How top associates are closing in on partners

There are many routes to success for assistant solicitors as they take ever more prominent roles, says James Swift

One way for an associate to get noticed is to take on – and preferably win – a massive case.

Last year’s winner of The Lawyer’s Assistant Solicitor of the Year Award, Bryan Cave dispute resolution associate Robert Dougans, took that route, successfully defending writer Simon Singh against a case brought by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh’s struggle went from being a pet cause of free speech bloggers to front-page news on nearly every national paper in the UK.

“I don’t think my selection was typical,” says Dougans. “I was a bit different from others who’ve won [the award]. They were all there because they were well-regarded by their firms. I’m not saying I’m a pariah, but I got the feeling that my nomination came from the legal and national press coverage I got for my cases.

“In some ways I think it’s easier to get recognised by people outside your firm because you only have to do one or two good things. But there’s no easy way to earn the trust of your firm’s corporate and banking departments, which, as a litigator, are the areas my work comes from. It’s something you’ve just got to build over time.”

Winning ways

The winner of this year’s Assistant Solicitor of the Year Award, Weightmans employment ­associate Laura Kearsley, took a route to recognition that was a ­little more subtle. And although Birmingham-based Kearsley has not made headlines with her cases, her contribution to the firm has been no less dramatic.

In her six years at Weightmans Kearsley has immersed herself in every aspect of the firm, impressed key clients and won business.

On top of fee-earning Kearsley manages the firm’s Midlands employment team business ­centre, taking responsibility for its ­financial performance and for the team’s 19 non-partner fee-earners.

During her time in charge of the group Kearsley has seen the ­Midlands practice grow from a four-strong team with a profit of £238,000 to one with four times as many staff members and a projected profit of £1.95m for 2010-11.
One of Kearsley’s biggest clients is TGI Friday’s, with whom the firm has just signed another one-year contract. She has helped to put in place an HR outsourcing service for the restaurant chain that has led to a 50 per cent decrease in the number of claims that make it to an employment tribunal.

Kearsley began at the firm when the team was small and made a point of putting herself out there as often as she could.

“I came into the team when it was a lot smaller,” says Kearsley. “So the opportunity was there to take the lead on anything that I wanted to and to focus on streamlining the way we work, becoming more customer-focused.”

Kearsley says she now splits her time 60-40 between fee-earning and management and asserts that she has been able to distinguish herself by staying keenly attuned to clients’ needs.

“My focus has always been about making sure the clients are well looked after, mostly because I hate getting rubbish service myself,” she says. “As a team, that’s a real core value, and if you build relationships with clients on that basis it will set you apart. If clients rate you as a lawyer and feed that back to your firm, that will set you apart.”
Her day-to-day role now is a far cry from what she envisaged life would be like as an associate.

“We have a work experience ­student with us at the moment and it’s got me thinking about what I imagined practising would be like,” says Kearsley. “We – lawyers generally – go into practice thinking it will just be about the law, but there’s also the ­management and marketing sides.

“For example, I have to think about making arrangements for contracts and work out what I should charge for a project. The days of associates being able to just keep their heads down and fee-earn are numbered. But I like the business side of things – I like the variety.”

Broad way

Of course, there were associates on the shortlist who were nominated on the back of headline-grabbing deals this year, too.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer senior associate Jonathan Brook, second runner-up in the assistant solicitor category this year, was one. Commercial litigator Brook was part of the Freshfields team that advised Babcock & Brown in a dispute over the management of a global co-investment fund and Siemens on an action in which Alstom Transport sought to stop Eurostar entering into a contract with Siemens to provide a new fleet of trains.

His biggest challenge, however, came when he was chosen as lead associate when the firm acted for RBS in relation to the sale of ­Liverpool FC.

“It was a fantastic opportunity,” says Brook of the RBS deal. “I think we did something like three or four injunctions in a week. The deal stood out because of the intense interest from the press and the pressure we were all under, including the client, and for the wide range of strategic considerations that went into advising the client.

“I think I’ve had an element of good fortune getting these high-profile mandates, but that comes with making yourself available and realising the hard work that comes with it.”

Brook stands out among the shortlisted associates, having a broad practice with no particular specialisation.

“I’ve heard some people say the generalist is going out of fashion in favour of those who can focus on one particular thing,” he says. “It’s easier to market yourself if you have a defined target audience and it can be more difficult to stand out it you have a broad-brush ­commercial background.

“But that said, it provides an opportunity to get involved in a wide range of sectors and I haven’t found it to be a handicap in any way. In fact, I think it’s helpful in that it’s given me a good ­background in terms of the kind of work I really want to focus on in the future.”

One way

It is clear a number of the short-listed candidates have managed to build exceptional practices by focusing on specific areas, giving them a head-start over their peers.
Holman Fenwick & Willan’s Richard Neylon, who is now a partner, has built such a practice in the firm’s admiralty department.

Neylon has made a name for himself in piracy cases. Under the wing of partner James Gosling he has helped to secure the release of approximately 1,200 seafarers and was described in the Norwegian press as a “stjerneadvokat”, which means ’star lawyer’, after helping set free a Norwegian vessel and its crew.

Neylon, along with Gosling, worked pro bono for the family of Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were hijacked by Somali pirates and kidnapped in 2009. Throughout the Chandlers’ 13 months of captivity Neylon had to obtain an emergency ex parte injunction against a Sunday newspaper to stop it publishing a story that could have put the lives of the ­couple at risk.

“I’m quite passionate about my work and enjoy it,” says Neylon. “I sometimes speak at the College of Law and I tell the students there that if you pick something that interests you you’ll enjoy it more, work harder and be better at it.”

The Wright way

Similarly, Chloe Wright works in the music department at Harbottle & Lewis and has distinguished ­herself through her passion for the job. Wright was made senior ­associate a year ago and was made up to partner in June this year.

“My father works in the music industry and I grew up around music,” relates Wright. “So when I decided to become a lawyer it seemed fairly natural for me to practise this kind of law. It’s really nice working in an environment that’s also your passion.”

Wright often finds that her days merge with her nights as she goes to gigs to support existing clients, meet new ones and mingle with industry people. Her firm talks about her “genuine devotion to clients and the firm over and above their own needs.”

Wright has advised Universal Music Group in negotiations, including advising it on a DVD agreement for Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth – the ’big four’ of the metal scene.

Water way

Reed Smith shipping lawyer Mark Church is another shortlisted ­candidate who has carved out a niche for himself advising on the impact of international sanctions against Iran, Ivory Coast and Libya and the effect of these on the shipping world.

“One of the key lessons for me is that my whole interest in ­sanctions arose from a chat with a client,” says Church. “I was asked to give a talk and spoke to a client, asking them what their issues were and they mentioned that although sanctions weren’t big yet they could be a big issue in the future. So by listening to the client, who had more of an ear to the ground, I learnt what insurers were ­worried about.”

And while many would agree that specialisation will play a big part in the future of the assistant solicitor, there are traits that firms look for in associates that have always been vital.

Way ahead

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & ­Sullivan commercial litigation associate Audrius Zakarauskas is consistently the highest-billing associate in the firm’s London office, and has complemented this with organising compliance and regulatory ­systems since joining the firm from Holman Fenwick & Willan in 2008.

It is easy to see how ­Zakarauskas would be a top biller: he was sole associate on the successful defence of firm client HSH Nordbank against UBS and lead associate for the team that acted for Investec Trust (Guernsey) in its capacity as trustee of the Tchenguiz family interests in the wake of Kaupthing Bank’s collapse in 2008. He is also lead associate acting for Oleg ­Deripaska in a High Court case against Michael Cherney, ­defending a $4bn (£3.57bn) claim against Deripaska.

Far and away

Likewise, the silver medallist in the category at this year’s awards, Allen & Overy’s (A&O) Angeline Welsh, has proved herself in a steady series of complex, high-stakes arbitrations.

In the past six years Welsh has acted on a series of arbitrations against the government of Belize, acting for a number of clients with interests in that country on ­disputes involving investment treaties.

In 2010 Welsh successfully acted for BCB Holdings and its subsidiary Belize Bank, ­persuading the Belize Supreme Court to enforce a $21.5m ­London Centre of International ­Arbitration award.

On top of this and similar cases in Kazakhstan, Welsh played a key role in identifying the knock-on effects of the Court of Appeal ­decision in Jivraj v ­Hashwani (2010), which held that ­arbitrators are classed as ­employees of the parties, and is leading the ­associate team ­advising the ­International ­Chamber of ­Commerce, which has now secured permission to ­intervene in Supreme Court cases.

Indeed, the gulf between Welsh’s role at A&O and one of a partner is by no means large. And that is a point often made about good associates – it is just a ­question of doing it consistently enough and long enough to get noticed.