Travers Smith LLP
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University: Magdalen College, University of Oxford
Year of qualification: 2005
Position: Partner and co-head of graduate recruitment
What attracted you to a career in law?
I only really decided to study law because I liked the idea of being a courtroom preacher, John Grisham-style. However, after a couple of years at university, I realised that (i) the English justice system doesn’t really work that way and (ii) as much as I love small-town America, I probably wouldn’t want to live there long term. Which meant that dreams of mafia-owned law firms, class actions and tobacco trials that first piqued my interest in the subject gave way to the – admittedly equally glamorous – reality of law fairs, endless application forms and vacation scheme interviews.
I was fortunate enough to secure a vacation scheme at Travers Smith in Summer 2001. After spending three weeks at the firm, I was hooked – amazing people, top-quality work and a collaborative, supportive, non-hierarchical environment. It made the decision of where to train very easy. Eighteen years on and I'm still here, which is probably testament to the firm's tolerance as opposed to my talents!
Why solicitor not barrister?
I never really considered being a barrister for a couple of reasons.
While it might sound slightly strange coming from a lawyer, I am not actually that interested in the black-letter law. While I enjoyed the intellectual rigour of studying law, the prospect of reading cases left me cold (I was one of Nutcases' best customers between 1999 and 2002). When it came to thinking about careers, I was more attracted to the client-facing role of the solicitor.
Also, my perception of the Bar – which may or may not be a fair one – is that it can be a lonely existence. I much preferred the idea of working as part of a team, hence my natural inclination was solicitor over barrister.
How did you decide which firms to apply to?
In short, I was very lucky. Not being the most organised of students, I didn't attend any of the university presentations in the Christmas term and it was only when people started heading off to London for interviews at the start of the Easter term that I realised that vacation scheme applications were very much under way. It was around that time that the invitation to the Travers Smith presentation arrived in my pigeon hole (we had email back then but it was still in its formulative stages and social media was just a glint in a teenage Mark Zuckerberg’s eye), saying to bring along a CV as they would be interviewing in town the following week. I attended the presentation, really liked what I heard and the people I met, and the following week found myself being interviewed by one of the partners who subsequently became head of graduate recruitment (and who is still at the firm and reminds me, at every possible opportunity, that I probably wouldn't be here if it had been anyone else interviewing me that day – I was somewhat hungover after a formal dinner the night before the interview and fell over my own feet as I walked in, so his assessment is probably about right).
After my vacation scheme, I didn't want to work anywhere else. I put in a handful of other applications in the hope of getting a reserve option, but fortunately it transpired that I didn't need them.
How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?
Before my vacation scheme I had very little legal work experience – I had spent a week at a small accountancy firm in Sheffield, which is where I'm from, and had also spent a week at a boutique investment advisor which had a legal department, where I'd spent a couple of days when I was 16. That was one of a number of reasons why it was important to try and get a vacation scheme.
What are the others? First and foremost, practising law is very different from studying law and unless you have some idea of what you're letting yourself in for, it's quite dangerous to sign-up to three years – four if you need to do the GDL – of something that you might hate. While there's obviously a finite amount you can learn about being a City lawyer in a two-week vacation scheme, it at least gives you the opportunity to see what goes on so that you can start to make decisions about your future career on a vaguely informed basis.
Secondly, while all firms look pretty similar from the outside, they are all quite different – so having decided that you want to be a solicitor, you are then faced with deciding where you would ideally like to work. It's only by spending time somewhere that you can have any confidence that you'll like the people, culture and working environment (which is crucial given the amount of time you'll spend at work over the course of your training contract).
Finally, it adds credibility to your application – if you have zero experience of City law firms, it is obviously harder to convince a prospective employer that you are committed to the role. Conversely, if you have done one or more vacation schemes, you will be able to talk more knowledgably about the role and demonstrate that you have at least dipped your toe into the profession.
What do you think made your application successful?
A hard one! My academics were decent without being absolutely stellar, but I had various interests outside of studying. I played one sport at university level and numerous others at college level; I'd generally thrown myself into college and university life and had involved myself with various committees and societies. I think that probably made my application a bit more interesting than someone who spent their entire time wedded to the books.
Aside from that, I had a healthy dollop of luck – I am 100% confident that I found the right firm for me from the outset (albeit by chance), got through the vacation scheme interview without saying anything too preposterous – and managed to do sufficiently well on the vacation scheme to earn a job.
Interview-wise, I think it's important to be yourself. Many of the people that I interview find it very difficult or are afraid to let their personality shine through. Law firms don't want robots, so do try and show your sense of humour and try not to take yourself too seriously.
Which departments did you train in?
Please discuss a specific deal/case that you were involved with, outlining your role in the matter.
It was a long time ago, so my memory is a bit hazy I'm afraid! Suffice it to say that I had very different experiences in each of my four seats and was genuinely quite torn when it came to qualification decisions.
My experiences varied from assisting with the financing of the acquisition by a private equity client of Pets at Home (when it was still relatively small), to working on the merger of Birthdays and Clinton Cards (which didn't go so well for the newly merged entity), to appearing in Staines County Court on behalf of Pinewood Studios, seeking an order to prevent some random punter from keeping his horse on their land!
How does the qualification process work at the firm?
It is, and remains, fairly informal. There are no applications or interviews. Departments are asked for their views on the trainees who have sat in their team and qualifying trainees are asked to rank the departments they have sat in, in order. A team of three training principles then try and match people up to ensure that as many people as possible get their first choice, if necessary following further dialogue either with individual trainees or the departments themselves. Our retention rates are among the highest in the City, so I guess we are doing something right.
What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?
That it's never too early to start developing your own contact base. It's tempting to think that, as the trainee, you are the most junior person on the matter and therefore nobody is going to be interested in engaging with you on the business development side of things (as they'd only want to speak to the partner or the associate). Sometimes that will be the case, but often it won't be. There will usually be someone – either at your client or (in particular in a transaction context – it's clearly harder in a disputes matter) at the other side's client – who is the most junior member of the team and with whom you can start to build a relationship. While they are unlikely to be in a position to give instructions now, they will be the ones who are doing so in a few years' time, so if you have come through the ranks with them and kept in touch, you will be in pole position to start winning some of those instructions. It is phenomenally impressive when, as a partner, you see associates bringing work in via contacts that they have nurtured from their most junior days.
Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?
I am a partner in the finance team, specialising in fund finance and real estate finance. This means I typically act for banks lending money to funds or companies, or act for funds or companies borrowing money from banks, for various purposes – for example, to finance the acquisition of a shopping centre or to build a care home.
While no two days are the same, a typical day might start with a weekly finance partners' meeting to discuss department issues, any workload constraints, upcoming client events and general strategy for the team. I might spend the morning on conference calls with clients seeking instructions on a particular suite of documentation we have received, or with the law firm across the table negotiating the outstanding issues on a facility agreement. Then perhaps lunch with clients, which could be anything from a quick sandwich to a more formal three-course affair which leaves your main artery feeling like a snake that's swallowed an egg.
The afternoon could be spent preparing for a pitch the next day, or reviewing mark-ups of ancillary documents which have been produced by the junior associate or trainee on a deal, or interviewing for a training contract. Most days, I don't spend that much time at my desk, which can make life difficult when I have a lot of work on, but generally means I am meeting with or talking to other people, which is the thing I enjoy most about my job.
Please discuss a current/recent specific deal/case, outlining your role in the matter.
Probably the most memorable transaction that I've been involved in over the last few years was acting for a Premier League football club that had just been relegated and which was now in discussions with its bankers regarding next steps. The club had the benefit of a fairly chunky overdraft, which increased over the course of the season (principally to enable the wage bill to be paid on a monthly basis) before stepping down dramatically over summer as season ticket sales and TV money came in to pay it off. By the time that we got involved, the club was someway over its overdraft limit (as it hadn't been able to pay down the overdraft) and its bankers were threatening to put the club into administration. This would have meant a points deduction for the following season and therefore a disastrous start to life in the Championship. Threats were issued on both sides before club and bank sat down to agree how to handle the situation – there were certain players that the club wanted to sell and others that it wanted to retain, with a view to gaining immediate promotion back up to the Premier League. Eventually, a deal was brokered whereby if certain players were sold (being those the club nominated as being on the ‘sell’ list), the sale proceeds would be applied to pay down the bank debt. If other players who the club desperately wanted to retain were sold, the sale proceeds were available for reinvestment in players.
In the end, the club returned to the Premier League at the second attempt and they still bank with the same bank.
What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?
I most enjoy the people I work with, who are bright, committed, exceptionally able and above all, ultimate team players. I learn from them as much as they learn from me.
I least enjoy dealing with people on the other side who seem determined to make everyone's lives difficult. There's no need.
How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?
As a partner, it's absolutely fundamental. But we very much believe that business development is not just the preserve of the partners and we actively encourage all of our trainees and associates to get out there and mingle. As an associate with ambitions of partnership, you need to prove that you can not only do the work (lots of people can) but also that you can grow the cake – that is what will stand you apart.
What makes your firm stand out from the rest?
A number of things:
- Culture – it's very hard to describe culture and most firms will claim that theirs is fantastic, but we genuinely do believe that ours stands us apart. If I was forced to try and describe it, I would say it is collaborative, close-knit, supportive and non-hierarchical. The size and room sharing mentioned in the bullets below help massively.
- International strategy – we are now one of only a handful of City firms that do top quality, international work while being London-centric. Our ‘good friends’ policy with overseas firms enables us to cherry-pick the best local firm for the advice in question (for example, you might want to use one firm for a corporate transaction and an entirely different firm for a disputes matter). Firms with a plethora of offices overseas do not have this flexibility and the overall quality of the advice can suffer as a result.
- Size – large enough to be genuinely full service, but small enough that it doesn't feel like a law factory. As a trainee, being part of such a small intake (only 25 per year) coupled with the room sharing policy means that training can feel more like personal coaching than rote learning in a classroom.
- Room sharing – partners, associates and trainees all share offices together. As a trainee, this means that you learn via osmosis as stuff inevitably goes in without you realising it – not only the law in that particular area, but the softer skills as well (for example, hearing how the associate in the room deals with someone who is particularly difficult on the other side or how the partner has a difficult conversation about fees with a client). It also helps to create the non-hierarchical environment referred to above – it's difficult to be in awe of someone who you've heard on the phone to their two year old talking in a silly voice.
What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful solicitor?
You need to be bright, savvy, commercially astute and hard-working. Organised, with an eye for detail and the ability to assess and analyse complex issues quickly. A good listener and coherent communicator. Resilient. You will also need a healthy amount of self-awareness, common sense and humour.
What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?
First and foremost, understand that obtaining a training contract is very difficult, as there aren't enough to go around. If you have managed to get one, you've done fantastically well and should be very proud. If you haven't, don't give up – the vast majority of people in the profession have been rejected at some point or another, so don't be disheartened. Do your research and try and find the best firms for you. Once you have done so, try to find out how they pick their trainees – are the vast majority of their trainees recruited from vacation schemes? If so, apply for a vacation scheme rather than a training contract, as that will maximise your chances of getting in.
Try to develop/nurture the skills listed above as much as you can – both before you start and once your career gets underway. You don't need to read the FT cover to cover every day, but try to develop an interest in business and the commercial world. As a lawyer, you need to know the law, but the advice you give will always have a commercial context. It's vital that you fully understand the commercial context in which any advice is given, as that will almost always have a bearing – at times, significantly so – on the actual advice that you give.
Above all, prove that you are a team player and try to enjoy it!
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