My career story: “I left the criminal bar to become a reputation management lawyer”

Natalie Sherborn left the criminal bar and is now a senior associate at defamation and reputation management firm Schillings. She tells us about how and why she made the move.

What’s your background?

I went to a state comprehensive school in Essex. I don’t know if anyone in our family even knew what a barrister was, but at a very early age I fixated on becoming one. I went to King’s College London and studied law, but couldn’t afford to take the next step because in those days pupillage was completely un-funded.

I took 3 years out and worked for Société Générale, just to find the money for bar school, but it ended up being really fascinating. I went for a year and stayed for three. I earned a reasonable amount of money and was exposed to City life. As a 21-year-old fresh out of university it was quite useful.

I went back and did the bar course and completed pupillage at 6 Gray’s Inn Square. I moved to 3 Temple Gardens and was taken on as a tenant. It was a fairly maverick set which had incredible work for such a small entity.

From the one or two connections I made along the way, my career trajectory was pretty steep, I was instructed in some great work and was very lucky to be invited to join Furnival Chambers. My career was going well, I was instructed to represent Dano Sonnex, which at the time was a really high-profile case at the Old Bailey. Everything was starting to pick up at pace.

What do you think made your career as a barrister?

As a barrister coming through, I think your career can be made or broken by two things – your clerks, and your relationships with solicitors.

In those days it was a bit easier because solicitors went to court, so they would see you in action, like what you did and instruct you. That’s how I built my practice. I feel very sorry for the juniors coming through now, so few solicitors have the time or budget to come and watch their advocates.

It’s now quite difficult as a junior member of the bar to be seen by solicitors and build their practice in that way – you have to hope for an introduction by a clerk or a lucky break, or have contacts of your own.

What made you leave the Bar?

I had moved to 25 Bedford Row. I was totally committed to being a criminal barrister and believed I was extremely privileged to be in that position. I always thought I would stick with it.

I never thought I would leave, but the mounting pressure on the bar – the financial pressures, the requirement that you do more for less and do it quicker – meant I had reached the point where I felt that I couldn’t offer the service that I had always been so proud of, and continue to make a living.

I had been completely dedicated to my clients: I would go the extra mile, and happily work 16 hours a day, during trials I’d think of nothing else. But the rewards are being taken away and career aspirations are being taken away. Apart from the top few sets that will always be the go-to places for privately paid work, the risk for the rest of the bar is that it will become stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap Tesco law.

That is not what I came to the bar for. I didn’t come to the bar to go to court under-prepared and be unable to properly represent my client.

I felt quite disillusioned and very stressed. The morale at the bar is incredibly low. My partner and I are both criminal barristers; something had to give and one of us had to make a decision to change.

How did you make the decision in the end and how long did it take?

I didn’t want to be pushed. I think you approach a career change with a totally different outlook if you’ve been forced into a new job that you don’t want.

I had the choice of waiting until the criminal bar collapsed, or I could take ownership of the situation and find a new challenge. It probably took me a year before I got my head in the place where I felt I was ready.

I had been briefed in good work in that year. I was instructed in a high-profile terrorist case, a murder case and a large fraud, so I didn’t  feel pressured to leave.. I had a strong practice, but I had decided the time was right. I spent that period looking at what other opportunities were available.

[When barristers consider leaving the job] I think most people believe, ‘I’m only good for this, I’m not good for anything else.’ I didn’t go trawling the recruitment agencies but I spoke to people who had been recommended to me as trusted recruiters and asked what was out there. They said that with my banking background, my Chambers & Partners ranking, and the fact that I was in a respected set, I might offer more than I realised. That gave me the confidence that I could move, then I had to decide what I wanted to do.

How did you end up settling on reputation and privacy at Schillings?

I started by thinking about what aspects of my job I liked the most. I really enjoy the client side of things: meeting with clients, finding solutions to their problems and guiding them through the most stressful parts of their lives.

I didn’t want to go into publicly funded work or a world that, like the criminal bar, would be at risk of dissolving. I settled on reputation as an area that would be interesting and appeared to begrowing, it wasn’t suddenly going to disappear.

Then I asked, if I’m staying in law, where do I want to go? I was very anxious about not wanting to go somewhere where you just become a cog in a wheel. When you’ve been in self-employed practice, the idea of disappearing and not feeling you’re making a contribution that’s recognised would be a struggle.

I needed a place where I would be able to walk away from the bar with no regrets, where every day would be a challenge with exciting and fast-paced work and give me a chance to really contribute. I trawled through directories and articles on the web and Schillings came to the fore.

I came for a walk here [around Bedford Square]. Schillings has an amazing building, it feels a bit like chambers, it’s quite small, the firm had just won various awards [including The Lawyer’s ABS of the Year 2014]. I researched Keith Schilling, having read about his rise to success and the way in which Schillings was evolving, it seemed like a place that would consider a speculative application from an unusual candidate – there was no job I was aware of being advertised.

I thought for someone to give me a break, they would have to be forward-thinking to look at someone who had not necessarily come through the traditional route. I saw the combination of having become an ABS, having cyber and security specialists, risk consultants and intelligence analysts, and thought there might be a spot for me – they might actually welcome an application. So I applied and was offered an interview.

How did you pitch yourself to the firm?

I really thought about my caseload and what aspects of the cases that I’d done over the last few years would appeal to Schillings, in terms of media spotlight, privacy issues, reputation issues, the high pressure and the different types of clients.

I had acted for company directors in a personal capacity facing criminal matters, for companies facing regulatory issues, people in the press because of the high-profile nature of their crimes. I’d just finished a terrorist case that received attention because it was the first ISIS-related prosecution. I specifically thought about what would appeal and how my skillset would compliment them.

After I’d made the decision that I was going to approach Schillings, in those three months I returned almost all of my work and studied the core areas that the firm had historically dealt with – defamation, the privacy side, and I looked at the overlap between criminal law and the sort of issues that might arise.

I was looking for areas where what I knew I might compliment Schillings’ offering. Once I was in the door I discovered they have far more exposure to criminal matters than I had appreciated, so there have been opportunities to advise on quite serious criminal matters. I didn’t necessarily anticipate that is where I might come in handy.

What tips have you got for someone wanting to make a similar move?

If you just make speculative applications to all and sundry without really thinking about what their needs are and what you can bring to the table, you will struggle to move. Identify your own skills and interests, moving career is a massive challenge and you need to really think it through.

Have you got any regrets?

When I came here I was really excited, I haven’t looked back. I had one final case that had been delayed; I had to return to court to finish it. I couldn’t let the case go because I’d had been instructed for so long and it was very sensitive for all concerned.It was difficult stepping out of this world and going back to the bar. I had to go to the Old Bailey, to me that was the epitome of achievement as a barrister. There’s something very special about appearing there.

I walked in thinking, ‘This is either going to go one way or the other – either I’m going to be full of regret or I will know I made the right choice.’ I walked into the bar mess and chatted with friends andmade my final appearance in court. I walked out and thought, ‘Yes, that’s fine; I’m going back to the office.’ That for me was the moment I knew I’d made the right decision.

What have been the biggest challenges of your career change?

Having spent 15 years being self-employed, to be answerable to someone in a way that I haven’t been since I was 21 has been something to get used to.

As a barrister, to a degree you are flexible about your work. Sometimes you are able to take the time toto articulate your argument on paper. As a barrister, if I had an important piece of written work to do, I might spend a few days mulling it over, clarifying my thoughts before committing anything to paper. Here, if something needs doing, it needs doing now.

Billing for me was also awful to begin with. As a publicly funded lawyer you get paid a fixed feeand it is for you to decide whether you break your back spending every waking moment thinking about a client’s case, or you look at it an hour beforehand on the train to court; I was always the former. Here, because of client constraints, you have to be very careful about how you spend your client’s funds.

Providing accurate fee estimates and the constraints on your billable time is something I find quite difficult to adapt to; to remember that you’re literally clicking a button and the time is ticking. I can’t necessarily spend hours mulling something over. That was a real eye-opener – you do quickly pick it up but it’s a complete change of mind-set.

One of the biggest challenges for a barrister can be developing business acumen. You also have to have in mind what your clients’ commercial needs are rather than simply what the legal answer is. At the bar you tend to come to a casemuch later on in the process, the client will already have been charged and focused on the key issues by the solicitor.

Here, when a client comes to you in a crisis, you have to be ready to react but also muchof what we do is proactive: looking at reputation before a crisis happens. I think that’s where the commercial aspect really does come to the fore – looking at a situation and being able to identify where the weaknesses might be, and the steps that can be taken to protect reputation in advance.

That for me has probably been the biggest learning curve – looking at things from a proactive perspective and really understanding clients’ business needs and the issues that arise in different sectors.

And the bonuses?

I can’t say the hours are necessarily that much better, but when I was at the bar, I certainly never took more than one week’s holiday at any one time. I hadn’t ever had more than about two weeks holiday per year. The joy here is that you have to take your holiday allocation. So I’ve taken my holidays and it’s been amazing. And you get paid for it!

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