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Meet the lawyer

Margaux Harris

Margaux Harris

University: University of Exeter
Degree: History
Year of qualification: 2019
Position: Associate
Department: Marine and international trade

What attracted you to a career in law?

I’d always thought that law might be a future career for me and my history degree would lend itself well to that. I worked in the events industry for four years after university at Lord’s Cricket Ground, promoting and selling the venue to corporate and private clients for conferences and dinners. A few of my friends were doing the law conversion course and that piqued my interest. I decided to take some time off and do some work experience in a couple of City law firms, which I really enjoyed.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I wanted to work in a team, but as a barrister you tend to work much more on your own and you’re essentially self-employed. Having worked in the events industry, I knew that working in a team was something that I really liked.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

I found it hard to differentiate law firms based on their websites, and that the best way to work out what kind of firm I wanted to join was to hear from people who actually worked there – whether by reading articles written by trainees about their experiences, or in person.

I wasn’t interested in the magic circle; I saw the benefit of going to a firm with a smaller intake, as it seemed logical that this would lead to much more tailored and focused training, which would give trainees more responsibility.

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

I worked at a tiny boutique firm in the City for a week. I applied speculatively and was able to gain really good experience doing a variety of IP and M&A work. Working directly with a partner was also insightful.

I also spent a week at a litigation firm. This helped me to gain insight into the sort of working environment that I could expect at a commercial firm. The firm only had a couple of trainees; they had a huge number of paralegals who were doing trainee work, which was interesting to see.

I then did my placement scheme at Stephenson Harwood and secured a training contract.

Which departments did you train in?

I trained in real estate finance, commercial litigation, employment and pensions, and banking finance.

How does the qualification process work at the firm?

Trainees are told which practice groups have positions – you have to decide which ones you want to apply to and then you submit your CV. Interviews take place and offers are made.

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

I work in the shipping industry, which incorporates lots of different practice areas, including commodities, energy, offshore, dry shipping and wet shipping. I’m mainly focused on dry shipping, which involves some complex charter party disputes, acting for owners and charterers. The group is also working on a number of High Court commodities cases. We were recently in the Court of Appeal for a shipping case that we’ve been working on for a couple of years.

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

When the shipping case I previously mentioned went to the Court of Appeal, I’d only been in the group for a couple of months, so I wasn’t able to get too involved in the substantive work at that stage, as this had been dealt with by our barristers. I was responsible for working out the logistics of the hearing and listening to counsel’s ad hoc enquiries, where they would ask for instructions from the client and we would liaise between the barristers and our client. The judgment found in our favour and it has become a leading case in contract law on how to interpret a condition and an innominate term. Having been at the hearing and seeing since how it’s being cited by the authorities is really exciting.

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

I love how shipping is a very hot topic at the moment. Since I qualified, there have been the tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, the trade war between the United States and China and a myriad of other political issues. Our clients turn to us, asking questions about these developments, which means that we have to prepare articles and advice for clients based on events that are developing every day. It is incredibly interesting to see the impact that politics and current affairs is having on our clients’ day-to-day lives. You’re not working in a bubble, you’re very much working in the political environment.

I also like the idea that being within such a niche sector means that, all going well, I’ll end up an expert in a particular area.

It’s great that we have such a wide range of international clients working in a huge number of jurisdictions. The downside of this is that – because your clients are working in different time zones – you are expected to be available to answer urgent client questions at unsociable hours. Even though my hours haven’t been too bad, there are times when you just have to respond to things at hours that you normally wouldn’t need to.

What is the work-life balance like at your firm? How often do you have late nights/work at weekends?

In contentious work, you can really plot when you’re going to be working late – in the run up to hearings it’s inevitable that you’re going to have some late nights preparing. Otherwise, if something comes up that’s urgent – for example, if one of your clients’ ships is arrested – you may have some late nights. But in the six months that I’ve been here, I haven’t had to work a weekend.

There really isn’t a face-time culture; as a general rule, Stephenson Harwood isn’t a firm where you’re expected to sit at your desk for the sake of being seen, and the firm is increasingly embracing flexible working and encouraging working from home. You’re expected to do your work and hit your target hours, but it’s also recognised that having a social life is a good thing!

What is the wider culture like – eg, are there sports teams/trips out? Is there a LGBT group, women’s group etc?

I play in the tag rugby team and we also have netball and football teams. Recently, there was a legal rugby and netball tournament in Richmond Park, which we were encouraged to get involved in. There’s a lot going on in that respect and people are really encouraged to play. There are also team away days and regular after-work drinks. The other day the practice group leader emailed and said that we’ve been working hard so there would be department drinks that afternoon – it’s nice to get that kind of recognition.

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

Get as much experience as you can. I benefited from having a career beforehand. It’s definitely not necessary, but it certainly helped me in my interviews because interviewers were interested in my commercial experience. Talk to as many people as you can for work experience. Use any other work experience that you have – even if it’s not related to law – if it shows commercial awareness or client-facing experience. If you take my experience of working in hospitality, I was able to show that I knew what clients would be interested in, how to conduct myself in an office and how to talk to clients over email – I’d really encourage candidates to highlight that, because it is so important. Due to my earlier career experience, this was all second nature when I started at Stephenson Harwood.

Also, having a career before helped me to work out what I did and didn’t want in a career. It became very clear to me that I enjoyed working in a team and wanted to be challenged intellectually.

In terms of training contract applications, I know people have probably heard it a million times before, but avoid the scattergun approach where you apply to every firm, because the quality of your applications will suffer. Try to get as much insight as you can from people in the industry. Go to open days and career fairs as there will usually be trainees there that you can speak to. If you can, chat with them and get as much insight as you can, because that’s a great way to stand out in your applications.