Zoë Paton-Crockett, partner and head of Commercial Property at North West law firm Butcher & Barlow, shares her path to law.
Having graduated at the height of the 2009 financial crash, when I was finally offered a training contract at a regional firm to start in September 2012, it was a no-brainer and I accepted.
My training contract
On starting, I experienced a bit of a culture shock driving out from my city centre apartment into the depths of Cheshire, which was very unfamiliar to me. I also had to let go of the aspirations I had once had to work in a flash, glass office in Manchester and instead focus on my end goal - qualification.
I spent most of my training contract working with one of the firm's equity partners in the commercial property, and corporate departments. I was able to hit the ground running after having spent a year in a real estate team at a national firm whilst I was a paralegal. It was experience gained during my training contract that has ultimately shaped my career so far.
At the end of my training contract, I took the difficult decision to leave the firm, and took an NQ job at a city centre firm in their real estate team. At the time I felt I needed to fulfil my ambition of working at a larger, national firm in Manchester city centre with PLC clients and the kudos associated with those things. In hindsight, this decision was probably not one I made for the right reasons.
10 months after my training contract
After only 10 months I found that I was unhappy in my new job. I did not like the culture, which made me feel like a very small fish in a very large pond, working all hours, and with no clear prospects for promotion. I found I did not personally get much out of being able to name-drop high profile clients or the name of my firm.
I discovered that my previous firm had opened a new office intended to be their commercial hub. It quickly grew in size and strength in terms of reputation. So when my former supervisor asked whether I'd consider moving back to work there as a commercial property solicitor, it was a very attractive prospect.
I thought that from the outside I might be judged for 'stepping-down' to work at a much smaller firm without such a high profile and that people would see this as a poor career move, or suggest that it was because I couldn't cope at the larger firm. However, my immediate instinct was to accept the offer and return.
I cannot vouch for every regional firm (and my firm is at the larger end of that category with 10 offices around the North West and circa 160 staff), however what I found during my training contract, and continue to find, when compared to the larger firms, is that the work is more varied, more challenging and ultimately more interesting.
This is generally because we often deal with clients who have less legal experience and who come to my team with problems to be solved; lower value, more complex sites with title defects and other issues; and without a fixed idea of how to structure a deal. What we need to be able to offer is solutions to those problems, and help clients navigate through those issues.
Aside from the interesting work, I have also found that the prospects for promotion and taking control of one's own destiny are far better at a smaller firm if you are a motivated employee.
Becoming a partner
I have been qualified less than five years and I am now a Partner and Head of Commercial Property. I put this down to some hard work on my part, and also having an interest in contributing to the firm beyond fee-earning. I have always felt my ideas are valued and I will be listened to, and this approachable attitude from those at the top in turn fosters an environment at the firm where people feel they can contribute beyond churning through the work, and look to shape the future of our organisation.
We are not a very large organisation, and so the opportunity to make an impact at an earlier stage in your career is much greater in my opinion than at a national or much larger firm. For me this is a major motivator, and I hope it will be for our trainees and junior solicitors.
I am also permitted to work flexibly if I need to, from home or take an early finish if I have an appointment I need to get to, and I don't need to justify every minute of my day to anybody. On the other hand, if there is work to be done I will stay late in the office or work at the weekend. Because there is give and take on both sides, there has to be an element of trust between the firm and the employee and in my view, this approach encourages loyalty and appreciation on both sides.
Reflecting on my career so far, I am glad that I had experience away from the firm at which I am now a Partner. My recommendation to those considering applying to a smaller practice would be to carefully think about what is really important to them.
What is really important to you?
Some people genuinely do love to work on high profile and newsworthy deals, and the long hours, and less flexibility may therefore be worthwhile pay-offs to secure those high-profile jobs. I think there is also a significant group of people for whom the prestige of working at a well-known firm or with well-known clients is not so important to them personally. Sometimes careers advisers, teachers and parents can push young people to aim high, and that can mean targeting organisations who have big names, rather than thinking about what those people could achieve elsewhere.
Many people might actually be better suited to a smaller practice with more of a family feel where they can make a difference at an earlier stage in their career and have a sense of ownership. It can be frightening to choose what may be perceived as a lesser firm by many people because there can be judgment. In terms of work-life balance and the type of work you might actually enjoy, there can be a lot more satisfaction in dealing with smaller clients, shaping an organisation and feeling a sense of loyalty and responsibility towards your firm and the people in it.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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