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My career story: “I worked at Freshfields for 33 years – now I’m a career coach”

Written by: Richard Simmons
Published on: 29 Feb 2016

My career story article

Tony Besse is a business coach and director of the graduate job preparation business Interview Advantage. He was previously a lawyer at Freshfields for 33 years, including 22 as a partner.

What’s your background?

I’m probably one of the last of a breed – I stayed with one firm the whole of my career. I was at Freshfields for 33 years, although the firm evolved so much while I was there and I moved around different offices, so it was a little bit like having several different careers.

I was a finance lawyer. I got to do some very interesting and complex structured finance work – high-octane stuff. Then the recession came and I became a restructuring lawyer – I was lead adviser to Eurotunnel, for example.

I realised when I was doing this that it was taking a lot out of me and there was a lot I still wanted to do with my life. So I’m now a recovering lawyer.

You now coach lawyers, among other things – why did you choose to do that?

When I left Freshfields I decided I wasn’t going to practice law, but clearly law was in my blood. I do a fair amount in law firms on the people side.

I really like working with people, and with small groups of people in particular. I get a sense of fulfilment from building trust. In law firms the ethos can often be that you are as good as what you bring in, and admitting vulnerability is not really high on the agenda. I felt that all the lessons I’ve learned in my career and that I’ve stored up would have gone to waste if I didn’t share them.

How difficult was it to adapt and become a restructuring lawyer after the crunch? Have you any advice for lawyers who want or need to change practices?

When you work as a lawyer, you will always have a core of experience. That will always enable you to retool in a relatively simple way and do other stuff. The leap from becoming a structured finance lawyer to a restructuring wasn’t that great because my core of experience was finance.

So there are always have skills as a lawyer that will enable you to retool into a new area relatively easily, it’s a question of whether it’s something you will enjoy doing.

If you are a young lawyer not getting the work you want, you should ask why that is and what is you would like to do? Once you’ve answered that, be assertive and have a constructive discussion with your manager where your talents and real ambitions could best be used. Ask yourself: what are your strengths and have you made sure you’ve told your boss what those strengths are and how they can be best used elsewhere?

Part of the problem is that firms don’t have an ingrained feedback culture where people talk to each others.

What I have seen more and more is the use of coaching at an associate level. That’s helpful, because it helps associates think about themselves and how they can best evolve, without having to go through that process just at the annual appraisal, or in a distorted relationship with colleagues who put strain on them on a daily basis.

You talked earlier about it being hard to admit vulnerability as a lawyer…

Law firms are strange organisations in that your ability to become a partner or move up the partnership ladder is dependant on ability to bring in clients and revenue. It’s every man for himself, to some extent tempered by people working in teams, but at the end of the day it’s very much about what you bring in.

When people are remunerated and regarded for what they bring in, you’re not going to want to say to people, ‘I need help’ – it just doesn’t fit with the way lawyers do things. The idea of getting help doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. You can go to your next-door partner and they can give you superficial help on a point of law, but on something that really reveals your vulnerability it’s harder.

I honestly believe lawyers would be so much better off if they were a little bit less worried about talking to each other. I do admit that’s not that easy to do Coaching helps and as a coach who’s also practised I’m sometimes better placed to understand what the issues are, but I don’t have any magical solutions.

But talking helps, not in a touchy-feely way, but just being honest and saying ‘There’s an issue here and I could do with help.’

Is poor communication really such an issue?

Thinking about how other people think or feel or react is something that lawyers are not good at. Firms are becoming more international as a result of recent mergers. It would be helpful if people were more cognisant of different ways of doing things in other offices and countries. Law firms could do more to try and get people to talk to each other at the beginning of a big deal, for example, and plan it together and how their involvement is going to come together.

It’s basic project management – lawyers don’t do that. The partner who manages the deal will run with it and weeks later will suddenly say ‘We’ve got to get the tax lawyers involved.’ By that time it may be way too late…

You also coach students – what’s the biggest misconception students still have about the legal profession?

Yes, one of the main things I do is Interview Advantage, a company I founded with a lady called Kate Harris, who was graduate recruitment director at BCG. We are aimed at high-quality graduates, but we also do a lot of pro bono work locally in the Oxford area.

I wouldn’t say there a universal set of misunderstandings; however I suspect people going into a career in law don’t necessarily understand the variety of different firms that are out there in the market.

Law is like a coral reef – if you look at it even slightly closely it’s made up of myriad different things, and there is always a niche for you. Big firms themselves are like coral reefs, with lots of different department and ways of doing things, and different cultures even between teams. It’s important to understand there is an infinite variety of things you can do.

That is a heartening thought. The large firms are not simply big identical factories where all you have to be is tough and resilient.

What tips would you give to people attempting to get into law today?

When you’ve got you head down and are concentrating on your academic qualifications, there’s a lot of pressure just to focus on that. A large percentage of students don’t look outwards to the world and don’t necessarily engage in order to find out what the opportunities are, what they could do, how the machinery ticks, what law firms are looking for in terms of clients skills. Firms are not looking for people who can do back room work so much as people who can bring in clients.

You need to ask, what are the skills I need to develop to be out there engaged with the world and with people?