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An insight into Herbert Smith Freehills: Partner in IP Litigation practice

Book open Reading time: 8 mins

Jonathan Turnbull is a Partner in Herbert Smith Freehills IP Litigation practice. We caught up with Jonathan to find out more about his life at the firm and his top tips for students wanting to get into commercial law.

Could you please tell us about your typical day at work? 

 A typical day for me involves either getting into the office early so that I can leave in time to see my kids in the evening or getting in late, so I can take them to school. Once I get to my desk, I will check my e-mails and work out what my jobs are for the day. I may have quite a few e-mails in the morning, as many of my clients are US based, so I will start my day by going through these. I will then start preparing for meetings as, on average, half of my day involves attending telephone calls or meetings. These are either with other people within the firm, usually the IP team, or with clients. I really enjoy this part of my job as I prefer working in teams to working on my own. There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’, as things develop or change constantly, so that a day can really shift away from what you thought it would be at the start of that day.

In general, I work in teams of between three to six people. The team will usually comprise of one partner, one trainee and then differing numbers of associates depending on the size of the matter. The teams are built based on who is available, relevant legal or technical background and whether you have an existing relationship with that client. It is really important to understand your client’s business and to build a relationship with them, as this will mean that your advice is tailored to the client’s commercial needs.

In terms of summer interns (or as we call them – vacation students), their day will mirror mine. I have been a trainee supervisor for the last six and half years, such that I have supervised thirteen trainees and numerous people on vacation schemes. I think it is really important that a vacation scheme reflects what it is really like to work at HSF – that’s the real point of it. If I have meetings or calls, my vacation student will attend those, and we will then discuss them afterwards. The scheme also has many presentations given by different departments within the firm. This means that the vacation students get a real flavour for what we do at HSF both in London and throughout our network of offices, in addition to seeing what it is like on a day-to-day basis. From my perspective, you should leave the vacation scheme with a real and genuine understanding of what it is like to work as a lawyer at HSF, and whether you like it or not.

Do summer interns get the opportunity to take part in pro-bono initiatives? If so, what kind of opportunities are on offer at the firm?

If pro-bono, or anything else, is something of particular interest to you, then make your interest known to Graduate Recruitment or your vacation scheme supervisor. They can then try to get you involved in anything that is going on. There are generally a lot of opportunities, so if you are interested then there should be an opportunity to get involved. It really is a two-way process though; you have to make your interest known before someone can help you find an opportunity.

What kind of training/supervision do the lawyers receive at your firm? As they progress in their careers, is there training schemes aimed at generating business?

A law firm’s real assets are its lawyers. HSF has a continual training and mentoring programme, as personal and legal development is high up on the firm’s agenda. The people of the firm are what the firm is; we make the firm; we are the firm. At various stages of your career there are formal ‘development centres’ including ones for trainees, associates, senior associates, new partners and even further on. These formal centres are all designed around equipping you to progress in your career, but the training is not limited in this way. The firm offers a variety of courses, lectures and sessions that you can attend to help you build up any aspect of the skills that you need to be a modern lawyer, whether these are legal, inter-personal or business development. 

There are also informal types of training and support. I have a personal mentor within my department, who is someone senior to me and who helps guide me in my career. I also have another mentor who is a partner in a different department. He does not work with me day-to-day and it is a bit like having a trainee buddy in that it is someone that I can go to and ask questions, and they can give me their objective and honest view. It is a very nice thing to have.

What kind of associates typically succeed at your firm and What do you consider to be the most important qualities in associates that are coming in?

I don’t think there is a ‘type’, it’s not a box filling exercise. Everyone is different and distinct. I think what makes a good person in whatever career they’re in is someone who’s interested in what they do and, because of that, someone who is looking for opportunities. Generally, this means that these people like working in teams and have a continual willingness to listen, learn and develop. Simply being curious is a great trait and a useful mind-set to have.

Above all, you should enjoy what you do. If you enjoy what you do, then you will be curious, willing to learn and open to change. You will then have the drive and enthusiasm to succeed.

One of the real advantages of a vacation scheme (or even just talking to lawyers) is that when you come to applying for a training contract you will be more informed of what you are getting into and be able to speak confidently about why you want to be a lawyer. By talking to people and finding out more, you will be able to ask yourself: “Does this life suit me, and would I enjoy this work?” Most importantly of all, you will be able to answer for yourself the following question: “Would I like working with these people at this firm?” This is what it is all about. 

Why do you think more and more firms are recruiting half of their trainees from non-law backgrounds? Is it because non-law graduates bring a different skill set?

I think as a non-lawyer and a scientist what I enjoy most about my career in the law is being able to use my analytical skills to solve problems. One of the main reasons I became, and continue to be, a lawyer is that I like solving problems. I also like structure and working in teams. These are the things that made me feel that I was suited to a career as a Lawyer. Law firms recognise that they’re going to find people with the right mind-set that ‘fit’ in their firms from all different kinds of backgrounds. 

Was there anything you wish you had known, before you applied, about the practice of law or the law firm that you applied to?

I think for me, my biggest regret is not thinking about things, or giving myself time to think about things, at an early stage. Personally, when I was looking at careers and what I wanted to do, I originally didn’t have any form of guidance or structure. I also came at it a lot later than most people and I just jumped in. I would have really benefitted from doing things differently. By doing so, I would have been able to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities available to talk to people from different careers, both within the law and outside of it, which would have meant that I would have reached my decision to pursue a legal career much earlier. This in turn would have given me more opportunities to talk to people working in firms and to do vacation schemes etc.

However, what is most important is to think about what you enjoy rather than simply going mindlessly to lots of law fairs and events. I just did not engage in the process early enough, which was partly because I loved science so much. I was quite blinkered in assuming that I was going to be a scientist, that when it became clear that a career as a scientist was not for me, I had not thought of a ‘Plan B’. I just did not raise my head up and look around at what else was on offer. In retrospect, I wish I had given myself the time to think about my career at an early stage, even if all it did was to confirm ultimately that I did in fact want to be a scientist. It would have been much easier and informed decision if I had.

We know HSF is a very international firm with many offices worldwide, but how independent are each of the offices in such a global setting?

HSF is a true network of offices. I work closely with colleagues in different offices. We are not just a series of discrete offices around the world, but a proper connected network.

How do you see commercial awareness? And what are you expecting when you say you want future associates to be commercially aware? 

I think this links back to the previous point – You need to be curious in what you do and that also applies to being curious about your clients, their business and their commercial position. I think the most important thing about being commercially aware is that you have a genuine interest in business or the sector in which you work. Our clients do not instruct us simply because of our legal expertise. They only instruct people who are interested in, and consequently understand, what they do. It’s really important. Commercial awareness is also something that you gain from working with clients, as you get to see what really matters to them and what things are like for them on a day-to-day basis.

This also applies for when you are applying for a training contract, it’s about being interested and engaged in what we do. The more interested you are, the more you read and the more people you talk to. This will mean that you are able to give informed and genuine answers to any questions you could be asked as part of the recruitment process. Ultimately, what HSF is looking for is a genuine interest in the law, our clients and our sectors, and the ability to express that genuine interest.

Finally, what would your top tip be for students wanting to get into commercial law?

It links back to previous answers, just lifting your head up and looking at the opportunities available to you – recognising that even in the law there is a huge variety of things available. It is about working out what you want and talking to people about this. This could be over a coffee, on the telephone, or at a careers fair or vacation scheme. It doesn’t matter whether you are involved in a formal scheme or it is all informal chats, it helps you to make an informed, educated and genuine decision.

What you should not do is go by a ‘colouring-by-numbers’ approach, without thinking if it’s really what you want to do and whether a particular firm is right for you. Pausing, even just for five minutes, to work out your priorities and where you want to go in your career can be really beneficial. This is particularly so given the number of firms, and the number of practice areas. Take the time to work out what you want and what suits you.

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