My career story: “I left law a year after making partner at Latham”

Bobby Reddy trained at Slaughter and May and made partner at Latham & Watkins before quitting law in 2013 to travel. He’s now combining a PhD with a number of other projects.

How did you get into law originally?

I studied science at university and I really enjoyed the theoretical side of things, but the third year was much more practical and I realised I didn’t have the patience to be a lab worker. I knew that wouldn’t be something that I would enjoy long term.

But I had always thought about law. I probably had it in my blood because my granddad was a judge, and I was also inspired by the trashy 80s legal shows. And I always loved the idea of being able to be creative, to solve problems and find solutions to difficult issues.

So after realising science wasn’t really for me, I took the conversion course and the LPC, then did an LLM before finally starting at Slaughter and May for my training contract. On qualification, I moved to Latham and Watkins.

How was your time at Slaughters? Why did you leave?

It’s an excellent law firm. They produce some phenomenally talented lawyers and I still have some friends who are partners there now, but one thing I’ve always felt is that each law firm is very different. It’s really important, especially as a young lawyer, to find the right culture and the right environment to develop in. For me, Slaughters was a little bit too much of a structured environment.

Just knowing the way that I learn, I wanted to go somewhere where I would develop a bit more quickly, so I went to Latham & Watkins. They have a very entrepreneurial focus, and it was a much smaller office in London at the time [2004] which meant that I got much more responsibility.

Even as a first year there, I was running small deals. You have that option to start developing much more quickly. It can be quite daunting at times but I preferred that to being in a more structured layout like you find in the magic circle firms.

I got some amazing opportunities at Latham and ended up working in the Washington, DC office for just over two years, which was an incredible experience.

Bobby Reddy

Was there always a career goal in mind for you? What were your ambitions at that age?

I think the key focus was to keep on learning. From an ambition point of view I did want to become a partner but I was quite sanguine about it – if it wasn’t going to happen, it wasn’t the end of the world. While I was there, I always felt I was developing and learning new things.

People say it’s like a treadmill and I suppose it is in that you have the choice to get off, but your natural ambition means you want to challenge yourself and see how far you can go, and the more senior you get the more responsibility you get and the more control you get over deals and it becomes more and more satisfying.

So it’s kind of a situation where, if you want to be great lawyer, you want to become a partner, because you know that you will have the ability to shape a deal and run a transaction the way you want to run it. I wouldn’t say making partner was the be all and end all. But it was something I was targeting.

Were there key moments in those years as a young lawyer that shaped your career dramatically?

Going to Washington really did change the way I practiced law. I wasn’t expecting this but I found that the American of advising was probably more commercial than the in the UK. Things are changing, but at the time the UK way of doing things was perhaps a little bit too much focused on the nitty-gritty and sometimes forgetting about the really big issues that are important to clients in favour of the little things that lawyers like to quibble over.

I also learned in the US that you should pick your fights when it comes to negotiations and not worry too much about losing points that aren’t that important to your client. But just exposure to a different way of practising law helped me a lot professionally – and on top of that, the people I met there were fantastic. I met some great friends who are incredibly good lawyers .

What was it like coming back to the UK?

When I went out there, I had just turned four years qualified. When I came back I was six years qualified and I made partner a couple of years later.

Coming back from a foreign office, it’s very important to get reintegrated into your home office afterwards – it was a tough first year coming back, because I had a number of deals and transactions I was working on with US lawyers and at the same time I was trying to make it clear that I was focused on the UK and working on London deals.

It was quite tough in terms of hours and getting torn in different directions, but at the same time it was actually quite exciting – that kind of global perspective was something I really enjoyed.

It also makes it difficult to think about a change of career. You’re working hard and you’re so focused on getting to a goal. It’s difficult to take a breather, take a step back and think: ‘What do I want to be doing in 20 years time?’

How you did take that step back in the end? It sounds like you were very much in the zone.

If I’m honest with myself, then when I got back from Washington I was probably a little bit restless. I never seriously considered leaving at that stage, though perhaps if I had been told I wasn’t going to make partner, or it would have taken an extra year to make partner, maybe I would have taken that step back and reconsidered.

But I was enjoying what I was doing. It was exciting, I had a sense of loyalty to a lot of people there, and I was still learning, so until I actually made partner I didn’t really seriously consider moving or changing.

It was only after I made partner that things changed. It was actually the London Olympics. There was a two or three-week spell where deal work, just for the first time in my career, slowed down for a bit.

It was only really then, when things actually slowed down, that I had one of those ‘look in the mirror moments’ where I thought ‘Where do I want to be in 20 years?’

I just thought about it and decided, you know what? I’d actually want to say that I’ve tried to do something maybe more altruistic, something that could help people.

And I also realised that this was my window if I was going to change career, because if I left it any later I’d have found it very difficult to leave. It’s so easy to get used to the money and prestige and the various benefits of being a partner in a big law firm. I knew that it was my one opportunity: if I didn’t go then, I would be there for the next 20 years.

And you’d been a partner for…?

When I left I’d only been a partner for just over a year.

How did you find that year of partnership? It doesn’t sound like you were unhappy…

No, paradoxically that was probably the most satisfying time of my career. You really do have a sense of ownership, especially on transactions where you’re managing the team and driving the deal forward.

And I really enjoyed working in teams and working with junior lawyers and helping develop them. So that was great. I was staffing partner as well, which meant that I had had quite a bit of contact with all the associates in our group which was great because you got to know them better and find out what they wanted to do with their careers.

So in addition to the work, the softer part of it was really satisfying. But ultimately I realised it doesn’t matter how long you do this, you are still a lawyer. You still are a corporate M&A lawyer. And whether I wanted to do that long term was the key issue.

How did you come to the decision to leave?

It was a really tough decision – and my wife would say I am a bit of a procrastinator anyway! So it was difficult. I think if I had been working 24/7 at the time, I’d probably still be there.

It was only having the ability to just think about it properly that made me decide to leave, and it was really tough because of the people that had helped me get to where I was. I did have a sense of loyalty to them, and I didn’t really want to feel that I was letting them down. But fortunately, 99 per cent of the people who I told absolutely understood my reasons.

Who did you who did you speak to first?

It was one of the partners in the London office who I did a lot of work for very early on, who was the push behind me coming into Latham in the first place and then moving over to the Washington, DC office. I told him first and it was a bit of a shock – to be honest it was a little bit emotional because you do feel you come have through it all together in a way.

So that was very difficult, but I set out my reasons very clearly and I think once you’ve made that decision it’s not fair to yourself or the firm to carry on. There was one point where we won a new piece of work with a new client, and that kind of momentary euphoria you get very quickly evaporated. My heart sunk a little bit when I thought about the actual deal work.

It felt it had become a little bit monotonous by that stage and as soon as that happens you know you’re not doing anyone any favours by sticking around.

You mentioned your wife – what was her view?

She was incredibly supportive, She had moved over to Washington with me so she was there through all of that, and we made the decision together. Initially, I took a six month sabbatical, and she was very keen to go traveling. She wanted to go away for a year but I was very adamant I wanted to take six months and decide I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be out of the job market for too long – that usual lawyer risk-averse thing!

But six months turned into two years of travelling, which was just the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. It really did make me realise I’d made the right decision and that when I came back I didn’t want to go back to Latham or private practice: I wanted to do something a little bit more altruistic.

You volunteered for a number of different charities while you were away – Habitat for Humanity, the Pacific Whale Foundation…

Yes, that was in Hawaii actually – not too rough! I also did a bit of teaching English in South East Asia and Ecuador and just generally just meeting people. You see such great generosity of spirit when you put yourself out there. Without sounding too much of a hippy, it is a great leveller.

What happened when you got back?

I ended up networking a lot, because although I was sure I wanted to do something where I could use my skills to help people, I wasn’t sure how best to do that. I really didn’t have the knowledge of what kinds of careers were out there. I met a lot of people through contacts and friends of friends, from NGOs, charities and think tanks, trying to get an idea of what roles were out there.

I didn’t want to do the easy thing and move in-house at, say, an NGO or a charity. I really wanted to work on the business side of things rather than the legal side of things.

I have always had a passion for corporate governance and I think one of the things I was really looking at while I was away travelling is the huge influence that business has on the community generally – probably more so politicians in the way it influences our lives. And so the way corporate governance affects companies is hugely important to all of us. I know it can sound like a dry subject but when you get into it, you realise how important it really is.

Which leads us to your current role with Tomorrow’s Company and your other projects…

Tomorrow’s Company is a charitable corporate governance think tank which exists to inspire and enable businesses to be a force for good in society. I thought working with them might be something I could do where I could use my skills to help. I started out as a volunteer and at the end of that I was invited to join the board as a trustee.

That’s totally an unpaid voluntary role, and while I was working there, the opportunity to do a PhD in Law came up, focused on corporate governance. Another candidate had pulled out and an old professor who had taught me on my LLM 16 years ago mentioned to me, ‘I know it’s a long shot, but would you be interested in taking it?’

Initially I thought, this is just ridiculous – I can’t go back to university. But the more I thought about it… I was really focused on policy work and it ticked all of the boxes. Way back before I started at Slaughter and May I did think about academia and doing a PhD, and this was an opportunity in a subject I’m really enthused about.

So you said yes…

It was a real juxtapostion – moving from being a partner at Latham to occasionally having to spend the night in a dorm sharing a kitchen and bathroom with 20 other people. It brought back memories, but I really enjoyed it.

I think the clincher was that it was combined with a little bit of small-group teaching, which I was really looking forward to because I always enjoyed training and developing lawyers. In fact, my PhD has now morphed into a full time lectureship, so from October I’ll be lecturing at Cambridge University for a two-year spell. So that will be my full-time role alongside Tomorrows Company, which is something I’m very much looking forward to.

Is there anything you miss about private practice?

I miss the teamwork and camaraderie. I really did enjoy working in teams – as a partner you quickly realise you need to have a good team around you; you need to respect them and they need to respect you. I think it’s impossible to be a good lawyer without having the back-up of having a great team with you.

I do miss that, and I miss the real-world parts of it. Going forward, I’m sure I’ll continue with academia in some form but I will need to combine it with something ‘real-worldy’ because that’s where my grounding is.

Do you have any solid plans for the future?

I’m trying to keep an open mind. There are so many possibilities out there. The skills and talents you develop as a lawyer are incredibly useful in every industry. It’s not just the analytical skills and attention to detail but also the softer skills – managing teams, negotiation, compromise.

I think it’s a shame that in the UK a legal training isn’t perhaps as well respected in other careers as in the US, where lawyers move to other careers very easily all the time.

Have you got advice for young lawyers thinking about making a move?

In terms of changing career, I’d say definitely network as much as possible. I was amazed how much people are willing to help – complete strangers would meet me for coffee and just have a chat through what I wanted to do or what the opportunities were out. People wanted to help, and it’s really important to tap that knowledge and get an idea of where you want to go next.

Don’t be afraid to take a risk. It’s important to have that thought about what you’re going to regret more. Are you going to regret changing career and failing, or not changing in the first place? Try and take a step back to make that decision.