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Meet the lawyer

Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith

University: University of Leeds
Degree: Law
Year of qualification: 2016
Position: Associate
Department: Employment

What attracted you to a career in law?

I wanted a job that would challenge me and allow me to learn new things every day. I was always academic at school, did well in exams and enjoyed learning and problem solving, so I wanted to do a degree that would complement that, which is why I chose law. I really enjoyed it at university, particularly employment and discrimination law, which led me to the career that I’m in now.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I always thought I would be better at the written side of things, such as drafting contracts, advice notes and pleadings, rather than advocacy. However, as an employment lawyer, I feel that I have actually managed to get the best of both worlds because we sometimes do our own advocacy in the employment tribunal. I also like the fact that there is a greater variety of work as a solicitor; we can do advisory work, drafting contracts, working on corporate deals and litigation.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

I knew I wanted to apply for a top-tier law firm, so I applied for big commercial firms in Leeds and Manchester because I knew I wanted to stay in the North.

I did four vacation schemes in total, including the Walker Morris one, and they really are the best way to get into a firm. People get to see you over the full week, rather than at just one interview. I really enjoyed the Walker Morris vacation scheme and I think it’s important that people either do work experience or try to do a vacation scheme, because then they can see if the firm is the right fit for them, as well as the other way round. I really enjoyed the Walker Morris scheme because it involved lots of variety: there were group activities as well as working in the office, and lots of social activities.

I actually did my vacation scheme at Walker Morris in the employment department and sat with the person who later became my supervisor as a trainee, who I've worked closely with for many years now – which shows that the system works! Ultimately, I got a good vibe from Walker Morris and that’s how I ended up with the firm.

Which departments did you train in?

Walker Morris offers a six-seat training contract, which allows you to experience a wide variety of legal areas. However, they are also very flexible in terms of tailoring your training contract to you. When it came to the second year of my training contract, I chose employment because I knew I’d enjoyed it there on the vacation scheme and at university. I knew I was qualifying there six months before the end of my training contract, so I actually did the last eight months of my training contract in the employment department. This was helpful as there was a natural transition between being a trainee and qualifying.

The other departments I trained in were corporate, commercial contracts and real estate and banking litigation. It's really important to make the most of each of your seats and get to know the people in those departments as, ultimately, you will be working with them on cross-departmental matters when you qualify and will be better known across the firm.

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

You are expected to work very hard and you’re not going to be hand-held through the process, so you have to use your own initiative. It’s that sort of thing that you can’t really prepare for, you just have to go into your training contract with an open mind, work hard and then use your initiative when you can to show people how good you are. Walker Morris gives you quite a lot of independence early on, which is good and allows you to build your own brand, but it can also be quite daunting.

You might know how to answer an exam question – and problem solve in that way – but when it comes to being a lawyer, you need to know how to serve your clients in a different way and apply those problem-solving skills practically. Clients don’t want you to draft a lengthy advice note, they just want commercial advice on the best option for their business.

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

This is why I love being an employment lawyer – the work is so varied. You could be in an employment tribunal one day, visiting a client’s business another and conducting a training session for HR professionals the next. One of the other exciting things that we do in this team is working with Premier League football clubs and drafting managers’ employment contracts – which are obviously extremely high value, confidential and time pressured!

I also do a lot of advisory work – we have a retainer arrangement with a number of our clients, which means that they can pick up the phone to me whenever they have a query. I advise on the full range of HR issues, including disciplinary matters, grievance matters, redundancy and restructuring exercises. Clients can call with anything at any point and it’s really quite fast paced. With all the variety, there isn’t really a typical day, which is good but also challenging, because you have to juggle the needs of all your clients – that’s what makes it interesting.

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

We might get an instruction from a Premier League football club that says “we’ve agreed in principle that we want to engage this manager and this is the deal” and we will then set out in a high-level heads of terms document exactly what the package is, what the bonuses are, what the term is and what the termination provisions are. That document would then be negotiated and, once agreed, we would draft the actual contract – which is a tough task given that the contract is so high value. The termination provisions in particular have to be very tightly drafted; we have to make sure that there aren’t any gaps which could result in the manager leaving in the middle of the season without any termination payment being made to the club. Once the contract is concluded and announced on TV or in the sports media, it’s quite a sense of achievement!

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

Obviously drafting skills, attention to detail and time management are all important, but I also think that you need a good work ethic and to be personable. You need to be able to get on with your client, know their business and build up a relationship with them. That will really help you to find solutions to their problems. You also need to use your initiative to create and develop business opportunities – it's more than being a lawyer, you also need to learn to be a businessperson!

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

Researching the firm and doing the vacation scheme is very important. There are so many different firms and they might have different models and do different social activities. When I did the vacation scheme, I felt like I fitted in at Walker Morris and it suited my personality and style.

It’s important to recognise that this is a very rewarding career, but it is also very challenging, so you need that strong work ethic.

“Come to Walker Morris” would be my other advice!

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

Be prepared to put the hours in, but at the same time, Walker Morris is very flexible and trusts you to work independently. If you’ve worked late one night, then people aren’t going to expect you to come in at early the next day. You can manage your own workload and your own hours, especially as you become more senior.

I also work from home at least one day a week and the firm encourages all fee earners to do this. The whole point is to recognise that the world of work has changed and is still changing; it is more of a 24-7 culture. Your clients might expect you to be available late one evening, so if you want to service them well, you might have to pick something up if it’s urgent. We want to provide the best service – and we’re prepared to do that – but at the same time, we have a good work-life balance.

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

Walker Morris puts a lot of emphasis on you being a well-rounded person. Go out there and do your extracurricular stuff. I’m captain of the netball team and we play once a week. There are loads of social events as well and team days out. We also host a lot of charitable events and raise money through bake sales, for example. The firm also recently introduced lunchtime yoga and the employee forum is currently running a health and wellbeing programme.

Does your department largely work independently or with other departments?

We do a lot of our own work independently (eg, HR advice and employment tribunals). But there is also a lot of collaborative, cross-departmental working, which makes it really interesting. For example, we could be assisting the corporate team with the employment due diligence on a share acquisition or drafting new service agreements for directors. We also do quite a lot of work with the commercial team (on the people elements of commercial contracts), the regulatory team (on data protection issues involving employees) and the sports team (such as acting on the sale of a football club).

What’s been the highlight of the last month at the firm?

We recently won work from a leading drinks manufacturer and I was involved with the tender process for that. I’m only two years’ qualified, so to be able to go and pitch for work at that level is really exciting. Last week the client invited us to its factory to show us the manufacturing process and how the drinks are made. I think being able to do that sort of thing and see how your clients work is really interesting and exciting. It also helps you to put it into perspective when you’re advising them, so if someone now tells me that there’s a disciplinary issue with an individual on the factory floor, I can envisage how the production line works. It’s being able to do things like client visits that makes my job so interesting.

What’s the biggest opportunity you’ve been given since joining the firm?

In terms of the opportunity that you’re given, it goes back to what I said before about being able to work independently and develop your own brand from quite an early stage. Walker Morris gives us lots of opportunities to get involved heavily with clients and from an early outset, and the firm expects you to build those relationships with people. I’ve been to various tender presentations and they really encourage juniors to get involved with that kind of thing.

Where is your dream holiday destination?

I love going on holiday and travelling, so I’ve got a lot of places on my list. I’ve recently done a road trip down the California coast, which was really cool, and spent a week in Jordan to see Petra, which was amazing. I’m trying to build up my travel list – and I’ve got loads more on it. I think the good thing about having a job as a lawyer is that it enables you to do those sorts of things. You can save up to travel and I buy extra holidays as well. That’s the work-hard, play-hard balance. Walker Morris is really good in that respect. It’s about managing your own workload and if you work really hard when you’re at work, then why not make the most of your holidays? That’s something I really enjoy – having the opportunity to see the world. The fact that I’ve become a lawyer in a commercial firm has enabled me to do that.