James F.
Job category Law

About James

Key Experiences

From History Masters to corporate law
I'm the first to admit that I did not go into higher education with a predefined career in mind. I chose a subject that I loved (history) and was fortunate to be offered a place at Cambridge. I immersed myself in the subject as well as extracurricular activities, and enjoyed myself enough to spend an additional year studying at masters level.

It was only in the summer between graduation and beginning my masters course that I started to think properly about my potential career. Change was in the air and I knew I was not planning to stay in academia indefinitely. I wanted to find a career which would put me at the heart of the fast-paced "real world" of the global economy, while also stimulating intellectually and allowing me to apply the skills I had acquired from my history degree. After spending hours perusing all manner of glossy grad scheme brochures, I realised that commercial law might tick many of the boxes. Not having studied law or having lawyers among friends and family, this was, in honesty, something of a "blind" decision. It was difficult to imagine what daily life as a solicitor in a big firm would actually entail. Would I be burning the midnight oil? Would I be going to court? Could I be myself?

My interest piqued, I began applying for vacation schemes. I was invited to attend an assessment day at Herbert Smith (as it was then known, pre-merger) and remember getting a good feeling from the place and the people interviewing me, so I was delighted to be offered a place. On the scheme itself I spent a week each in the Disputes and Corporate divisions. Doing a scheme like this, whether here or at another firm, provides an invaluable insight into a potential future career as a lawyer. I felt my curiosity had been validated, and left the scheme much more certain that I wanted not only to become a lawyer, but also to do so at HSF. I was offered a training contract and the rest, so they say, is history.

Current Position

Associate in Corporate Division
During my training contract at Herbert Smith Freehills I sat in four different departments: Insurance Disputes, Real Estate, Finance, and finally Corporate (where I ended up qualifying). The seat rotation system is incredibly helpful in letting you experience a number of practice areas and give you the chance to decide the right choice for your future as a qualified lawyer. This is especially the case at a firm like ours which has formidable strength across the board. I joined the firm as an aspiring litigator, but in the end it was the buzzy atmosphere and "thrill of the deal" in Corporate which was for me. My practice now encompasses public and private M&A and equity capital markets. I really enjoy it, and can honestly say that being part of a team successfully bringing a major deal to a close is an immensely rewarding experience.

As a gay man, I was slightly apprehensive about being open with my sexuality when I first arrived. This was largely based on preconceptions (or, perhaps more accurately, misconceptions) about what the culture of a big corporate law firm would be like. I did "come out" to my first supervisor after a couple of months, and felt so much more comfortable thereafter. Herbert Smith Freehills has a genuinely inclusive culture, not just for LGBT people but also for other minorities. We had one of the first LGBT networks in the City (now known as the IRIS Network), and it may surprise some people that the annual IRIS Network summer party at the National Portrait Gallery is probably the firm's biggest social event of the year, and is always packed to the rafters with both firm and client LGBT staff and allies. The serious point is people feel free to be themselves and are happier and much more likely to reach their full potential as a result.

Main Motivations

Teamwork and the headlines
I enjoy many aspects of my job, but there are two things which I routinely find especially motivating.

The first is to be part of a team of like-minded people, working together to solve clients' legal problems. So much of our role is problem solving, and it is often really satisfying to collaborate with talented colleagues to find the answers. This is one of the reasons I chose to become a solicitor rather than a barrister. The kinds of matters we work on tend to be at the cutting edge of the profession and regularly throw up questions or issues for which there is no established precedent or answer, and everyone on the team, right down to the trainees, can play a part in finding solutions. On any particular deal we tend to work in smallish teams of a partner, a couple of associates, and one or two trainees (but often bigger if the matter demands it). The partners are all highly respected and often among the industry's leaders in their fields, and you can learn a great deal by observing them. It's not all sitting and watching, however - you are given as much real responsibility as you are ready for. I am on the phone to clients on a daily basis, and this can often be the case for trainees too.

The other thing that I love is seeing press coverage of some of the bigger transactions I'm working on. You don't get this for every deal but when you do it's always a pleasure to read how the wider world perceives the deal, and how this compares to the inside experience.

Top Advice

Do your homework and be honest with yourself
My top 3 tips to potential candidates would be:

Firstly, do your homework. Find out as much as you can about what it's like to be a commercial lawyer and the firms you are considering applying to. Go to careers fairs and roadshows. Talk to people. Go on vacation schemes and open days. All of this will make your application much stronger and will give you a much clearer picture of whether the law is for you.

Secondly, don't neglect the academics. It's no secret that getting a training contract at a top firm is highly competitive. While recruitment teams will look at your application holistically, and getting the best grades you can possibly achieve is still very important to getting a foot in the door, no matter how much work experience and extracurricular activities you have on your CV. Aim for at least a strong 2:1 unless you have extenuating circumstances.

Thirdly, be honest with yourself. I really enjoy the work I do, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an enquiring mind and an interest in the world of business. However, it isn't for everyone; being a commercial lawyer can be an intense and demanding (as well as rewarding) career choice. Think carefully about what you want from your career and your firm and make your choice accordingly. Getting hands on experience on a vacation scheme or open days is so important in leading you to this decision.

Greatest Achievement

Client secondment to South African mining firm
Only a few months after qualifying I was sent on secondment to Lonmin Plc, the world's third largest platinum miner, which is operationally based in South Africa. I was based at the London office and, as the only lawyer in the building, the next 9 months saw me dealing with a wide range of general corporate matters, with a high level of autonomy and responsibility. While I could always contact my colleagues at HSF for assistance where required, this experience really helped build my confidence and initiative as a lawyer and gave me great exposure to the inner workings of a listed public company. I was in close contact with the directors and senior managers, and enjoyed three trips to South Africa to boot. I don't think many people outside the mining industry can say they have been down a live, working platinum mine over 1,000 metres underground. Still fewer have taken a pneumatic drill to the rock face! I returned to my desk at HSF with a strong understanding of, and interest in, the mining industry, which I have kept going as part of the firm's dedicated global mining group (which is highly regarded in the market and acts for a number of the major global mining companies). My experience was not atypical: many associates go on secondments to a wide range of different clients at some point during their time here (and you can also do so as a trainee). There is a wealth of opportunity on offer here for those willing to grasp it.

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