Interview: Jonathan Turnbull, IP partner in the litigation practice at Herbert Smith Freehills

Interested in going down the IP route, or practising in litigation? Johnathan Turnbull is a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills with experience that spans both of these areas. Here’s what he has to say about his career.

  • Last updated Jan 3, 2020 11:46:21 AM
  • Article contributed by Herbert Smith Freehills
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First things first...

Jonathan, 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. I may have quite a few emails 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. These are either with other people within the firm, usually the IP team, or with clients. Several of these meetings are fixed meetings or regular catch-up meetings to discuss matters and next steps. These meetings usually revolve around talking about the relevant commercial or legal issues that we are facing in order to ensure that the approach we are adopting for our clients remains the best approach. 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.

In general, I work in teams of between three to six people; usually one partner, one trainee and a differing number of associates depending on the size of the matter. The teams are 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 vacation scheme students,  their day will mirror mine. I have been a trainee supervisor for the last six and a 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 scheme student will attend those, and we will then discuss them afterwards. The scheme also has many presentations given by different departments within the firm. 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.

On the recruitment process 

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. 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 and supervision do the lawyers receive at your firm? As they progress in their careers, are 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. At various stages of your career, there are formal “development centres” including ones for trainees, associates, senior associates, new partners and even further on. It’s wrong to think that your training stops at a certain stage, it’s a continual process. 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, interpersonal or business development. Clients are at the heart of our business; we need to understand their business and build relationships with them in order to best help them. Therefore, all this training is designed around helping them, which in turn helps to generate business.

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’ as 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 mindset to have.

However, as lawyers are professionals you have to get further professional qualifications, which the firm pays for, and which will help you gain some of the core skills needed as a lawyer. For non-law students, this means that you have to sit the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC). 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. 

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. When talking to people about law, ask yourself: “Does this life suit me, and would I enjoy this work?” and most importantly of all, “would I like working with these people at this firm?” Your working career will hopefully last a long time, so making sure that you’re interested in it and enjoying it is critical.

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 skillset?

As someone from a science background, one of the main reasons I became a lawyer is that I like using my analytical skills to solve problems. I also like structure and working in teams. Law firms recognise that they’re going to find people with the right mindset that fit in their firms from all different kinds of backgrounds. The attitude of firms is that everyone has different experiences and talents, so let’s just see how you work or approach a problem. So, reiterating what I said previously, there is no tick-box approach, it’s very much looking at people in the round and asking: “Is there a good fit here, can you work with us and can we work with you?”.

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

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 benefited from giving myself time to think about things at an early stage.

By doing so, I would have been able 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. 

You should definitely 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 and when it became clear that a career as a scientist was not for me, I had not thought of a Plan B. 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 confirm ultimately that I did in fact want to be a scientist. It would have been much easier and informed decision if I had.

On working together

Sometimes there can be lawyers from many firms working on the same case or transaction and in-house counsel may also be involved. In situations like this, how do you go about collaborating? 

In the type of work that I do, in-house lawyers or patent attorneys are invariably my contacts. They typically have a series of commercial objectives that they wish to meet and also have a broader role within their company. My time is focused on IP or one or two big cases, but they will have diverse tasks and responsibilities. They need external lawyers like myself to help them facilitate them in reaching their commercial objective, practically and strategically.  

We very much interact as a team, having open discussions on what we can do to meet the objectives and how we can help each other. It is not a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Being a lawyer now, you need to be very commercial, pragmatic and be able to manage projects and teams. 

In terms of working with other lawyers, I frequently work with barristers when handling UK court proceedings or with lawyers from other jurisdictions when managing multi-jurisdictional litigation. As an IP lawyer, I also work frequently with patent attorneys. When handling disputes—particularly the multi-jurisdictional ones—collaborating is fundamental. There is not always a strict structure dictating how we work, but clients do expect the best and most efficient service possible for them to achieve their aims.

At HSF and within the litigation department, we have adopted project management techniques (and even have dedicated project managers). The firm is constantly looking at alternative working methods and ways to improve our client service.

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 properly connected network.

On commercial awareness 

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

You need to be curious about 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. 

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.

If you enjoy what you do, and the sectors within which you work, you will naturally find yourself reading around the area and about your clients. I don’t simply pick up the same newspaper and read the same thing, I am just curious about what is going on in the sectors in which I work, which is mainly the pharmaceutical sector. 

This also applies for when you are applying for a training contract—it’s about being interested and engaged in what we do. 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.

With the current shift in the economy, do you see a shift in practice areas? Do you see any trends in the legal space?

In the legal market, there are currently two broad approaches that are being taken. Firms are either becoming more specialist by focusing on particular areas of law or industries or becoming truly global in their outlooks and capabilities. A niche approach allows you to really focus on understanding clients and particular areas that are of interest to them, such that you can add real value that way. A truly global practice gives you the capability to handle the complex, multijurisdictional matters (disputes or deals) that now arise in the modern global economy. Firms such as HSF have large international clients who want to work across borders and in all jurisdictions. Clients appreciate having a trusted adviser who is knowledgeable about them and capable of operating in all their jurisdictions allowing them to implement their global commercial plans.

Ultimately, both the niche and the global approach are aiming at the same thing: adding value to clients by understanding them and their needs. Gone are the days where lawyers are just instructed to provide advice on the black letter law alone. We need to give clients commercial advice that helps them understand their position and commercial choices.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that your firm is facing and how might associates help to impact this?

I think the biggest challenge facing all firms is demonstrating why, in a competitive marketplace, they should be selected as their client’s trusted adviser. For firms, it is crucial that they are able to demonstrate continuously how they are adding value and that they remain at the top of their practice areas. This is vital, as clients and their needs are constantly evolving, and firms must evolve with them. Clients expect to see active change: standing still is not an option.

As a partner, I work closely with all of my clients and I can see first-hand how they and their businesses are evolving. We are the future of the firm and therefore need to adapt and evolve with our clients.

And finally… 

With agile working being the norm, what spot in the world would you like to work from the most?

Some days I really enjoy coming to the office so that I can have face-to-face meetings and thrash out a solution to a problem by bouncing ideas off colleagues. Other days, where I really need to get my head down to review a document, I prefer being at home or having the flexibility to go somewhere else that allows me to focus on this.

In addition, the flexibility of work has really resulted in a cultural change. You can mould your time and environment to suit you and get your work done. Asking me where I would most like to work is also dependent on circumstances. Sometimes I want to work at home, so I can pick my kids up from school, and other times it gives me the flexibility to do other things.

What would be your top tip for students wanting to get into commercial law?

Lift your head up and look at the opportunities available to you. 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 law fair or on a 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.

You can read more about life at HSF here. You can read more about IP law and litigation in our areas of law section. 

 

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