective on international firms, clients’ priorities and the realities of globalisation.

The firm

Your career is shaped mainly by the firm you work in, so finding the right one (and then appropriate role models) for you is paramount. The most important consideration when choosing a firm is that you judge it on its culture and people — everything else changes. At Shearman we always talk proudly of our current deals and existing clients, but over the length of your career these are likely to alter and evolve.

As you get more established at your firm, be bold when making decisions about the direction of your career — exploring new areas of practice, approaching potential new clients, deciding to start a family or possibly even changing firms. Private equity didn’t really exist when I started and I’m so relieved, with hindsight, that I was flexible enough to grasp that opportunity when it arose.

When you’ve found the firm you think is a good fit for you, make sure you really impress and stand-out during the recruitment process. The only really important things to answer well in an interview are “why the law” and “why this particular firm” — research the firm really well and ensure that your enthusiasm and commitment come across. As you progress through your training contract, be grateful for the experiences on offer: remember that a positive can-do attitude and a genuine willingness to help out should carry you a very long way.

I also wish I’d known how rewarding it would be — you cannot put a price on the camaraderie, the interesting work, the fascinating (and demanding!) clients and reading about your deals in the FT. You probably won’t believe me, but you really don’t notice — or begrudge — the long hours when the work is interesting and the people you’re working for and with are great. Pro bono work is also hugely rewarding and I would encourage everyone to select a firm which allows you this chance to give back.

The lifestyle

Never forget that law is a service industry: your clients are your customers and we all know that the customer is always — always! — right. This means you have very little control over your time and workload. Sometimes this means cancelling plans at the last minute and being tied to your blackberry — don’t expect all your friends and family members to understand this. The long hours and lack of control do get easier as you get more senior: you have more opportunity to pick and choose your clients and even your deals. However, as most lawyers tend to be perfectionists, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll slow down!

Making time for yourself is really important. Everyone needs outside interests and I’m relieved to have managed to keep going with a few hobbies and other interests. These help me to maintain a perspective and grab some time for relaxation. They also provide great ammunition for small talk! Law is a demanding career and you will spend a lot of time in the office or travelling — you may often end up spending more time with your colleagues than with your life partner!

Remember that a legal career is a marathon not a sprint and, returning to my first point, as long as you are interested in your field that marathon really can be quite enjoyable.

Mark Soundy is a partner in Shearman & Sterling’s M&A practice; he is also a graduate recruitment partner and the co-head of the firm’s global private equity group. Mark will be one of the panellists at Legal Cheek’s ‘Alternatives for wannabe barristers — the City, in-house and academia’ panel session at the Inner Temple careers day on Sunday 21 June. Free tickets are available here.

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