Lord Sumption’s assertion that to be the best, lawyers should not study law, is gaining acceptance among law firms
Around 40 per cent of lawyers now come from a non-law background and the demand for a legal career from career changers or other graduates shows no sign of slowing.
Academic knowledge is not the only advantage of this approach; many career changers are able to contribute to their firm’s development as well as their practice area knowledge.
Lord Sumption SCJ told the Bar Council’s Counsel magazine last year: “The study of something involving the analysis of evidence, like history or classics, or the study of a subject which comes close to pure logic, like mathematics, is at least as valuable a preparation for legal practice as the study of law.
“Appreciating how to fit legal principles to particular facts is a real skill. Understanding the social or business background to legal problems is essential. I’m not sure current law degrees train you for that, nor really are they designed to.”
Face the change
Taylor Wessing IP partner Tim Worden read life sciences at the University of Cambridge but knew even while still at university that he was not destined for life as a research scientist.
He says: “I enjoyed the science itself but I was keen to find work that had a business and commercial element to it. I spent a summer doing research work in a lab and then at the end of that summer I did a vacation scheme with Bristows, which does a lot of IP. It allowed me to use my interest in science but also get involved in the law, advising in a business context. It was also very intellectually challenging.”
Lawyers on Demand lawyer Tom Chakraborti is a former medical student and junior doctor who worked in medicine for five years before embarking on a training contract with Slaughter and May. Despite knowing that medicine was not for him he also knew that he was in a rare position, having professional expertise that he could put to his advantage.
“I enjoyed medicine but I felt that it wasn’t for me in the long term and I still wanted to take advantage of my medical training somehow and put it to good use,” says Chakraborti. “Some people leave medicine and don’t want to have anything to do with it at all again but I wanted to use it in a different context.
“I looked at the reasons why I had done it. I was from a medical family and at the time it was what I wanted to do but I realised that it just wasn’t for me. I can say personally that I have found law to be more stimulating.”
Lawyers who have made the change from another career often bring more than academic knowledge with them. Graham Gowland had been a radiographer for two decades before switching to law.
After working for the NHS he left to join a small company comprising four individuals, including the CEO and himself.
“At that point I got a good deal of experience in running a business and the challenges the business faced. That’s stood me in good stead, particularly when it comes to the commercial awareness that everybody asks for but nobody defines,” says Gowland, now an insurance associate at Mayer Brown.
Bird & Bird associate Ben Hughes worked in IT services in Australia, London and Beijing before returning to London to join the firm. After eight years in the IT industry he decided to act on his interest in negotiating contracts with clients.
“Working as a project manager in Beijing I was doing a lot of contract negotiations with our prospective customers and putting together the description of what we were going to do and the timetable for delivering it and agreeing a price,” he explains. “I realised it was the initial contract and negotiation that interested me more than implementing the work. As did managing the relationship with the client.”
He is now able to lend expertise on marketing and business development at Bird & Bird, adding: “Definitely in the field of things like marketing and business development and understanding what makes an offer attractive to a client, having wider commercial knowledge is helpful. There are two aspects: when you’re advising clients you can understand their concerns from a wider commercial perspective, but you can also help the firm develop as a business. Having worked in other types of business you can see things that others who have worked only in legal services might not spot.”
His internal involvement with the firm’s business development has revolved around marketing initiatives on cloud computing and agile software development, to which he has lent technology expertise. Meanwhile, his cultural insight and knowledge of Mandarin have meant he has been able to contribute to the marketing efforts around Bird & Bird’s China offering.
For Taylor Wessing’s Worden, an IP seat at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer during his training contract was another catalyst for his eventual choice of practice area.
“I hit the IP seat one year into my training contract, which was ideal. It was in 2000, it was in the middle of the technology boom and was a very fun place to be – and a very busy seat,” he recalls.
Worden maintains that a background understanding rather than specific academic knowledge is the main boon for lawyers who have taken alternative routes to a training contract.
“It’s not so much that I have used specific knowledge that I learned during my degree,” he says, “but you develop a scientific understanding through doing a science degree which means that when you’re dealing with scientists and business development professionals and CEOs in the technology and life sciences sectors you’re not fazed by the terminology they use.”
Simmons & Simmons associate Benjamin Thomas studied for a PhD in biochemistry and went on to work in medical publishing for five years prior to qualifying as a lawyer.
He agrees with Worden’s assertion, saying: “My scientific background has been helpful in dealing with technical subject matter, such as in medical patents, and I’ve also been able to get involved in the work of the firm’s life sciences sector more generally. There is a lot of scope to assist on regulatory matters, both in terms of client work and business development.”
He adds: “I’d hope my previous work has given me a head start in commercial awareness and building relationships with clients. My publishing work was for the pharma industry and NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), which has also given me an insight into some of the issues facing the life sciences sector.”
Simmons has taken advantage of Thomas’ medical and scientific expertise.
“The partners and business development team are aware of my background and have encouraged me to build on it,” he explains. “I’m developing my knowledge of the pharma industry and healthcare regulatory law. I’ve recently attended a Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency meeting on the advertising of medicines and I will be going to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry annual conference in April.”
Chakraborti’s immersion in the medical world stands him in good stead during his healthcare work. After qualifying into his preferred seat at Slaughters he left after a year as he knew the firm could not offer the specialised work he wanted.
“Because I have concentrated on being a pharma and healthcare lawyer I have always tried to work on pharmaceutical or healthcare legal matters,” Chakraborti says. “It’s been much more interesting for me and I’ve been able to understand science and the background to the projects as a result, whether it’s a scientific matter or whether it’s a pharmaceutical promotional matter. It’s been easier because I have the insight of having seen the other side of it.
“I understand issues when I deal with medical clients or drug safety matters, and I can also understand a lot of the science behind the motivation for commercial licensing transactions.”
Break on through
Although an added area of expertise is undoubtedly a bonus in legal practice, being able to break into the legal world from an atypical background is not a given.
“It helped that I had tried another career and had developed a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I obviously needed to be able to justify my previous career choices, but they were also my USP when applying,” says Thomas.
Gowland, who came to law after 20 years in his previous career as a radiographer, says frankly: “There were certain firms where it was blatantly obvious that because I was older than the normal candidates there was no chance I would get anywhere. I would say it is about 50:50: for half of firms it piqued their interest, for the other half, not so much.
“I remember one rejected me the day after I applied saying that I did not fulfil the criteria despite a 2.1 and A levels at AAB. The criteria were never published and when I asked they would not tell me – so draw your own conclusions.”