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Meet the lawyer

Christopher Swallow

Christopher Swallow

University: University of Manchester
Degree: Law with French law
Year of qualification: 2014
Position: Senior Associate
Department: Real estate

What attracted you to a career in law?

I really enjoyed the academic and problem solving aspects of a law degree and so for me, carrying on and actually practising law was the next logical step.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I was more attracted to working in an office-based, team-focused environment rather than the contentious court-based life of a barrister.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

I read widely about firms in the various publications available, which are based on interviews with current trainees or associates. I targeted firms which I felt would strike the right balance between interesting and large-scale international work, and a collegiate atmosphere with some sense of balance. I aimed for firms with medium-sized offices and small to medium-sized trainee intakes as I thought that would allow me to be more closely involved in cases and deals, which it did. As a legacy English firm which had relatively recently merged with a large US outfit, K&L Gates seemed to me to strike that balance well.

How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?

I had about three weeks' work experience which involved working for a week in a small private client high street firm, as well as two weeks at K&L Gates. Both experiences were very different and gave me contrasting insights into life as a lawyer. In particular, spending time at K&L Gates gave me the opportunity to meet a variety of lawyers from trainees to partners, and begin to understand what life as a trainee at a City firm might entail.

It's very important to make the most of work experience, ask questions and show initiative, and be involved in as much as possible. Immersing yourself in one or two departments at any firm will also give you an idea of whether you can see yourself working in – and particularly enjoying your career in – that legal sector.

What do you think made your application successful?

It is increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd as there are lots of people with good degrees from good universities. That said, all firms receive many good applications from quality candidates and there is undoubtedly an element of luck involved.

I suspect the variety of extra-curricular activities (including having a year abroad) and interests I had pursued at school and university helped, as well as spending time carefully researching K&L Gates and taking my time in drafting my covering letter and completing the application forms.

Which departments did you train in?

My first six months were in insurance coverage. My second seat was in the corporate department. I then spent six months in real estate and my final seat was in the employment department, before I returned to qualify into the real estate department.

Please discuss a specific deal/case that you were involved with, outlining your role in the matter.

As a trainee in real estate, I was given the opportunity to assist advising a large US corporate on the terms of its lease of its UK headquarters (which was about to expire). After reviewing the lease, I assisted the client partner in drafting a briefing note explaining the client's position and options that it had open to it, which we then presented to the client.

The client ultimately decided to agree terms for a new lease with its landlord and then instructed me to act for it in the lease negotiations. I was then heavily involved in agreeing the new lease and rent deposit deed, as well as reporting to the client generally on the progress of the transaction. It was a great opportunity to stretch myself and gain some great exposure to client-facing work.

How does the qualification process work at the firm?

In around April prior to qualification each department releases a list of the number of jobs that will be available in September. Each trainee makes an application by CV and covering letter to the head of the department(s) to which they wish to apply. This is followed by an interview with the head of department and one or two other partners.

What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?

Partners and associates want a trainee on whom they can rely to relieve them of some of their workload, so take on as much responsibility as you feel able to and take ownership of anything you are asked to do. Remember that the first work you do for anyone will be remembered for a long time, so create the best first impressions you can. However, don’t put too much pressure on yourself – there’s plenty of time for that once you qualify! Enjoy the opportunity to learn and develop, and aim to work on as many varied matters and for as many different lawyers as possible. Finally, always make sure you fully understand the task(s) that you've been asked to do.

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

I am an associate in the real estate department. I work for a variety of clients, from institutional landlords who own retail parks and central London office blocks, to smaller property companies who invest in shopping centres, and finally some occupiers who are taking office or retail space.

Typically, lawyers in real estate will be working on a variety of matters at any one time and this is very much the case at K&L Gates. This means that my days are very varied and the one constant is that the phone rings a lot. I spend a lot of my time managing our landlord clients' assets (by, among other things, carrying out lease negotiations and dealing with day-to-day issues involving tenants). This means that I am constantly in email or phone correspondence with clients, updating them on the progress of matters or discussing legal issues. Another part of my day will involve drafting documents or reviewing mark ups of documents which I have received back from a landlord or tenant's lawyers.

Please discuss a current/recent specific deal/case outlining your role in the matter.

We recently sold a building for approximately £60 million for one of our main clients, which exchanged shortly after the Brexit vote. It was a building which I have managed and so I was closely involved in the transaction. After receiving the call from the clients informing me about a potential sale, I worked with other members of the department to prepare the documentation for the sale and started creating the data room. This property was owned by a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which was incorporated in Jersey and the deal was actually a corporate sale of the SPV. I assisted in negotiating the property elements of the sale agreement and liaised closely with the client throughout the buyer's due diligence process, as well as the client's Jersey lawyers.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

I often work with clients with a particular asset throughout its "life span". We will acquire it for them, develop and manage the asset and then eventually sell it – hopefully for a profit! This gives me a fascinating insight into clients' businesses, and being part of their team and seeing the impact your work has on their business is one of the best parts of the job. The variety of matters that I work on also means that my days can be quite unpredictable, and this can also be a little challenging, especially when deadlines need to be met in a busy transactional department.

How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?

At K&L Gates we are encouraged to get involved with business development from the first day. As a trainee I attended networking events and produced drafts of legal update alerts, presentation slides and pitch documents. As an associate I continue to attend events and I also captain and organise K&L Gates's team in an annual property squash tournament which allows me to meet and socialise with a variety of people in the property industry. I am also encouraged to contribute to firm publications and to develop my own network of contacts, as well as develop and maintain existing client relationships. The firm offers an innovative incentive scheme to associates who bring new clients to the firm.

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?

K&L Gates stands out for the reasons I first applied here. It is one of the 20 largest law firms in the world, although unlike a lot of the other largest firms, it is not just a series of firms operating under a shared brand, but rather it is fully integrated in all respects. The London office retains the best aspects of an old English City firm and merges them with those of a US behemoth, the result of which is an office with a mid-sized, collegiate feel, but with the big clients and cross-border cases and deals you would expect from a global outfit.

What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful solicitor?

There are many skills and strengths that are helpful for a solicitor to have, although I have never met anyone who has them all. You need to be able to digest information quickly and distil the important from the irrelevant, and to be able to explain complex matters in a simple way. It helps to be efficient, organised and attentive to detail, to have some initiative and to be proactive and tenacious. You need to be able to handle what at times can feel like a lot of pressure without becoming overly stressed, and to find a way to enjoy unexpected disruptions and disasters: cases and deals, much like life, rarely proceed as planned. A sense of humour goes a long way, as does being a nice person so that clients and colleagues want to work with you (although you also need a thick skin, as not everyone you deal with will be nice!). A life outside the office is important, as is a willingness to be flexible on it from time to time.

What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?

I would recommend doing lots of research into the different types of firms to try to establish which type you would like to work for. Don’t be guided only by the salary – make sure that the work the firm does sounds interesting to you and remember that as a general rule, the higher the salary, the more hours you will probably end up working. Speak to anyone you can who might be able to give you their perspective. Take opportunities for work experience, however small the firm. Apply for training contracts well in advance of the deadline. Aim for fewer, better applications targeted to firms you would actually want to train at, rather than a scatter-gun approach. Don’t expect a ‘nine-to-five’ job: be prepared to go through periods of working hard and long hours, but remember that actually this can make the job more rewarding.