My career story: “I moved from law into banking… now I have my own start-up”
Travis Leon qualified at Linklaters in 2008. Choosing voluntary redundancy in the recession, he worked as sales trader in an investment bank and is now co-founder and executive director of XRef, a programme that automates proofreading.
What’s your background?
I studied psychology at Nottingham University because I wasn’t 100 per cent certain I wanted to do a law degree, but a legal career was always in the back of my mind.
Once I’d completed my degree I still had a gut feeling I wanted to go down the legal route. I didn’t have the means to fund myself, so I took a couple of years out, applying for training contracts, travelling and working.
I was really pleased to get an offer from Linklaters. That allowed me to do the conversion course and LPC at Nottingham, and I started at the firm in 2006.
What was working at Linklaters like?
Linklaters itself was a great place to work – the people were amazing, it was wonderful to be surrounded by talented, ambitious people who actually quite had a lot about them. It wasn’t all about academics: lots of them had excelled in other areas and there is obviously a big international aspect to the workforce.
The work itself, I realised quite early on, probably wasn’t for me. I didn’t find it challenged me mentally as much as I thought it would at the junior level. A lot of it was pure admin work – there was a lot of paper pushing. The tag of being a lawyer sounds good to the outside word, but internally it was mainly about organisation and stamina more than anything else.
I was there for three years in total: the two years of my training contract and then one year after qualification, and during that last year I was looking around for what else might be out there.
Was that a tough time for you?
It was quite concerning – that you have invested so much time and effort in what you think is supposed to be the pinnacle, being an associate at top law firm. The competition is fierce, so when you start you really feel you’ve kind of made it. It was just a bit of a let down – you’ve worked so hard and then it’s not what you thought it would be. It can be quite hard to face up to that and I think a lot of lawyers struggle with it.
But I knew I wouldn’t be happy continuing, so I was quite willing to consider alternatives. But you also become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Working in the City has an allure when you’re younger and I wanted to remain in that environment. A lot of lawyers feel the same and moving into banking is quite a common thought process. Bankers earn a lot more money and sometimes seem to do less work!
But bankers would often be the ones coming up with the ideas and we as lawyers would be facilitating them. It’s natural as a lawyer to look at that and decide you want to be the one actually coming up with the ideas. So banking was where I looked first. I had qualified into derivatives and structured products, so I already had a leaning towards that area.
How did you go about it?
I was looking to leave in 2009 – the worst possible time to be trying to move into banking, I picked the middle of the financial crisis: Lehman Brothers had just gone bust and in fact I did a lot of work on that in my final days at Linklaters.
For me it was good fortune that law firms followed suit with their firing sprees. Linklaters had a big redundancy round. It was quite a shock – when it was announced a lot of people couldn’t believe it. The whole place turned so sour so quickly: people didn’t know what to think.
But I was in the process of thinking about quitting to give my full focus to searching for another job, so when Linklaters said they would accept voluntary redundancies it was one of the best days of my life. I went in and said I would like to take part in this programme: that, ironically, was one of the best things that happened to me in terms of my career.
I was offered a nice financial cushion, and I thought that maybe I could sit the financial crisis out. I decided to do something more than swan around the globe, so I worked for a charity in South America teaching English to kids and coaching rugby.
It was an eight-month programme, so before it started I moved to San Diego and learned how to surf. Then I went to Venezuela, learned Spanish, made loads of friends, and while I was out there I managed to secure a role at Merrill Lynch. I’d worked with them at Linklaters and they remembered me.
How do law and banking compare?
It’s like chalk and cheese: the difference is phenomenal. In banking there’s a huge lack of support, or training, or a decent induction – you are very much thrown in the deep end and it’s sink or swim. It’s really daunting and very stressful – it was one of the hardest moments of my life, those first six months on the trading floor. I had leveraged my legal experience to get into a slightly more senior position so there was even more expectation on me.
I discovered that I knew far less about that side of banking than I thought I did. As a lawyer I’d worked in investment banking on the legal side but you still really have no idea what’s going on in the banking side. It was so scary, but the learning curve was so steep that I felt I learned more in my first six months than in my first two years at Linklaters.
The pressures are enormous. As a lawyer, the pressure is about working longer and longer hours; on the trading floor they work the hours of the market so it’s not so much about ever-longer hours at work, it’s about the quality of the work and keeping up with things as they move minute by minute. You have to digest large amounts of information very quickly, as opposed to law where you have a lot of information but more time to think about it.
It’s so much more fast-paced but it suited me a lot more. Once you get to the level of feeling competent the pressure eases a bit. It’s still there, much more than law, but for me it was much more rewarding. You get much more responsibility at an early stage, which I never felt in law, where you always feel someone is overseeing you. You move up gradually but you never feel like you’re being given that freedom. In banking you do get that responsibility straight away and if you screw up you simply lose your job. I actually really enjoyed it.
What skills as a lawyer helped you in banking?
I suppose when it came to anything that required a bit more considered thought I was better placed to help with that, and I think people on the desk recognised that. Having a decent intellect, which all lawyers do, will stand you in good stead.
Otherwise, it really is a very different skills set. It is more different than I even imagined. I moved on to the trading floor, and I suppose that is the biggest contrast you can get from law. If you are moving into structuring, that is probably the easiest move to make, as there is a lot more overlap.
What advice have you got for lawyers who want to make the switch to banking?
It really is a challenging move. People don’t give lawyers the credit they deserve in terms of their abilities – it’s very hard to shake the tag of being a lawyer. I was fortunate, but it took a year of contacting people – sometimes harassing people at times – to get them willing to meet with you. You have to really, really want it. I showed a real hunger and desire to be there. Ensure you really want it and be prepared to work hard to get it.
Where did your start-up business come from and how did you end up working full time on that?
While I was away in South America, another friend from law school and I discussed the idea of a proofreading tool for lawyers. One of the things I didn’t appreciate about law is that a lot of the mundane work has to be done. It’s important, but it seemed like it didn’t require a person with the abilities that lawyers have.
We wanted to create something to automate those processes. I was developing it the whole time I was in the bank, trying to meet a lot of the big law firms and show them the prototype.
It was becoming difficult to do. On the trading floor you don’t even get a lunch break, I was supposed to be doing my own independent learning on the banking side and getting this business off the ground at the same time. I couldn’t do both well. One of them was going to fail and I was struggling to keep going.
I had to choose to go with one or the other and I made the call that I could always come back to the City as a lawyer or on the banking side of things. I decided to make a go of this business and see if it worked out. I had always wanted to start my own business in the past, but never made a proper go of it, so this was my chance.
How did you develop the programme?
I certainly didn’t have a tech background. We found a very bright guy who was doing a PhD at Cambridge and a background at Microsoft, had time on his hands and needed a bit of cash. He developed the prototype, firms gave us feedback and wanted to try it out, and we realised it had the potential that we hoped it would.
We put some more cash in and got some more experienced developers on board to refine the product. Our area of expertise was the legal side and what lawyers would want the thing to look like, and the contacts that we have in the legal sector.
What did you learn from the development process, and what stage are you at now?
The one thing that stuck me initially was how long it all took. It was far slower than I had imagined – it’s quite a cliché these things never happen as quickly as you think it will, but even taking that into account I found after three months of doing it full time that it was not going to happen quick enough to sustain me.
I had to embark on other ways of making sufficient money to sustain me. I had 18 months to two years of trying to make ends meet – graduate coaching, tutoring, consultancy work – to keep going.
It wasn’t an easy time but it finally paid off and at the start of 2014 we raised our first bit of seed funding so that I could go full-time properly. That changed the business: I could give it my full efforts, we got out first major client on board a few months later and the momentum has continued since then.
We’ve got a staff of 11 or 12, have signed up some of the magic and silver circle firms and have recently signed up some of the US white shoe firms too.
We’re just about to open an office in New York. If I had to do it again I’d actually have tried to launch it in the US first. British law firms are much more risk averse. In the US they are keener to buy it and see how it goes, and will encourage entrepreneurial ventures. The US has now over overtaken the UK in terms of revenue generation for us.
What advice do you have for potential entrepreneurs?
Some advice that I’d have for anyone moving on to another career path – I think lawyers really undervalue their skill set. Banking is a difficult move, but for almost any other job, lawyers are extremely employable and they don’t realise it.
You can’t help but feel, ‘I’m just a lawyer, what other value can I bring?’ People really doubt themselves, but their core skills set is usually really good: organisation, work ethic, being diligent, dealing with an issue comprehensively – there are no half-arsed jobs when you’re in a top law firm.
They may just sound like soft skills, but those are the sort of things I really value now I am an employer myself. When you interview other people, you start to realise that not everyone has them. Having worked there, I know bankers can lack some of those key fundamental qualities that make a great employee.
The thing lawyers lack most is the appetite for risk. That’s the advice I would give – you really have to have the courage to take that step. I know a lot of lawyers who have ideas and they just don’t have enough… I don’t want to say they don’t have enough courage, but they really have to want it so much and be willing to sacrifice their job, or their free time outside of work, to get their business off the ground. Make something happen, don’t just talk about it.
But lawyers are extremely employable: you can always come back, the City is always going to be there.