Having considered your options outside the Bar, you decided to join Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. In what has become an increasing trend for barristers, how have you found the transition into such a high profile firm?
I actually found the transition to be a lot easier than perhaps I thought it would be. I think this is in large part due to the culture at Quinn Emanuel though. From my very first day I was involved in high-profile, exciting cases, all the while working alongside an array of talented and friendly colleagues. The Quinn Emanuel model often involves just a single partner and associate on a case, so I immediately had a large amount of responsibility and accountability in my work. This, in particular, resonated with the independent style of working that took me to the Bar in the first place.
That said, I think the biggest transitional element for me was getting used to being flexible about how I present my written work. Different partners have different preferences with written work on things ranging from structure to formatting. Learning and implementing those idiosyncrasies as required took a bit of practice, but versatility is no bad thing.
Practitioners are often concerned about the levels of advocacy they will be involved in – what has been your experience thus far and what opportunities does the future hold for you?
From a written advocacy point of view, in many ways it feels like I am still at the self-employed Bar. Whether it be submissions in an arbitration or inter-partes correspondence, I would say I find myself doing some type of persuasive drafting nearly every day, which I hugely enjoy.
As regards oral advocacy, at Quinn Emanuel we keep almost all of our arbitration in house so the opportunities are absolutely there, as at many similar firms. Associates are encouraged to get involved in oral advocacy if they want to, and several associates in the office have conducted procedural hearings or cross-examinations. As for the future, many clients today are attracted to the possibility of a ‘one stop shop’, meaning a background at the Bar becomes an additional selling point. Our co-managing partner, Sue Prevezer QC, is regularly in the Court of Appeal with cases for the firm, for example, and in fact I am currently assisting a partner on a smaller matter that may lead to me being back in the High Court soon as sole counsel.
In short, I think the opportunities for advocacy are already there, I think they will continue to grow owing to client demands, and I am looking forward to being able to utilise my background at the Bar to full effect as I progress in my career.
To what kind of work have you been exposed?
Almost all of the work at Quinn Emanuel is high-value complex commercial litigation and arbitration. I have been fortunate to experience a wide range of this already, with subject matter including a bio-power plant, mines in Africa, oil blocks, and a European bank restructuring. Next month I will be at an investment treaty dispute hearing in Washington DC on a case where our client is suing a state for US$1bn in relation to the destruction of his private aviation company. I am also one of the associates on a high profile case we recently took over from another law firm concerning a long-running SFO investigation, so I have even had to dip into a bit of corporate criminal law lately. The breadth and quality of the work at Quinn is really quite extraordinary; I feel this kind of variety can only be a good thing for making one a more well-rounded lawyer, so it’s been a real highlight of the job for me.
What have you found to be the challenges leaving the Bar and what have been the advantages?
Initially, I thought that a challenge of leaving the Bar would be accepting the loss of a lot of independence. In fact, the ethos at Quinn Emanuel is for everyone to be left to their own devices to get their work done, which suits me well and is very reminiscent of the Bar. In reality, the biggest challenge for me has probably been having to get used to using a Windows PC again instead of a Mac!
The undoubted main advantage of now being employed is the regularity of a salary. Not having to worry about when I will be paid or having a quieter month both feel like real luxuries compared to being at the self-employed Bar.
What advice would you give to others seeking opportunities outside the Bar?
I think the most important thing for anyone considering roles outside the Bar is to talk to as many people as possible, both inside and outside the law, to work out what it is that you are looking for in the new role. The recommendation of Quinn Emanuel, in fact, came from the girlfriend of a close friend of mine who is at a magic circle law firm and thought I would be a good fit.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I have a weakness for good food and good wine. So often I am either eating out or planning where to go next. Favourite destinations of mine include Bob Bob Ricard and High Timber. Other than that, I play golf and squash when I can. Although I don’t get to as much as I’d like, I also try to get out of London and see family (and the dogs) in Oxfordshire when I can.
James Smithdale was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Tony Stephenson of Hewetson Shah LLP