Wondering where it all began? We sat down with senior lawyers at City law firm Travers Smith to talk specialisms, key characteristics, and humble beginnings.
Chambers Student: What were some of the challenges you had to navigate in the early stages of your career?
James Longster, partner & co-head of graduate recruitment: I’m a Travers Smith lifer, which isn’t actually that unusual amongst the senior lawyers here. I joined Travers Smith as a trainee in 2007, and other than a couple of client secondments along the way, I've been here ever since. One of the biggest challenges I faced was just that I wasn't used to being in an office environment. It was all completely new and different to me. I’d worked in pubs and restaurants for quite a while and in retrospect (and while obviously very different in lots of ways) that was actually really useful in terms of building on things like communication skills. But I'm sure the people I shared a room with would agree that it took me some time to get to grips with office life. The way I navigated that new situation was just by trying to be as helpful and as keen as possible, which is hopefully a trait that I've kept up through my career today. And whilst I like to think that I didn't embarrass myself, there were definitely times where I didn't know what I was doing! But you just need that period of adjustment.
“You have to come out of yourself, be curious, and not worry that you’re annoying other people in doing it.”
Hannah Manning, partner & co-head of graduate recruitment: One of the biggest challenges in the early days is managing your time, and understanding what you're being asked to do, so that you can take that and produce something that matches what the client is looking for. All of that requires good communication skills, because you're having to negotiate deadlines and target your questions so that you're getting the right information, and that can be quite hard at the beginning. Naturally, when you start – and I certainly felt this – you tend to defer to other people and assume that they will tell you everything you need to know. But what you realize over time is that often, people don't tell you absolutely everything you need, because they’ve skipped over something or assumed that you knew it. So asking questions, speaking to people, is really key. You have to come out of yourself, be curious, and not worry that you’re annoying other people in doing it.
Chambers Student: Which preconceived ideas you had about what it would be like to be a lawyer were the first to fall away?
JL: One of the preconceived ideas that I had about a city job (or certainly being a lawyer in the city) when I was applying for jobs was this idea of being ever present in the office. This idea of face time. I'd certainly heard lots of stories at university about people leaving their jackets on the back of chairs to make it seem as though they were still at their desk and things like that. But I just didn't feel that at Travers Smith. Maybe I was just incredibly lucky in that I found a firm like that. I remember times where I was told - in no uncertain terms - that there was no requirement for me to stay when I didn’t have anything to do. That was incredibly reassuring, so that idea fell away really quickly.
HM: As the only non-Travers Smith lifer among the three of us, I came into the job with quite a different view of what I was going to do. I got into law because I wanted to be a criminal barrister, but having trained, I moved across into the city and into a law firm. In a sense, I didn't know what to expect, but I think my first preconception was that being a lawyer would be quite an individualistic sort of profession. When I got into the city and started to see inside firms like Travers Smith, what struck me was how much teamwork there is, and how much the team is critical to so many aspects of what we do. It's absolutely key to delivering top-quality client work, and we all spend huge amounts of time communicating with one another and collaborating to do that. It's also very key to learning and development. We all work together, we bounce ideas off each other and we invest time in increasing one another's knowledge, particularly in developing junior lawyers. I think had I known all that before going in, I'd probably have found city law a much more attractive proposition.
Chambers Student: What was it about your practice that first drew you to it? Was it something you intended from the outset?
HM: I wouldn’t say my move across into tax was a very well thought through decision! I'm not a role model for anybody who’s now strategizing about their career! But it's worked out really well for me. I've been very lucky in that I love the mix of technical law, client contact and deal management that I get from my job. It has actually suited me very well. I love the wider policy and political angle to the subject, and that’s increasingly coming through. Tax is in the news a lot more now, and thinking about the wider context of that – what it’s there for and how policy decisions are going to change the landscape – is a really interesting part of the job. But I can't say I necessarily knew all that when I first started off.
Asma Rashid, senior counsel & co-head of graduate recruitment: One of the nice things about doing a training contract is that you get the opportunity to see the different areas of law that we practice at the firm, whether it's transactional, advisory, regulatory or contentious. What really drew me to the private equity/financial sponsors group here is the fact that I really enjoyed the fast paced, dynamic nature of the work that we did. We work alongside teams not just in our department, but across the whole firm. I also really enjoyed the commerciality of the role; the problem solving and getting to the crux of the issue. Ultimately in the transactional world, everyone’s trying to get to the same end goal, so it’s just a case of making sure your client’s interests are covered.
JL: I didn't turn up at Travers Smith thinking that I was definitely going to qualify into the team that I qualified into (which was just called the commercial department at the time, rather than technology & commercial transactions). But having said that, I did put my hand up for it because it sounded as though it might be interesting. A lot of the stuff that was being talked about in terms of the work that they were doing felt quite tangible. When it came to the corporates that they were acting for, it felt like I understood a little bit more about what they were doing in a real-world sense. So that's really what drew me in.
Chambers Student: What sort of characteristics would make someone suited to a career in your area of practice?
JL: There will be a number of things I could say that would be equally applicable to all of the departments Travers Smith. You need to bright, hardworking, driven and determined, because it can definitely be a challenging job at times. With regards to my specific area of practice, one of the most important characteristics is that someone needs to enjoy variety. At a high level, my team covers a wide range of matters – tech, data, cyber security, intellectual property, what I would call classic trading arrangements and things like supply contracts outsourcings. We also work on both transactional and advisory matters, and sometimes contentious matters as well. So there aren't many departments at the firm that cover that variety. Not everyone likes that, but I find it keeps me on my toes! It's very different day to day, and that's probably one of the things that I love the most.
AR: I think a lot of our members enjoy project management, because a large part of our role involves project managing and liaising with a number of different advisors on our client’s side. So if you're somebody that likes that element, I think you'll do well in the corporate or private equity team. More generally, an understanding of the commercial rationale behind the things we are doing, and the ability to understand what your client's trying to achieve from a commercial perspective, is essential. Especially where you’re going to try to work out what the right solution is in order to get there.
Chambers Student: Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known going in?
HM: If I'm being very flippant about it, I wish I'd known when I went in that I'd become a partner, because it might have saved me a few sleepless nights along the way! But being a bit more serious about it, I wish I had known how long a career actually is. It sounds really obvious, but being a few years into it now, I've learned how long your whole career is and how much changes in your life during that time. Therefore it’s so important to have a sustainable career which adapts to your life, but continues to remain challenging and fun along the way.
JL: You absolutely don't need a fully thought-out career plan. I certainly didn't turn up at Travers Smith with the ultimate goal of being a partner. That was something that just felt too far off, and whilst I hoped I'd enjoy the job, I didn't know that for certain. So I suppose I wish I'd known that I could take my time working out what was going to be right for me. Just because some people were talking about partnership career goals, which is obviously absolutely fine if that's right for you, the fact that I wasn't didn't make me any less committed to the job, or most importantly, make me worse at it.
“…the basic discipline is just to get into good habits at each stage. It’s about watching and listening to what’s going on around you rather than thinking too many steps ahead.”
HM: The key is really moving through the stages in your career. In the early years it’s all about learning your technical and professional skills, in the mid-level it’s more about taking ownership of the things you're doing and building your network, and then as you get more senior, you can start thinking about business development. That means thinking a bit more strategically about delegation and managing people. But the basic discipline is just to get into good habits at each stage. It’s about watching and listening to what’s going on around you rather than thinking too many steps ahead and comparing yourself with people who are five, ten or fifteen years ahead of you.
AR: For me personally, it took me a while to build up my own personal confidence. I think I had a real case of impostor syndrome when I first started. You're surrounded by extremely talented lawyers and individuals, and so I was naturally comparing myself, or trying to conform, where I think I should probably have spent a little bit more time building my own skills as a lawyer, and my own brand. That took me a little while to figure out. So for anyone that's just starting out in their career, I would say it’s not a case of conforming, it is a case of being yourself, and having a bit more confidence in your own abilities. That's what's going to take you through each stage of your career as you progress.
“…soak it all up, learn as much as possible, and take the best bits from all the people you work with.”
JL: I always say to our trainees that over there two-year training contract they have this amazing opportunity not only to learn, but to experience the working styles of a huge number of lawyers. I think that's particularly the case at Travers Smith, because of our room sharing system.So soak it all up, learn as much as possible, and take the best bits from all the people you work with to create your own personal way of working.You can obviously try and copy exactly how someone else does the job, but you'll find it much more enjoyable, and also sustainable, if you find your own way of doing it.
Hannah Manning is a co-head of graduate recruitment and a partner in Travers Smith’s tax team.
Asma Rashid is a co-head of graduate recruitment and senior council in Travers Smith’s private equity & financial sponsors group.
James Longster is a co-head of graduate recruitment and a partner in Travers Smith’s technology & commercial transactions department.