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Career choice: Private practice

Stephanie McDonald  

Name: Stephanie McDonald
Level of PQE: 14 years
Current position and immediate former position: Partner, Gunnercooke LLP. Formerly, commercial lawyer at Radiant Law, and partner at Nabarro

Why did you go into the law in the first place?

I wanted to pursue a career in business and felt it was a good place to start. I was open-minded about where it would take me - and I guess I still am.

What was your first job as a qualified solicitor?

I studied Scottish Law at Glasgow University, and then converted to English law in order to secure a City training contract. I qualified into Berwin Leighton Paisner’s infrastructure projects team, drawn by the diversity it offered in terms of sectors and skills (commercial, construction, banking).

What was your reason(s) for choosing your career path?

Having worked for over 10 years at traditional law firms - including Lovells and Berwin Leighton Paisner, and as a partner at Nabarro - I was keen to experience something different. It was becoming clear that the legal services market was changing, and I wanted to experience that for myself.

I joined Radiant Law, an alternative business structure (ABS) regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority but based in South Africa. I moved to Cape Town, where I helped to manage a team of young lawyers, pushing the envelope with tech-enabled deal delivery. It was fun. I jumped from there into challenger law firm Gunnercooke - also an ABS - continuing to deliver UK and international deals using a Cape Town/London base.

What steps did you take to make that move a reality (include details of resources that you found particularly helpful)?

There's no substitute for market research, and that means talking to as many people as possible about their personal experiences of ABSs and new ways of working.

How easy or difficult did you find the move?

Leaving behind a conventional City law firm career is scary, but it's also liberating. It was a tough move, but the excitement of the change and the opportunity outweighed my nervousness. You have to hold your nerve!

What do you consider to have been the key factor in enabling you to make that successful move?

Keeping an open mind about what the future holds. When you step outside of a traditional career path, you need to be alive to the possibility that life will take you in a direction you did not anticipate. That is not for everyone, but if you can handle the unpredictability, it’s an exciting journey.

What do you most enjoy about your current role?

The freedom to shape my business the way I want to, and to build family and other interests into my life in a more structured way than I have ever been able to do before.

What did you learn about how to make change effectively and what would you have done differently?

I found that I had to be honest with myself about my ability to leave behind old habits. After many years of conventional law firm behavior, it's not easy to change how you approach things like deal delivery, practice management and sales. You have to give yourself some slack in the beginning - learn to see things differently and try new methods.

Someone told me that it's okay to fail so long as you fail 'safely', and I think that's a good motto. When you're outside your comfort zone, it's best to have people around you trust for support and guidance.

What are your three tips for a successful change in career direction?

  • Research the options very carefully and talk to as many people as possible about their experiences.
  • Be honest about what you want and prioritise your objectives - it will help you focus on what is really important.
  • Keep an open mind, accept you may fail, and never, ever, lose your sense of humour!