In interview with...
Matt Whelan, Solicitor
Trowers & Hamlins
Matt Whelan is a corporate and commercial solicitor at national law firm, Trowers & Hamlins. Matt trained at Trowers and has continued his legal career there. In addition to his role as a solicitor, he supervises trainees and vacation scheme students.
So... corporate and commercial are two different legal practice areas but you specialise in both. How does that work?
Yes. When you’re a junior in my team at Trowers, you get to do a mixture of both corporate and commercial to build up your skill set and experience. When you’re a couple of years qualified, say 3 or 4, you then get to choose whether you want to specialise in corporate or commercial law.
The variety of work and wide spread of commercial and corporate can make it harder sometimes as you’ll be incorporating a company, reviewing a share purchase agreement, advising a public body on an IT procurement, advising a start-up in respect of its legal strategy... juggling lots of different types of tasks all in one day. It’s good though as you get broad exposure and that’s one of the biggest benefits to being in a mixed team. I really enjoy the public sector element too as this is much more reliant of specific regulations, requiring a more detailed approach, and ensuring your legal research is up to scratch.
What does a typical day in the life of a corporate/ commercial lawyer look like for you?
I normally start the day by checking my emails and tidying them up. Some days I will get a barrage of emails and for me it clears my brain if I clear my emails. I use them as a to do list and this helps me know what I’ve got to do for the day. I then try and block out my diary with tasks and do this for time management and to prioritise what I need to do to meet deadlines. This is something I learnt during my training contract and I find that it works best for me. We then have team catch ups in lockdown. We have a general team social catch up and a catch up in terms of our corporate and commercial work loads respectively. We’ll run through our to do lists and what everyone is doing and distribute the workload to ensure everyone is okay. We also use this as an opportunity to knowledge share which is invaluable. After that, I’ll start my client work which could be anything from commercial agreements such as sponsorship, service and/or licence agreements (to name but a few). If I have public sector client work that day, then I’d probably be providing advice in relation to coronavirus regulations or in relation to a quirky question that has come up as a result of the Public Contract Regulations 2015. Procurement is a key issue at the moment too and it’s important to provide swift and concise advice to these clients, who will often be balancing difficult internal situations.
Typically, I could be doing a range of things such as providing emails of advice, mark ups / reviews of documents, having calls with clients as and when they need it or I could be out trying to win new work with various BD initiatives.
Towards the end of the day I’ll go back over my emails to make sure I have not missed anything and tidy my inbox up in readiness for the next day.
How is the balance of the corporate and commercial workload?
The commercial side tends to be more constant so I have a steady stream of work which is still quite busy but manageable (depending on the client...). With the corporate side, transactions tend to be in peaks and troughs. It’s either really busy with completions or it’s just slowly ticking along. When doing both corporate and commercial it can sometimes be difficult to prioritise (especially with completions) but the experience you gain from it is great as a junior lawyer. The mix of work is something you might not necessarily have in other departments either as there doesn’t tend to be an overlap between two distinct elements in other teams.
What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers looking to secure a training contract with a commercial law firm and how they can convey their passion in TC apps?
The first thing is, commercial law has to genuinely interest you. Commercial law is very broad so when you’re applying to firms you need to know the type of clients the firm has and the work that they do. This will enable you to tailor your answer to questions like ‘why commercial law’ in training contract applications. This research will also impact how interested you are in what the firm does.
You also need to demonstrate that you are commercially aware. You need to get across that you are aware of the news and what’s happening right now and demonstrate that you would be able to apply that and the law to client specific scenarios. It’s not just about regurgitating statute either, it’s more about being practical and coming up with innovative solutions to client problems.
Nowadays, particularly as a result of Covid-19, we’ve seen a lot of clients step away from black and white law and focus more on finding solutions to enable them to deal with lockdown and still try and grow their business. Commercial law is more about understanding what the law is but focusing on what you recommend as a result of that and possible solutions you give to clients. It’s hard to get this understanding across in an answer to a training contract question but don’t give up, keep trying and expose yourself to as many commercial situations as possible such as webinars, reading the financial times and keeping up to date with general news. In practice, you talk to clients before and after the ‘legal conversation’ and they get a good feel for what you know and who you are and that is equally as important to get across.
What has impressed you in the past about previous Vac Scheme students you’ve worked with (i.e. what makes them stand out)?
I did a vac scheme myself so I was always keen to know this. As silly as it sounds what I really like about vac scheme students that I have worked with, first and foremost, is that they are really nice to work with. I always find the more relaxed they are (which, I appreciate, is very difficult in the circumstances) the more natural they act and the more natural they act, the more you get to know them.
What I’ve liked most are students that come across really pleasant and present themselves well. That doesn’t mean being really formal all the time as that’s too far down one end of the spectrum but likewise it doesn’t mean acting like mates in a pub joking and laughing. It’s a middle ground. It’s students that are really inquisitive about you and your life, not just work but showing a genuine interest in wanting to get to know you. I think this lends itself to everything else in the vac scheme. It means you see each other as people which can get lost behind the nerves and overwhelming sense that a job is in the balance.
The other thing I like is when people show an interest. Demonstrating that they are really interested in what I’m doing and want to learn. Everyone comes through the door with that intention and sometimes it is genuine and other times it can come across that this is just what they think they need to do to get the job. You need to show that you’re really interested in this firm and area of law and above all interested in learning.
The best vac scheme students will read something, give their opinion on it and then ask you what you think. It’s really interesting to see them apply their knowledge. They’ll have been through LPC/law school much more recently so they have a better recollection of the legal processes and points of law and it’s really interesting to see them apply it in practice. Just remember, firms are not looking for the finished article, they’re looking for someone with spark, someone they want to work with. Not everyone will say this but that’s what I definitely look for. I look for someone that has more to them than just their legal ability.
What would your advice be to aspiring lawyers in respect of how they can build their network?
At the moment it’s hard as everyone is working remotely. It’s not just hard for aspiring lawyers but it’s hard for everyone. One of the issues we’ve had internally is keeping everyone connected.
The silver lining of this pandemic is that the online world in terms of businesses has taken leaps and bounds forward compared to what it was like before and one of the key tools for that is LinkedIn. I’ve seen a lot more input and uptake on LinkedIn post-lockdown compared to pre-lockdown. For aspiring solicitors, the benefits of LinkedIn are twofold: firstly, you can improve commercial awareness. There are lots of posts by people and lawyers that allow you to have an insight into their world and what’s on their agenda at the moment. Secondly, you can read about people. You can learn about people’s background and connect with them virtually. Aspiring solicitors should note that everyone is looking to build their network, particularly at the moment, so it’s not unusual for people to reach out. What will you lose if you want to ask a question, as long as it’s not an arbitrary question. For example if you’re interested in an article they’ve read/shared, you could ask about that. 9/10 people are interested in talking about it and that’s the reason people use the platform.
Also use this time to attend as many virtual networking events as possible or webinars because you become known within the legal sphere through these events. In Birmingham specifically there is a limited number of solicitors so you’ll get to know many of them if you keep going to these events, undoubtedly those solicitors will get to know your name and you. In the future I think there will be a massive shift online anyway so it’s good to get to grips with it sooner rather than later.
You’ve already answered this in your last question slightly but how do you think an aspiring lawyer can build their experience during the current pandemic?
The best thing they can do is stay engaged. Whether on LinkedIn or otherwise. There’s quite a lot of information in terms of knowledge management online created by law firms at the minute and if they can engage at that level or read these articles or attend these webinars, they’ll at least have a foot in the door in terms of commercial awareness and legal knowledge.
In terms of practical work experience, it’s a difficult time for everyone. The only thing I will say is that some sectors may have more time on their hands now their work life balance has shifted. When we look for vac scheme students and new trainees, we don’t necessarily look for solid law firm work experience. We look for experience that indicates the applicant has a good work ethic. Building experience during a pandemic is difficult but it doesn’t need to be legal experience, it can be general. Whether that’s actual work experience or just something that shows you did something during this time that will set you apart from other aspiring solicitors. Use this time to build some sort of quirky experience that will allow interviewers and law firms to remember you.
How have you dealt with rejection during your journey so far?
It’s hard. Really hard. When you come away from university and you’re really optimistic and done brilliantly academically throughout school and university, to receive rejection is not what you’re used to. I applied to a huge amount of law firms across a variety of sectors and cities and it was hard. The first rejection wasn’t great and you just feel like I can’t do this and I’m not good enough. The second one reinforces that. After the 5th or 6th you become slightly numb to it. I distinctly remember that I had a good group of people around me that had supported me and cheered me on. Your support group is so important. If you don’t have that, be that support group for yourself. You can do this. Almost everyone goes through this and it gets easier. I remember the moment I just relaxed and thought I’m over this rejection now, I know what I’m doing, I am good enough, if they reject me then I am not right for them. That mindset meant I went in to interviews and assessment days with a much more relaxed attitude which meant I just performed better. Surround yourself with people that help you get through it. Everyone, at one point in their life, has dealt with rejection. It’s not personal. All you can do is reflect on it and move on.
Did you ever apply to a firm twice after being rejected the first time?
I think I might have but not after getting rejected after the interview stage. I’ve never been interviewed twice. There’s a tick box on the application that asks whether you’ve applied before. I made sure that the applications I resubmitted were entirely different to the ones that hadn’t got through the time before so I wasn’t regurgitating what I had done or just tweaking it. I found that each time I did an application, I got better and further in the process.
TOP 3 SKILLS USED EVERY DAY...
1. Attention to detail
2. Time management
3. Social skills