England habitually underplays its charms, and the same is true for City law firms. But don’t let the humility fool you. Last week I qualified as a solicitor and became an associate in the international arbitration group of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, and it is the best possible career I could have imagined.
Stumbling into law
My journey here was not self-evident. Growing up in Finland I wanted to become either a pilot or a brain surgeon. But whilst on the International Baccalaureate program in Helsinki, I came across an Oxford prospectus and found the idea of studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics irresistible.
The degree did not disappoint; Plato and International Relations were particular favourites. I was, however, concerned about how to apply this to a career and spent two summers interning at the Finnish Foreign Office and McKinsey & Co.
My tutor at Balliol wisely said that one should always do what one finds the most interesting. I was swayed by the thought that law is a practical application of philosophy, by the promise that a career in the law would be faster-paced than the public sector, and involve more linguistic analysis and less manic travel than management consulting. I therefore applied for a two-year graduate BA in Law at Cambridge.
Finding the right law career path
During the law degree, I enrolled in summer vacation schemes at City firms. Although these two-week programmes were very well run, I was not completely sold on a career as a solicitor. It was difficult to get a grasp of the nature of the work during such short schemes.
Barristers suggested that a career as a solicitor was not stimulating enough, and warned against being enticed by the prospect of foreign secondments in City firms: “a photocopier in London is the same as a photocopier in Hong Kong”. I, however, wanted a career on an international plane which the Bar could not offer, and thus looked at qualifying as a solicitor.
I was lucky to get offers from a few firms, and chose Freshfields because of the breadth of the firm’s work and its many international offices. I liked the fact that it welcomed students from different nationalities and varied academic disciplines ranging from astrophysics to archaeology.
Training contracts as an international student
The trainee scheme was said to be extremely well managed. Freshfields was also unique in offering the possibility of doing three month rather than six-month long seats. I wanted a broad spectrum of experience to be able to make an informed choice, and in the event made full use of the firm’s flexible rotation system.
During my two years as a trainee, I worked within the corporate, finance, tax and competition departments as well as the financial disputes and international arbitration groups within the dispute resolution department.
Very soon after joining Freshfields I realised that a career as a solicitor (and a trainee solicitor) is exactly as challenging as you want to make it. You can get exciting work if the department thinks you are capable, hard-working and enthusiastic.
One of the highlights of my traineeship was assisting on a large international construction arbitration, which I continued to work on during my secondment to Freshfields’ international arbitration group in Paris. I interviewed witnesses, ran meetings, drafted parts of our statement of claim and even cast concrete decked out in steel boots and a hard-hat.
Finally choosing an area of law
Although I enjoyed getting to grips with the workings of international tax havens and satellite financing deals, in the end I applied to qualify into the international arbitration group. The discipline allows solicitors to do their own advocacy and it is a fascinating kaleidoscope where facts, governing law and locations for arbitrations change. One can be working on a contractual dispute between software and luxury good companies governed by common law to be heard in Europe, and soon thereafter switch to an oil dispute to be arbitrated in Africa in accordance with the laws of Nigeria.
The route to qualification has of course not been without its bumps. The crunched markets made qualification prospects less certain, and getting fully involved in the work required some long hours and social sacrifices. On the upside, investing that kind of time is rewarding as one can really begin to contribute on a file.
In short, the road to qualification is much travelled but underpraised. I set out without an exact vision but have arrived at a career that is my perfect fit. The job will only get more exciting as the level of responsibility for disputes and client contact increases.
It has also been a journey specked with fond memories: wonderful friendships, nervous giggles with the team in the midst of a manic court filing, energetic exploration of the London and Paris night life, quiet moments watching the sun set behind the quaint chimneys of the City, and the scent of freshly baked croissants floating in from the bakery below my bedroom in Paris.