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Leaving Big Law: opportunity knocks

Big Law is not a happy place to be at this time but there are other interesting opportunities in the legal space, says Chris Smith.

The legal marketplace has a range of opportunities mopic

Pretty much any lawyer in private practice you speak to nowadays will be grumbling about something – the constant downward fee pressure, the unremitting demands of clients, the hours, the politics and the lack of partnership prospects, to name just a few. Some will watch the brilliant ‘Living the Dream’ mini-series created by ‘Bitter Lawyer’ Rick Eid and think, ‘yes, that accurately reflects my life in Big Law’. And interestingly The Lawyer’s Survey back in April 2012 found that 68 per cent of all private practice lawyers “would consider taking an in-house role” rising to 80 per cent of all associates.

Why has this happened?

There are a vast number of reasons why law firms have become less satisfying places to work, but I am going to focus on just one which I think impacts the most lawyers – the business model. Over the past few decades law firms have become dramatically more profitable. This is great news for partners (although some would argue that even this is a double edged sword), but not such good news for associates and trainees. In an industry when the only product you have to sell is time, the only way you can increase profitability, once you have stripped out all non-essential costs, is to work people harder. As a consequence, most law firms that have minimum chargeable hours targets have seen those increasing with one firm notorious in the City for having a system that turns a lawyer’s computer screen in their open plan office an embarrassing shade of red if they fall behind target.

And the problems posed by the billable hour are not new. The lead in to a 2002 article entitled ‘An Investigation of the Billable Hour’ published on Lexis Nexis summed up the position succinctly, “The billable hour structure, prevalent at nearly every law firm, discourages efficiency and innovation, destroys attempts at work-life balance, and drives women out.” Understandably, those lawyers who are not truly passionate about their practice area, feel they are not paid enough for the hours, or who want to work to live rather than live to work are looking for alternatives to working in private practice.

Thinking of making a move?

A private practice background naturally leads to continuing to practice law, but that doesn’t have to be the case. There is an excellent, albeit not recently updated, web site called Moretolaw which has interviews with a large number of lawyers about their career changes, some moving within the law and some moving out of the law altogether. This is a good place to start for some initial inspiration.

And, encouragingly, there has never been a better time to look for an alternative legal career – Axiom and Lawyers On Demand have established a robust market for legal freelancing; salaries for in-house roles have closed the gap with the equivalent positions in private practice (sometimes exceeding them with bonuses); and the legal market is starting, ever so slowly, to become a little bit more entrepreneurial, creating exciting new business models including litigation funding.

What I’ve learned

I spent nearly eight years at Weil, Gotshal and Manges in the private equity team. In hindsight, it was a fantastic place to be a lawyer, working on some of the biggest and most high profile deals in the market with a stellar team of colleagues.  I then moved to Olswang to broaden out my practice and quickly completed an IPO and a media joint venture, work that I could not have done at Weil. Despite this, I never felt truly content in private practice and always wanted to be directly involved in business.

I looked for in-house roles, but none of them was quite right – I still wasn’t passionate enough about the subject matter to get really excited about it, even with the lure of doing away with time sheets. But at the end of 2013 I came across an opportunity to become an Investment Manager at Bramden Investments, with a strategy and business development role at Vannin Capital, a leading third party litigation funder.

Working in a business like Vannin, proactively pursuing opportunities to drive the business forward and reacting to varied challenges, is immensely rewarding and, to be frank, a lot of fun. It’s also exciting to be working with a business that has achieved a great deal to date with the potential to grow significantly over the coming years as the litigation funding market matures. And I certainly do not miss the time sheet driven, reactive nature of private practice.

Final thoughts

If law firms want to retain talent they need to adopt a more flexible approach, recognising that lawyers are individuals with different motivations and career aspirations. This is particularly relevant as younger generations, who are not noted for their long attention spans, will object to having their lives totally dominated by work and become frustrated waiting so long to make partner. While law firms grapple with these issues, organisations like Axiom, in-house legal teams and other businesses inside and outside law are set to be the main beneficiaries.

Chris Smith is an Investment Manager at Bramden Investments, a leading Isle of Man based private equity fund, and also holds a strategy and business development role at Vannin Capital

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16 June 2014

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