My career story: “I moved from a tiny regional firm to a big City one”

John Young is a legal director at Mishcon de Reya. His early career was spent at a number of small firms before he eventually joined Mishcon in 2006.

John Young, Mishcon de Reya

What’s your background? Why did you train where you did?

The reason I chose law in the first place was primarily because I was a child of the ’80s. Growing up I was always interested in that transactional world and the glamour of deals. So I studied law at Sheffield, and the more I studied the more I got into it.

I went to York for my LPC and was still looking for a training contract at that point. But I started going out with my next-door neighbour in my student house, and she got a training contract at Parrott & Coales in Aylesbury. It was 1999, we had come out of the early ’90s recession and the property market had just started to take off. I thought: “I need to get some more legal work experience in order to find a training contract, the property market’s going nuts, down south is where it’s hot, my girlfriend is going to be working in Aylesbury so why don’t I follow her and see what I can find?” I researched the surrounding area and focused in on firms which primarily had some kind of corporate commercial operation and I did a mailshot. I spent a fortune on printing and wrote to maybe 70 firms.

I actually received a training contract offer at a firm in Bicester, but it started as a training contract – then it was more like paralegalling than a training contract. It wasn’t as corporate as I would have liked, and then it turned out I wouldn’t have a secretary or a computer. I decided that although I had this offer I just wasn’t comfortable with them as an outfit.

It’s kind of an important theme: when you go somewhere, make sure you are going into the right place and not just taking something because it’s there.

So I wrote letters looking for paralegal roles or training contracts and was offered, completely at random, a paralegal job at the firm where my girlfriend was a trainee. They didn’t know about that until they ‘phoned me up to tell me I’d got the job and she answered. So I went to Parrott & Coales where I earned the princely sum of £10,500 a year. I worked for a partner called Tim Friedlander who was a really good guy. Most of the stuff I did was property-focused: lots of resi but some interesting stuff around will and probate too.

It was really interesting, but the crucial thing was that it was, for Aylesbury, a fairly sizeable firm and I got some good experience while I was there, which was for about nine months.

So you paralegalled for a while… how did the training contract come about?

When my time at Parrott & Coales was coming to an end I phoned up some recruitment consultants and did the same mail-shotting around training contracts.

Again, I was looking for a firm that was going to give me some kind of commercial exposure. I did quite well at interviews and there were a few firms who were looking at me, and I ultimately ended up taking a paralegal job at Chandler Ray in Buckingham. It paid the same as the others but I took it because they seemed like nice guys. They are a real market town practice, so you find an awful lot of stuff crossing your desk. They primarily wanted me to do resi, but I thought that if I went there I would get a chance of doing other stuff which would allow me to build my experience.

However, I also ended up with two training contract offers, one from a firm in Northampton and another from Franklins, who are Northampton-based, but it was for their Milton Keynes office.

I got that offer the day after I started at Chandler Ray, which was slightly unfortunate, but they had a proper corporate commercial department and the chief executive Keith Wyld and Simon Long, who runs the firm now, were terribly inspiring about what they could offer me. They weren’t quite as corporate-heavy as the firm in Northampton, but that other firm wouldn’t take my time as a paralegal to count, and Franklins would.

On balance, Franklins was the right place and I think it was the right decision, so I did three months at Chandler Ray and then went and joined Franklins in Milton Keynes.

What did you get from your time at Franklins?

I started my training there, and that was absolutely key because what I got from it being a small firm was great exposure. Some trainees in big firms will spend time on the fringes of a deal, but what I found myself doing at Franklins was lots of little deals. I bought a tea shop, for example. I did a few post offices. They were business asset transactions rather than corporate deals, and a lot of them were primarily property deals, but I was negotiating contracts with a bit of supervision.

The other thing was that I managed to get a proper corporate deal under my belt, an MBO actually. All that experience put me in great stead to move up later.

As much as I loved Franklins I actually wasn’t there for very long, because when I had moved south the idea was always to get qualified and then move back up north, so when I was coming up to the third seat point, we both started looking for jobs in Leeds.

Where did you go?

The experience that I gained in Franklins in particular was enough to get me an offer from Read Hind Stewart in Leeds which ultimately became Cobbetts Leeds. That was where things really took off because I basically went from working with one partner into a large corporate department which was primarily transaction-driven.

I transferred the last three months of my training contract to Read Hind Stewart. I sometimes joke that most trainees do four seats, I did four firms! On the big corporate deals I wasn’t doing the SPA, but I was more involved than you’d necessarily be at a larger firm, and that produced good experience for the CV, but being at a firm like that gave me the opportunity to do small-to-medium-sized deals where I could go off and run them under supervision. There was no waiting until you were three years qualified.

The Cobbetts merger happened, which was very exciting at the time, but the culture started to change. It had been one of those firms where you went out for beers with the partners, and worked hard but had a great time, but once the lock-ins expired some of the more interesting partners left and the spirit of the firm started to change.

I did a deal to buy a well-known restaurant in Harrogate with McCormicks [now Clarion] on the other side. Over the course of that deal I got to know the McCormicks guys well, especially Richard Moran who was head of corporate at the time. After the deal was done they asked me to come and join them, which I did.

That’s an interesting move in terms of this story because in some respects it was a step down from Cobbetts, which was a national name, to a smaller firm.

I just wasn’t happy at Cobbetts any more. I felt the right decision was to take the move when it was offered to me. I liked the people, the work sounded good, and it felt the right kind of atmosphere. I was 2.5 PQE, doing million-pound deals off my own bat, and I went to McCormicks and continued to do the same thing.

But then you moved again…

While I was at McCormicks I met my now-wife. She was living in Southampton, so I made a move to Moore Blatch down on the South Coast. That was a move which wasn’t at all motivated by a career plan, but again, it was the kind of firm that I wanted to be in: a medium-sized local firm with a proper corporate department. And so again, what I was doing was growing my experience and demonstrating that I could run deals even though I was quite junior – three and a half years qualified.

The great thing with the partner I worked for, Peter Jeffery, was that we would swap roles on deals. So on one deal he’d do the SPA and I’d do the disclosure and ancillaries, and on the next deal I’d do the SPA and he’d do the disclosure and ancillaries. I ended up leading the charge on a £70m sale – a big deal for us and great for my CV, because I could say I’d done a giant deal negotiating with American lawyers and making the whole thing happen. And it was a very civilised lifestyle because I could walk to work in 25 minutes.

How did you end up at Mishcon?

I was at Moore Blatch for about a year, then my wife got promoted to a global role in the company she worked for, so I started looking for jobs in London, and that’s where everything really came together: the experience I’d built starting with my training contract, particularly running my own deals, as well as having a book of business and having done some stuff on the marketing side – I hadn’t really generated much because I was too young and hadn’t been stable enough, but I’d been out there and trying.

I talked to three London firms, all of whom offered me jobs. I think the key thing that made the difference in terms of me getting the offers was the experience I’d developed and just being ahead of the curve in terms of what I could do.

At one of the firms that I didn’t end up joining, they were impressed by something I noticed during an interview exam they had. There was a letter from a client which you had to comment on, and at the top was an address: Cosa Nostra House, Sicily. I noted there might be a money laundering issue, and they said I was the only one who’d ever noticed. It was that sort of thing which grew from the experience of running my own matters and looking at things in the round.

I think the other thing that made a massive difference was timing. I qualified in 2001, we’d had the post 9/11 complete collapse of transactional work. That meant there was a couple of years where there was nobody qualifying. Then in 2006 I was 4.5 years PQE and looking for a job and there was nobody in the market, because there was nobody else who qualified at the same time.

I was mid-level qualified and had all this great experience and you put all that together, and it makes you a very desirable quantity. So the timing of when you decide to make your move is important. Now is a great time: there’s loads of activity in the City and firms are short of good quality people.

When City firms have lots of good people doing what they want, they won’t even look at lawyers coming in from mid-size firms in second-tier places like Southampton, but when times are hard in terms of recruitment they will look at people who are in the kind of position I was, and that’s when you can deploy that wider experience to best effect.

Was it always your aim to work at a large City firm?

I never had a rigidly defined plan that ‘by the time I’m 30 I want to be sat in the corporate department of a City firm.’ If things hadn’t changed I’d probably have stayed ay McCormicks for years. The plan was always just to try and do good work, and that will take you a long way with a bit of timing and a bit of serendipity.

What advice have you got for people attempting to move up the ladder in terms of size of firm?

If you start at a small firm, you shouldn’t think “oh, these are crappy little deals”. Your attitude needs to be, “I’ve done all this stuff – it may not be of a big size, but it’s proper”.

What I always focused on was growing my experience just that little bit more and having that bit better tale to tell than people in larger firms, who were perhaps working on bigger and more glamorous deals which is fine – but if you’re doing a tiny bit of them, it’s not as good as if you’re actually out there doing the nitty-gritty, negotiating and fighting your points against partners from other firms.

If you really want to make the step up, the key is to concentrate being the best lawyer you can be and build up a bank of experience that looks convincing and you can use to tell a good story in your interviews. That doesn’t mean you have to rush. You can take your time to build up a portfolio, because there will be points where you are more impressive than the competition coming from big firms.