In a parallel universe you might have found Spencer Summerfield affecting a Cockney accent and flogging imported handbags. Instead, the twists and turns of fate have seen him helping others buy and sell multi-billion-pound companies as head of corporate finance at Travers Smith.
“I wanted to be an actor and am very sad I wasn’t,” he says. “Maybe when I retire from the law I could get a bit-part in EastEnders?”It was the influence of his father, a magistrate, that led Summerfield to complete his Law Society finals in 1987. “And besides, I didn’t get into Footlights when I auditioned,” he adds.
For Summerfield, like many of his peers, the law has offered an alternative spotlight under which to shine.
“I have always quite liked performing, which is why being a lawyer in a courtroom really appeals,” admits David Price, solicitor-advocate and founder of David Price Solicitors & Advocates.
The fact that most lawyers are more likely to be spending long weekends enjoying a taste of Italy rather than waiting on tables at A Taste of Italy might also have made the choice between the law and the stage a relatively easy one.
“My initial goals were becoming a partner and making money,” recalls Nick Angel, corporate partner at Ashurst.
The interesting work and people he has met has kept him in the business. “And as time goes on, the money gets so much better – you have domestic responsibilities,” he adds.
Although she initially considered legal aid work, it was economics that drove Liz Vernon, a family partner at Clintons, into her particular branch of private client work.
“Student loans and low article clerk salaries sent me to private work and pretty quickly I could see where I would need to be if food was to be on the table and high-heeled Gina shoes on my feet,” she explains.
For John Wadham, group director of legal at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it was his experience working at legal advice centres in south-west London that motivated him to become a lawyer.
“I wanted to use my skills and advocacy on behalf of people who most needed them – people who aren’t getting benefits, those with leaky roofs,” he says. “I think being a lawyer is about defending the vulnerable. For some people it’s all about earning a lot of money and doing significant transactions, but I’ve never seen the attraction myself.”
But as much as they resisted, some of the class of ’87 eventually felt the pull of the make-or-break deal, as Andy Ryde, a partner at Slaughter and May, recalls.
Asleep on the job
Of course, such all-night sessions could have a potentially disastrous impact on client relationships – especially when they resulted in dozing off while advising a client, as happened to Summerfield.
“We’d been doing this deal for 12 days or so and we hadn’t slept, washed, shaved or anything,” he recalls. “I remember the general counsel of the company walking in, and the first thing he did was to open all the windows. We must have stank to high heaven. He was the client I then went to sleep on. And yes, the company is still a client of ours.”
Perhaps some clients didn’t mind because they had “a little something” to take their minds off the grim reality of a room of enclosed lawyers – as was clear when Summerfield was doing his articled clerkship and had to make photocopies in the middle of the night.
“I went into the office and a number of the board of directors of the client were as high as kites, using the pane of glass of the photocopier to cut cocaine.”
The Travers Smith partner confirms that he walked out. This was the 1980s and the drug was synonymous with the aggressive self-promotion and brash style that characterised popular culture at the time.
For Sarah de Gay of Slaughter and May, this was epitomised by the sartorial role models for high-flying women of the time. “When I started it was Alexis Carrington in Dynasty,” she confesses. “I used shoulder pads, big hair, bright colours.”
Some men in the profession, on the other hand, still followed very strict dress codes, as Adrian Barlow, head of property at Pinsent Masons, recalls of one of the managing clerks at the sole Leeds office of Pinsent Masons predecessor Simpson Curtis, where he did his articled clerkship.
“He came to the office every day in a black jacket and stripy grey pants with a bowler hat and furled umbrella,” says Barlow.
If figures such as the Simpson Curtis managing clerk were seeking to preserve the old order as much as possible, power dressing on the part of some women was largely driven by the desire to challenge the codes and values of that order. Often not without a substantial struggle, though.
“When I was looking for articles itwas difficult,” de Gay remembers. “I did get asked at various law firms ‘what does your father do, are there any lawyers in your family?’ At one I was even asked ‘what is the state of your mother’s health?'”
The demise of the old boys’ club has been inextricably linked with the emergence of a new breed of law firm: more commercially savvy, more profit-orientated, managed more along corporate lines.
When Angel began at Ashurst in 1990, he found it a big leap from Berwin Leighton, his firm for the previous three years.
“Ashurst was a bit like coming to a holiday camp. On Friday afternoon it was a bit difficult to find a partner – I had the impression they were all on their farms with their racehorses. The phone was always ringing. I felt a bit sorry for Berwin Leighton – it had to pedal a lot harder because it did not have brand recognition.”
But an increasingly competitive market totally changed the rules of the game.
“Now no one can sit and wait for the phone to ring,” says Angel. “The Americans arrived and they were seeing the Ashurst clients while the Ashurst partners were off with their horses.”
In what seems a metaphor for the changes the legal profession has undergone in the past two decades, offices have become state of the art: new, open plan and flooded with computers.
Meanwhile, London firms have moved eastwards into the belly of the City or to Canary Wharf. For Trowers & Hamlins the move several years ago out of offices it had occupied for the previous 200 years in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields area over to Tower Hill was akin to a merger in terms of the impact it had upon the corporate identity of the firm.
Banking and finance partner Adrian Carter says it was one of the watershed moments in his career. “It took us into another dimension. It was more than just cosmetic – it changed people’s perception of us.”
Fancying “the bright lights of Cardiff”, Ifer Arch, former lawyer at Welsh broadcaster S4C, moved from rural Wales to Cardiff-based firm Edwards Geldard on qualification in 1989. At that time the firm he joined was situated in three Victorian town houses, but was poised to move to new premises round the corner – until, that is, the recession hit.
The spanking new buildings had been commissioned and were half built when the builder went into insolvency and it seemed that Arch was destined to gaze out of the sash windows at the building site beyond, pregnant with reflective-window promise.
The new building was eventually completed by another construction firm and trainees found themselves shuffling into a sort of reverse panopticon – “a big open-plan hole in the middle with offices for partners round the edges,” as Arch puts it.
Hitting the buffers
Unfortunately for Arch, the same economic conditions that hit the builder, subsequently hit him and he was made redundant in the early ’90s.
Finding himself unemployed just three years PQE, Arch joined S4C as an in-house solicitor, initially providing maternity cover. He was to remain at the broadcaster until 2007, when he switched from general commercial work to forge a career in media law – an area he still practises in today.
Of course, some lawyers are in fields that mean they might even seem to welcome economic downturns.
“My work is affected positively by recession,” says restructuring partner Angel. “When it turns nasty my work starts picking up. It’s when there’s an M&A boom that I start to get worried,” he jokes.
Other markets are less subject to the highs and lows. Carter works with social housing financing. “There’s always a need for that particular product,” he explains.
Nevertheless, whatever the area of practice, the law can be a stressful business from which some seek respite or a change of career altogether.
Before she joined what is now Cancer Research UK, Diane Scott had decided she wanted to quit the profession. “I had evening classes in flower arranging – I thought it would be the next big thing. My boyfriend would laugh at the things I brought home. I had to face the fact that it wasn’t really it,” she admits.
“I have considered the sandwich bar – you don’t have to think, just get up in the morning and butter your bread,” says John Kyriacou, clinical negligence partner at Pattinson & Brewer Solicitors.
Nevertheless, Kyriacou says that the fact he has managed to get himself on a number of major panels, including the Law Society’s clinical negligence panel, has been a career high point, giving him the luxury of his own clients and his own work.
Some partners say they are “just plodding along”, or that they are in it until the mortgage is paid off. But for many law has turned out to be the most interesting and rewarding career they could possibly imagine.
“I spent 18 months at the investment banking arm of NatWest on secondment and have left the law completely on one occasion for two years to be an investment banker at Credit Lyonnais,” says Martin Bartlam, now the partner in charge of Orrick’s London office. “I enjoyed my time as a banker and learned invaluable skills. I was, however, very pleased to return to law and enjoy the practice of law immensely.”
“The motivation is the organisation I work for – wanting to help an organisation that I believe in and that has great values,” says Scott.
“Law is much less of a club than it used to be, much more of a business, that brings with it pressures, demands and expectations but also rewards,” adds Angel. “I would be surprised if there is anywhere with a better combination of expectation and reward.”
Right from the outset, Vernon has been driven by the weight of personal experience and it is this memory that has reaffirmed her belief in her work, even when emotions are running high among her divorce clients.
“I had watched a close family member go through a divorce which, even at the tender age of about 14 and clearly knowing nothing, I could see was being badly handled,” she says. “I reflected that no matter how successful a person might be in business, if his or her family life was a mess then the most important part of their life was a mess, and I thought that in helping tosort that out I might actually be able to make a tangible difference to people’s lives.
“So family law was what I wanted and why I went into the law from the outset. As it happens, when I get a moment to take a step back from the daily grind, I still believe that.
• Those were the days
I arrived at Slaughter and May in September 1987 as a fresh-faced trainee (articled clerk in those days). I was equipped to talk about little more than association football and found, to my dismay, that no one in polite circles did this. This was the era of football hooliganism and football at any level was unfashionable, but particularly when it came to discussing my home team Mansfield Town. What fun it has been to watch those whose leisure activities in 1987 revolved around fine wine, opera and the occasional trip to the rugger re-emerge as lifelong Arsenal fans.
As for office attire, bowler hats had gone by 1987 (even at Slaughters), but a reference to ‘dress-down’ in those days meant something very different from today. Someone told me recently that I wore white socks on my first day at Slaughters. I can’t believe that I did – in any case, they had definitely gone by the second day. The mullet stayed a little longer though.
My first seat was in the property department. The office looked across the road to a large 1960s block designed with all the style of a public lavatory. This was the beloved home of our corporate lawyers. Fellow trainees who were allocated their first seats in corporate would crawl out occasionally and recount horrifying stories. We were in Thatcher’s Britain and 1987 was the year of Gordon Gekko. For macho corporate lawyers, this was a time of all-nighters and megadeals – lunch was definitely for wimps. If a partner required a team of trainees to spend all weekend checking a privatisation prospectus, then as quick as you could say “yuppie”, the team was mobilised. As a property trainee, I couldn’t get my mind around how these crazed corporate lawyers supposedly ‘got a buzz’ out of this – but two years later I was one of them. The horror stories remain all too familiar.
Equally, our corporate trainees couldn’t get their minds around how I used to chuck into the rubbish bin, unread, my copy of our monthly
knowhow magazine Trucidator. Nor could the senior partner of the property department, who asked me to retrieve it and replace it in the bin with that morning’s edition of The Sun, which was sitting on my desk.
The office environment was very different. There were, of course, no PCs on the desks – although I think some of us did have telephones! I remember how the tea ladies would wheel a trolley through the department twice a day – it seems very quaint now. The
sophisticated corporate lawyers over the road had already moved on to coffee points by then.
I also recall being struck by how old the partners seemed when I first arrived. This has changed completely, of course, and now it’s the trainees who are so much younger than they used to be.
Andy Ryde, Slaughter and May
A bygone age
I passed my solicitors’ finals and started my articles in 1987. Even then I knew that I wanted to practise family law. I’d watched a close family member go through a divorce, which even at the tender age of about 14 I could see was being handled badly. I reflected that, no matter how successful a person might be in business, if their family life was a mess then the most important part of their life was a mess, and I thought that in helping to sort that out I might actually be able to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. So family law was what I wanted and why I went into the law from the outset. As it happens, when I get a moment to take a step back from the daily grind, I still believe that.
However, you have to bear in mind that I grew up in a small seaside village in North Wales and knew nothing of the world. Even when I went through university and law school I thought that the law was rather like the medical profession – most lawyers being high street, legal aid GPs and a tiny minority in the legal equivalent of Harley Street in private work. God, it was an eye-opener when I started work in London. I did my articles at Blyth Dutton in Lincoln’s Inn. It was a fabulous training – Blyth Dutton was a strange mix between the old-style Inns of Court family firm with huge, black strongboxes with family names written in curly script in the basement (which flooded) and the commercial boys doing all sorts of whizz-bang stuff in third markets, none of which I understood in the slightest. As an articled clerk it was great fun – champagne in the bar on Friday nights to celebrate some deal. The firm was small enough for it to have a really family atmosphere. Legal firms like that don’t really exist any more, I suspect.
I think the one thing that shocked me as the years passed was the emphasis on bringing in work. As a student you really believe that being good at what you do will be enough to guarantee success. As I got older and more senior I realised that was only part of the story and that it was as important
to be able to bring in clients. As a young solicitor I found that very difficult and really couldn’t imagine how I would ever go about it. As the years have passed I’ve learnt that it happens because you do a good job and clients refer other clients and you meet people, and they refer and so on, but it really seemed a daunting task at the time.
Liz Vernon, Clintons