Name: Nick Wrightson
University and subject: Oxford University, MA; M.St; D.Phil Modern History
Law School: BPP
Job title: Trainee solicitor, Herbert Smith LLP
Why did you decide upon a career in law?
Choosing to train as a lawyer is not like deciding upon other career paths. It equips you with technical skills and an analytical framework that are relevant to all kinds of jobs. Getting a legal education partly appealed to me because it opened doors rather than closing them. That said, working for a top firm is also an extraordinary career in its own right.
After finishing my degree, I stayed on at university as a graduate student because I was excited by the possibility of constantly grappling with new ideas. I wanted to write articles and present papers, and to be part of an international academic community. However, while I was a working on my doctorate, my trainee friends’ experiences suggested that law might offer similar opportunities in a faster-paced environment dealing with clients’ practical problems, which appealed to me more. Despite the economic turmoil since I applied for my training contract, life as a trainee has exceeded my expectations.
In my first year working as a lawyer in the City I have had the chance to see how central legal considerations are to most important business decisions (both contentious and non). Some of the matters I have worked on will directly affect the futures of household names, the experiences of consumers, and perhaps even the outcomes of elections. Since I have a longstanding interest in business, history and current affairs, the prospect of working as part of the legal teams handling this kind of large-scale, innovative, and politically sensitive work played a big part in my decision to switch to law.
What did the application process involve?
I applied to Herbert Smith in the first week of January 2006. The application form was quite straightforward requiring answers to a few questions about my motivation for working for a large full-service City practice. Now, there are also some online tests applicants must complete alongside the application form including verbal and critical reasoning.
I was invited to Herbert Smith’s London office in early March for an interview with two partners. When I arrived at Exchange House I was given some time to prepare an answer a case-study involving a possible contractual dispute arising between two commercial parties. The first half of the interview involved general questions about the advice I (not yet knowing the law) would give my client. The remaining questions dealt with my extra-curricular interests, goals for the future, and the relative merits of different types of firms. The partners pushed me hard and probed deeply into who I was and how I thought, but the overall interview was refreshingly frank. In my experience the partners at Herbert Smith are open, interesting and engaging people with a knack for getting the best out of potential candidates. Afterwards I was given a tour of the office by a current trainee, and had the chance to ask questions off the record about working at the firm.
What type of work are you doing in your current seat?
In March 2010 I was seconded overseas to the litigation and arbitration group in Herbert Smith’s Moscow office. The timing of my trip to Moscow could not have been better. As soon as I arrived our opponents in an escalating dispute filed a request for arbitration together with an application to expedite the timetable on grounds of urgency. The hearing to decide the matter was soon set for the last three days of my seat. As a result, in just six months I have assisted with every stage of an international commercial arbitration: from reviewing documents and filing a defence to preparing witness statements, pre-hearing briefs and cross examination questions. My final task was to assist the witnesses undergoing questioning at the hearing.
At other times in my action packed six-months abroad I have helped teams of lawyers in London and Moscow with research, document analysis and preliminary opinion writing in relation to several potential disputes, and in one case was asked to instruct a QC. The subject matter of my work has never failed to surprise and entertain (political intervention; unexpected press coverage; business empires bought and sold on the back of napkins), though the hours have sometimes been pretty demanding.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Apart from dealing with complex and controversial matters, the highlight for me has been working with really bright, interesting people every day. One has to learn fast and stay adaptable to keep up, but I learn from my colleagues all the time. The firm also has a healthy atmosphere. I am glad that participation in sports, mentoring, outreach and pro-bono projects is so strongly encouraged and that my colleagues are so varied both socially and politically.
Are there any downsides to what you do?
Sometimes the job can be pretty stressful. The advice we give needs to be robust and completely correct, but that can be difficult when the time constraints one is working under are pretty strict and there isn’t time to check everything twice. I have been lucky that my supervisors have made a real effort to help me adapt to the pressure – a fact of life when working as a City solicitor.
What do you think are the most important skills/strengths you need to be a successful solicitor?
Every task as a trainee requires you to organize effectively and communicate with clarity and precision. To become a successful solicitor one also needs to show initiative and learn to instinctively manage risks. Each department I have experienced seems to require a slightly different combination of skills but the ability to give a good impression, retain information and break down work into manageable tasks is always important. A sense of humour helps too.
What would be your best piece of advice for graduates considering a career in law?
Research all the firms you are considering thoroughly: not just based on size, salary, prestige and overseas network but above all in terms of who offers exposure to the kinds of work you think you are most interested in. For example, my next seat will be in public law litigation, a seat not available at all firms. When making applications, focus your efforts and avoid spreading yourself too thinly.