University: University of Oxford
Degree: Philosophy, politics and economics
Year of qualification: 2018
I wanted a career that was analytical and would make use of communication and problem-solving skills. To say law is attractive because it is intellectually challenging is a bit of a cliché, but it is nonetheless true. I also saw law as a means to better understand the business world that it underpins.
The bar seemed like a much lonelier profession – I much prefer being embedded in a team. Also, I suspected I would prefer making deals happen rather than advocacy and contentious work, which was true (though I did enjoy my time in litigation).
I filtered firms by their size and – in particular – the size of their trainee intake. By City standards Macfarlanes is mid-sized. It is large enough to offer a broad range of experiences, but small enough that trainees can be treated as individuals and get to know a large proportion of the firm.
Macfarlanes’ emphasis on quality and not quantity appealed. I was also drawn by its reputation for excellent training as I felt this would provide the foundations for long-term success. Although learning by doing is important and this was borne out by a very hands-on training contract, I wanted a firm with a strong programme of formal training.
I had some work experience outside of law, but I did not do a vacation scheme. Instead I applied for a training contract directly via an assessment day.
Having hosted vacation scheme students as a trainee, I do think they are beneficial. A vacation scheme, like any work experience, adds credibility to your application and enables you to confirm and refine your reasons for choosing a legal career. A vacation scheme should also be a two-way process that lets you see if what the firm offers is what you want and if you see yourself fitting in there.
Pondering this question too much is a sure path to imposter syndrome, but if I must pick a reason I think it was because I made it clear why I was interested in Macfarlanes and not just a generic commercial law firm. Each law firm has its own view of what makes it special, what its strengths are, who its peers are and so on. You should be able to communicate that you understand that.
Also, I managed to articulate my motivation for a legal career in the City. Law is a tough profession and trainees are a large investment of time and money, so firms want to know that you are sure about your career choice and will stick with it.
My first seat was in finance, into which I ultimately qualified. Real estate was next. This was a mix of small matters handled by myself as well as assisting on the larger deals and development projects. My third seat was in corporate and M&A, where I mostly did private company work including some restructuring and insolvency. Litigation was my final seat where I covered financial regulatory investigations and a large dispute involving a major sovereign wealth fund.
In my first seat, finance, I drafted and filed the papers at the court to place an insolvent biomass energy company into administration. I was also involved in a round of funding to support the ailing company, drafting the board resolutions to authorise entry into the loan and the agreement granting security to the lender. In my next seat in real estate, I ended up registering the same security agreement I had drafted at HM Land Registry. I was also involved in the same matter during my third seat, corporate and M&A, as the company raised further funds with an issue of loan notes. Luckily, there was no need to get involved while I was in litigation, as the company managed a rare solvent exit from administration.
This depends on the practice area. Even though finance was my first seat client contact came thick and fast, I even had the CFO of a client ring me up a month into being a trainee solicitor. Real Estate also offered plenty of client contact as many small matters such as landlord’s consents were run solely by trainees.
After two weeks as a qualified solicitor I was sent on secondment to Goldman Sachs, who are an important client of the firm and the finance group. Luckily, they are just around the corner from Macfarlanes, so my commute has not changed and I still get to attend all my training sessions.
Just under halfway through your fourth seat, the number of qualification spaces in each practice area is released. You submit your choices, which do not have to be ranked. Departments may conduct interviews, though this is not obligatory unless they are oversubscribed. The whole process is wrapped up in less than a month.
During the two years there are plenty of opportunities for a two-way conversation about qualification with partners, both in potential qualification groups and with your assigned mentor partners.
(Most) mistakes can be corrected, so don’t panic.
I do a broad mix of debt finance work and as Macfarlanes has a balanced practice, I do both borrower and lender-side work. I am particularly partial to restructuring and insolvency matters. To borrow from Tolstoy, every insolvent company is insolvent in its own way, so there is plenty of variety in the matters.
Macfarlanes encourages its junior finance lawyers to get a broad range of experience, so I also cover leverage finance – risky(ish) loans typically used by private equity sponsors to buy a company, real estate finance and fund finance (loans directly to private equity funds). The latter usually involves staring at a complicated structure chart trying to work out who all the parties are!
At the junior end, much of the work is focused on managing of conditions precedent that need to be satisfied before the loan can be advanced. This can involve a lot of drafting, especially on the borrower side where trainees draft the corporate authorisations such as board minutes and shareholder resolutions. As you get more experience, you review and draft security agreements, short and then long-form loan facilities agreements and – as you approach senior solicitor and partner level – intercreditor agreements. These are agreements that rank and regulate the relationship between creditors of different layers of debt.
There is often an international element to the deal, so as a trainee you will be involved in liaising with overseas counsel in a variety of jurisdictions.
The finance group generates plenty of its own work, though we will almost always have input from colleagues in another practice area, especially tax, real estate, the investment management group, and derivatives and trading.
The working relationship between finance and corporate and M&A is one of the most important in the firm. When we are acting on the borrower side in a leveraged financing the M&A group will often be acting for the private equity sponsor on the underlying deal. On the reverse when we are acting for a lender financing a buyout, M&A will help us review the corporate acquisition documents.
There are a variety of sports teams and interest groups such as a cyclist group that organises trips on the weekend. There are regular calls for participation in teams on a no-experience-needed basis such as for cricket and football matches with clients. Away from sport we have a culture club that invites interesting speakers and puts on music and language lessons, and an art club which I enjoyed for its impressive series of art history lectures.
The firm has recently set up three networks. Balance, which is focused on working parents, an LGBT network and BAME and friends, our ethnic minorities network (we’re still working on a new name).
I like that the law is vast and ever changing, so there is always something new to learn.
The least enjoyable aspect is time recording, a necessary but nonetheless tedious bit of admin.
Business development is something that you are encouraged to get in the habit of doing early, even if this is just arranging a coffee to keep in contact with your friends in other professions.
Trainees are often invited to client events, which are a good opportunity to put a face to a name.
Macfarlanes is notable for marrying top-notch private client and corporate practices, which leads to a broader range of clients.
We also have a distinctive international strategy. Instead of merging with overseas firms or opening offices around the world, we maintain good relations with leading law firms in the major jurisdictions. For example, the firm works closely with and regularly sends associates on secondment to the leading New York firms such as Wachtell, Cravath and Paul Weiss among others. This model allows the client to have the most appropriate lawyers for the matter rather than be tied into using different offices of the same firm.
Collegiate, polished, focused.
Resilience and determination count for a lot as this can be a demanding career. The ability to get along with others is also important, whether this be colleagues, clients or other professional advisors. This usually requires a strong sense of empathy.
Intelligence and legal knowledge are assumed, so you will get little extra credit for these factors.
Legal work is not done for its own sake. A good lawyer should try to understand the client’s underlying objective and be interested in helping the client achieve their aims, which for a law firm in the City means being interested in the business and financial worlds.
A career in the law is tough and requires plenty of commitment, so you should consider it carefully before you enter it. It may be tempting to drift into it or see it as a ‘default’ option for a respectable and even prestigious career, but there are plenty of easier ways to spend a few years.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, which is about the scandal-ridden blood testing start-up Theranos. The insolvency lawyer in me loves a good corporate failure story.