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Becoming a Legal Leader.

Using lessons from the past to explore taking that next step.

By Clare Beresford

Using lessons from the past to explore taking that next step.

The one sure thing is that the future is unpredictable. Pandemics, rising inflation, economic instability, global conflicts and rapid advances in AI technologies present significant challenges to those just starting.

Becoming a Legal Leader.
Becoming a Legal Leader.

In celebration of our 35th anniversary, we have been exploring the past to inform how we approach the future. In this theme, we were joined by panellists: Chris Watson, Partner at CMS, Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group and Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, Commercial Legal Europe and International, ViiV Healthcare, to discuss how those early in their legal careers can set themselves up for success. The degree of alignment between our panellists on issues ranging from resilience and confidence to mental fitness and advocacy was fascinating, and spoke to the applicability of their advice to every lawyer regardless of their career journey. Below are some of their top takeaways.

You have just qualified; what now? How do you go about choosing your next steps? 

Chris Watson, Partner at CMS: It will always be a challenging road. Be prepared to dig deep to use all the personal resources you can access. If you’re comfortable with change, life can throw things at you, allowing you to sample a variety of things. That is one of my recipes for happiness, to have seen and done a variety of things.

Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group: I didn’t have the job secured when I qualified. You do have to be resilient. There are so many opportunities it’s sometimes difficult to see them for what they are. Be resilient but remain open to opportunity, and take whatever opportunities are out there because they’re all useful in building your skills. The more you practice at interviews and the applications, the better you will get, and you only ever need one person to say yes.

Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, ViiV Healthcare: Step back and ask yourself, am I more or less happy? Am I more or less happy with what I’m being asked to do? Am I more or less happy with the firm? If you don’t yet have a job, ask what it is you’d like to look into. Edwina Currie said, “I think you have to be mad to know exactly what you want to do before you’re 35’. So just try a load of stuff, don’t worry if you like it. Relax a bit and be open; you have more time than you may think.

The Legal Profession is filled with diverse disciplines; how do you find your niche?

Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, ViiV Healthcare: I accidentally found it when I was 38 years old; just to give the younger people a sense of it’s fine, you’ve got loads of time. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into niches unless it’s something that you really don’t like. But give it a chance, do at least a month or two before you start forming your opinions about it (the niche).

Chris Watson, Partner at CMS: Get on top of something, however small it is, because then people think, this is a person who can be trusted, and therefore they can probably be trusted on something else. The confidence that breeds on both sides is really important.

Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group: It’s really important to explore. Take any pupillage you can. It’s an opportunity to try it on and see how it will work for you. It’s important to remember that one law firm is not the same as another; the culture and work will be different, and the people will be different. And the people will have such a massive impact - and that’s quite important to find your niche. If you find a spot where people are willing to help you learn and are really excited about their area, you might be amazed by what you find interesting and engaging. Think expansively and then see what you can get.

Private Practice or In-House, how do you decide which path is right for you? 

Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group: You do not let go of opportunities. When people say something, take them at their word and follow them up. Because the worst thing that could happen is it might go nowhere, but it might go somewhere.

Chris Watson, Partner at CMS: These decisions are not once and for all. While it would be nice to be clear whether you would be in-house or private practice, while some differences and some acclimatisation have to take place, they’re not mutually exclusive. I often say you’ll be a better Private Practice lawyer if you’ve been In-House and vice versa.

Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, ViiV Healthcare: One of the critical things that helped me was to discover my confidence gradually. You do need a level of confidence to know; I can navigate this; it’s fine. There will be opportunities for me. When you fall into a supportive team, that’s probably where you will find your confidence. That may have a lot to do with where you decide to go. There are loads of paths to happiness; there are loads of shapes to happiness. As lawyers, our training sometimes makes us believe that there’s one single source of truth out there. And with career development, I don’t think that’s helpful.

How do you advocate for yourself without appearing overconfident? 

Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, ViiV Healthcare: Work out where you are on the confidence scale. If you are confident, you probably know you’re confident. Everyone loves the person who asks the first question and puts their hand up first. But if you can ask yourself if you are doing so at the expense of others, that’s quite important. There are a few tricks that you can use. First, dare to ask a question in a presentation. Be the first person that asks that question. Remember that you’re pretty good. You’ve got this far. They probably like your work. They probably even like you. So you can have a piece of the public discussion. Try to keep it short, and it will make you less nervous and make them grateful. 

Chris Watson, Partner at CMS: Generally, if you ask a question, it shows that you’ve been listening and understood. It’s important not to be frightened about asking a question. Some people think that asking a question betrays that you don’t know the answer and you’re therefore ignorant or second best. Actually, the best minds ask questions. People want their lawyers to be questioning and to be critical thinkers.

Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group: If you don’t tell people, then it’s unlikely that they will ever know. So if I don’t tell you that I’ve played the violin since I was 9, then you’ll never know. You do need to share about yourself, what you’re thinking. It then allows people to understand your perspective, your interests, what may suit you, and what you may have in common. Much about your career is how you connect with people and work alongside them. It’s also important to agree with what other people have said if you do agree. You may be nervous about the point you’re making, and someone else may be nervous about the point they have made. Having someone chime in and say that actually, I agree with that supports them and supports you. It demonstrates that you’re listening.

What does resilience mean, and why is it so important? 

Chris Watson, Partner at CMS: In most weeks, I think there are 1-2 times where I think I’ve done that wrong. You have this moment of panic, like when you’re swimming, and you can’t feel the bottom. In those moments, you have to think to yourself, let’s just calm down and look at it again. In most cases, you go back, and it’s not as bad as you think. When you get something wrong, you must hold your hand up and take your medicine. Then pick yourself up and keep going on. We’re supposed to be perfect as lawyers. We’re supposed to be right all the time. We get sued if we get it wrong. It’s a nightmare. But in practice, it’s much less precise. Live with that, live with that uncertainty, live with shades of rightness. All around you are people living with the same doubts.

Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group: It’s dusting yourself off, picking yourself back up and going again. We all have to practise it to be better at it. No matter how good you are at it, there’s going to be something in your life that is going to floor you. The question is whether you stay lying down or you slowly, painfully, with tears in your eyes, pick yourself back up and go on. The trick is that even in errors, there’s learning, and learning is what will get you better. Frankly, you learn most from the things that go wrong because those stick with you.

Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, ViiV Healthcare: Resilience is a set of learned behaviours, and by the second, seventh or ninth error, you realise that the world goes on. It’s okay, and it’s normal to make mistakes. 

How do you balance the hard work necessary to get ahead with your mental health and wellbeing? 

Jamie Pearson, Assistant General Counsel, ViiV Healthcare: I didn’t. I do now, and I think I can do that because I’m a slightly more confident and relaxed person at work. Aim for confidence and relaxation in the workplace as soon as you can. It won’t come immediately, but it does come gradually. You have to develop some things you like doing outside work, even if they’re on a small scale. The end goal inside the workplace and outside of it is happiness.

Sharon Blackman OBE, Managing Director and General Counsel at Citi Group: I realised I didn’t have endless reserves. I try to get away quarterly. Block out the time in my diary in advance. When I took that time, I was better, work was better, and everything was better if I just gave myself a break. Whilst I played the violin since I was nine, I didn’t play for about 15 years after graduating, which was a mistake. Now every Friday, I practice with my orchestra for 2 hours. 

Chris Watson, Partner at CMS: Hobbies are essential things that will distract you. These help you find your happy place and allow your brain to recover from what’s been going on. Also, don’t be frightened to manage upwards. People’s demands on you will always expand and expand. Unless you give the people managing you the information they need to care for you, they won’t be able to care for you.