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Meet the lawyer

Sophie Freelove

Sophie Freelove

University: Durham University
Degree: French and philosophy
Year of qualification: 2018
Position: Associate
Department: Complex commercial litigation (CCL)

What attracted you to a career in law?

I knew I was looking for a career that I would find challenging, where I would be working as part of a team and ideally had international opportunities. From various work experiences I completed over the years, a career in law seemed like a great fit.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I always preferred the idea of working as part of a team and so I was always more drawn towards becoming a solicitor. As a disputes lawyer, I am still interested in doing some advocacy and hope to get some experience of this over the next few years. 

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

I had a mix of work experience, all of which I think was important for different reasons. I completed a number of work experience weeks and vacation schemes at both law firms and with in-house legal teams, which provided a good insight into the different areas of law on offer, as well as what life as a lawyer was really like. I also volunteered at the Citizens Advice while at law school – I knew I really enjoyed interacting with people and working through sometimes complex problems.

It is important to remember that non-legal work experience can be just as beneficial when embarking on a career in law. I worked in retail while studying and taught English in a French sixth-form while at university in France. These opportunities helped me to develop some really important skills, such as time-management (eg, balancing working and studying) and communication, both of which are very important skills for solicitors to have. 

Which departments did you train in?

During my training contract, Vinson & Elkins RLLP (V&E) had a non-rotational system in place for both years (which currently applies to the firm’s second-year trainees). This meant that while I was physically sitting with different departments, I could take work across the firm during that seat.

I found the main advantage of this to be not necessarily having to leave a matter just before a filing or closing upon rotation, and being able to continue to develop certain skills throughout the whole two years.

For my first seat I was sat in employment, but also worked on large finance and M&A, capital markets (MACM) matters, as well as some disputes work. For my second seat, I rotated into CCL, our disputes seat, where I became heavily involved in a number of large arbitrations, but also did some work with our energy transactions and projects team. My third seat was in our MACM team, where I worked on a number of private equity deals. Finally, for my fourth seat, I was offered the opportunity to return to CCL, where I continued to work on many of the arbitrations from my second seat – this is where I qualified.

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

In my disputes seat, I became involved in a large international arbitration relating to the cancellation of a major pipeline project. At first, I was primarily involved in the document production process (which is similar to disclosure). This involved being a point of contact for the client to manage the team’s document requests, carrying out an initial review and keeping the V&E team updated on our progress. As this developed, I became increasingly involved in the matter and would help to prepare for, and then attend, witness meetings (often travelling abroad to do so). By the end of my training contract, I had prepared the first drafts of parts of key witness statements in the arbitration. This gave me a great opportunity to get a sense of what qualifying as a lawyer in the disputes team would be like.

How does the qualification process work at the firm?

Given that the number of trainees in our London office is fairly small, the qualification process is normally quite informal. Over the training contract, trainees have lots of opportunities to let teams know of their interest and from working closely within teams, the trainees will often have a good idea of which teams will be looking for one, or more, newly qualified lawyers that year.

Towards the end of the third seat, graduate recruitment normally ask trainees to confirm preference(s) and conversations then take place within the relevant departments. It often comes down to whether there is a business case but in my experience it works out well. 

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

Don’t worry about asking questions! It makes you seem interested and engaged in a matter, and shows you are really thinking about the task at hand.

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

It might sound like a cliché, but each day really can be quite different.  

Some of the disputes we work on can be extremely large, which means we can be working on them for up to a number of years. Other times, the matters we work on can be much smaller and only require some initial advice, and never evolve into a full dispute.

What I do in a typical day depends on where we are up to in the procedural timetable of these cases, for example in the run-up to a major filing or hearing, we may be liaising with experts or witnesses in connection with a particular dispute, preparing for and attending interviews, and then preparing draft witness statements or reviewing draft expert reports.  Some days may require a thorough review of an application or statement submitted by our opposing counsel and carrying out legal research or discussions with the client to consider and advise on possible ways forward.

Other days we might be preparing draft correspondence to a party at the early stages of a dispute to assist the parties in reaching a resolution. 

All of this might involve attending Zoom meetings while working from home, working in the London office or travelling abroad to attend hearings. There is lots of variety in my typical day.

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

Many of the disputes I have been involved in relate to large energy and other infrastructure projects, based all over the world. I have had a lot of opportunities to travel, worked in very international teams and often with leading experts in their respective fields. I also really enjoy working on matters that have real-world impacts, whether that’s relating to a metro line or a wind farm, these disputes are connected to projects that operate in the real world (and you may even be able to visit).

It is no secret that this can mean working long hours, but I think it is possible to find a balance that works for you.

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

It is a good idea to do as much research as you can to find out whether this is the career for you, and also what types of law firm you can see yourself in. Work experience and vacation schemes are great for this, but also remember to speak to as many people as you can about their experiences – speak to people at law fairs, panel events, anyone else you may meet at recruitment events or even a friend of a friend. Think about asking questions about the types of matter they work on, and what they enjoy most and least about their work: it’s great to learn from other people’s experiences.

What is the wider culture like?

Something people most commonly comment on about V&E is its culture. There is a real sense of camaraderie here, even within international teams, and the people generally don’t take themselves too seriously, which we all put down to the firm’s Texan roots.

In pre-pandemic times there have been ski trips, various firm and departmental social events in London as well as end-of-month drinks in ‘Susan’s café’, and quite regular and more informal after-work drinks. One of the highlights is our prom, which takes place every two to three years in Houston and the whole firm is invited. It is really a spectacular event.

In London, we also have an active Women’s Initiative and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Executive Committee. These groups run a number of events, which creatively moved online over the past couple of years, including a diversity and inclusion book club, a Lunar New Year dumpling-making party and monthly Women’s Initiative coffee catch-ups. There are also a number of other affinity groups that exist firm wide.

How often as a trainee were you communicating directly with clients (calls, attending meetings)?

One of the best things about the V&E training programme is that from the start trainees really are treated as a member of the team and, while supervised, they will be given tasks and responsibilities and are expected to start to take ownership of these tasks. Once you have demonstrated that you are confident and can take on these assignments, the responsibilities gradually increase. As a trainee this will often include emailing certain requests or updates to the client, or liaising with the junior lawyer on the other side. Plus, trainees are almost always included in client meetings.

Having trained at the firm, it is something I have always taken for granted. I had a lot of client contact from the very start of my training contract, including being invited to a closing dinner with the client in my first month. Trainees certainly aren’t hidden away here.

What’re you reading at the moment?

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari – it’s a game changer!