Name: Sarah Rafi

Organisation: Ardonagh Advisory

Role: Deputy General Counsel

Based: London

Trained at: Ashurst

Year qualified: 2010

What’s your most vivid memory from being a trainee?

Strangely, after so many years, quite a lot of my training contract remains incredibly vivid – probably because it was a time of so many new experiences and learning on a daily basis. In terms of a period or seat that stands out, I would say my time in energy, transport and infrastructure (PFI/PPP/projects) was key. It was incredibly busy from day one as the work in this area was booming, which was incredibly exciting after a very quiet seat in corporate (Lehman Brothers having crashed mere weeks before and the credit crunch being in full swing).

I remember that this was the seat where I immediately felt more connected with the transactions and detail of what I was doing; talking about the details of building and maintaining a school or a hospital for example was of far more interest than transactions I had been involved in before. I also really enjoyed the scale of the transactions and loved the buzz when a matter was coming towards closing, when it was all hands on deck.

I think what makes memories of that seat particularly vivid was that I felt I very much fell into my stride as a lawyer, was given more responsibility and for the first time felt: ‘This is what it’s like to be an associate’. I was back there three months later having been asked to re-join early to go on a secondment for a key project, and qualified into that department three months after that.

Tell us about a sliding doors moment when your career could have gone in an entirely different direction?

At 2PQE, I decided to leave Ashurst to take a year off to travel. I had taken off six months before starting my training contract and been bitten hard by the travel bug. Not entirely sure that law would remain my chosen career, I spent a year travelling mostly around South and Central America, dreaming up alternative careers that would allow me to indulge my passions of travel and food equally. However coming back, I realised I had a great skill set as a lawyer and I could continue to indulge those passions on the side!

It did however put into perspective that the private practice life wasn’t for me long term, as the long and often unpredictable hours left little time for outside interests and I also wasn’t quite getting the career fulfilment I was after working at arm’s length from the businesses that I was representing. I therefore I set my sights on aligning my skill set to become better equipped to move in-house once I had a little more private practice experience under my belt.

What’s the hardest question you’ve ever been asked at interview, and how did you answer?

In one of my vacation scheme interviews, I was asked: “If you could go back in time to meet anyone, who would you like to meet?” It seems like an obvious interview question but it was one of my first and I just hadn’t thought about it. In a panic after a few moments’ silence, I answered Jack the Ripper – because (having recently watched a documentary on him) I wanted to know who exactly he was. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get the vac scheme with that firm but it did mean I was prepared with a better (and less macabre) answer for when I was next asked!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to where you are/do the job you do?

1) Work hard and hone your skills as a junior lawyer. These will last you your entire career, so don’t neglect all those little tasks that seem unimportant at the time, or think that attention to detail doesn’t really matter. You can adapt or forget (as appropriate) those things that you don’t need later on but it’s harder to build the basics when you haven’t made them a cornerstone of your skill set.

2) Be willing to pivot. Having started off my legal career in PFI/PPP projects, I now deal largely with large IT and change projects, and commercial insurance. The change was gradual over time (although commercial law/principles remained the heart of my practice from qualification) but it was necessary given a) IT and change have much more applicability in-house across a wide range of sectors and b) public projects (and particularly PFI) have been subject to quite a lot of volatility based on public sentiment and changing governments’ strategies.

3) If you are a private practice lawyer, go in-house, whether that be for a secondment or a longer stint. The in-house skill set is genuinely different to private practice and a secondment will teach you what clients want and need in a way that you won’t have access to in private practice. I personally undertook two secondments whilst in private practice and found it eye-opening, and applied lessons learned immediately when I took on my in-house role. Having also had secondees from our panel firms whilst in-house, they have commented on how beneficial an experience it has been in learning how to communicate with internal clients from the business (particularly senior stakeholders), what’s important to clients and why.

Tell us about ONE former colleague who you miss, and why? (It doesn’t have to be a lawyer)

Oh there are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down! I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing people over the years. I’d probably go with Morag Taylor – a fantastic commercial lawyer, now at BT who I trained with and qualified into the same department with. She remains a dear friend to this day, and I’ve picked her as there are few people who I would continually laugh hysterically with over tea breaks, no matter how stressful the work would get or how swamped we were!