Laura Brunnen, a former City law firm partner and private equity specialist, shares her story of how two LinkedIn posts inspired her to finally quit ‘big law’ and set up her own legal consultancy business.
Around this time 21 years ago, I was gearing up to start my training contract at Slaughter and May. I was totally clueless and look back now, cringing at how naive I was back then.
Fast forward to summer 2020, and I was still clueless but also miserable. I’d been a law firm partner for nearly a decade and was neck deep in trying to keep my deals afloat, whilst supporting my associates, home schooling my two sons (then aged 6 and 8) and keeping the home fires burning as my anaesthetist husband performed on empty running a busy intensive care unit caring for the most critically ill Covid-19 patients.
Wow – I feel tired just writing that.
I was the first in my family to go to university and ended up at Cambridge. I only applied because my boyfriend did. Mystifyingly, I got an offer and he didn’t. After graduating with a degree in History, I really didn’t know what to do next. I was very shy and introverted and hadn’t made the most of my time at Cambridge, mainly hiding away in my room or going to the cinema when I wasn’t at lectures.
Before completing my undergrad studies I half-heartedly did the whole “milk round” with the investment banks but remained clueless. Then, an old school friend was about to start the Legal Practice Course and I thought, oo, law, that sounds ok. Mind made up, I promptly got out a loan and secured myself a place on a law conversion course.
A flurry of applications later (to the firms still accepting trainees for summer 2000) I bagged a spot with Slaughters. After qualifying with the high-profile City law firm, I stayed on for another five years before eventually being lured away by the influx of US law firms and their snazzy ways in the Square Mile. I spent just over two years at Kirkland & Ellis, learning all about private equity and then left for the smaller, friendlier Fried Frank, where in 2011 I became the first associate to be made up to partner in London for five years.
Following a short (disastrous) sojourn at legacy firm SJ Berwin/KWM 1.0 (RIP) before its ignominious insolvency, I joined Reed Smith as part of a team move in early 2017.
Back to summer 2020. I knew something wasn’t right and found it harder and harder to do things like BD. It was totally stressing me out but I wasn’t sure why. I was so tunnel visioned it proved impossible to see the wood for the trees and what else I could do other than churn out even more deals. I felt trapped.
In the end, it was two chance encounters, or rather, LinkedIn posts that led me down a new and exciting path. Plus I must give the pandemic a shout-out because under normal circumstances I certainly wouldn’t have been brave enough to jump ship and quit big law practice without that extra kick up my backside.
The first LinkedIn post was one from a client about his wife’s business. It looked interesting so I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and had a Zoom coffee with her. She pointed me in the direction of a brand coach who was running a series of free online sessions.
On the very first session my coach said: “The reason you’re not happy is because what you’re doing isn’t aligned with your values”.
I’m not spiritual or “woo” but it felt like a bomb went off in my head after hearing this. Suddenly all became crystal clear. I was unhappy because I simply no longer believed in my work or indeed why I was doing it. Many contacts often told me told I was “refreshingly different” and “normal” for a corporate lawyer and indeed for a partner. Even so, I was tired of having to quash my personality and do things I didn’t agree with because someone more senior and powerful decided I had to.
The second was seeing a comment on a post made by Phil Sanderson, former head of private equity at Travers Smith and Ropes & Gray and now an executive coach. I’d never been on a deal with him and every time Phil was mentioned in the legal press it was all “PE heavyweight Phil Sanderson” and, frankly, he sounded a bit intimidating. Nevertheless, feeling undeterred I set up an initial meeting with him and we got on like a house on fire.
Phil encouraged me to slow down and look more closely at what I enjoy doing and how that aligns with my skills. He made me see that I’d been on a conveyor belt – school, university, law school, training contract, associate, partner and I’d never taken the time to properly consider whether that was the right path for me.
I enjoy problem-solving, teaching, simplifying complex ideas and / or concepts, straight-talking and doing things with integrity. Question was, how to combine that into a viable business? Meanwhile, one of my core values is fairness and I want people to feel the freedom I now enjoy running my own business. And so, it came to pass that Laura Brunnen, The Legal Strategist, was born. A business aimed at giving people more control of what they do and how and when they do it.
Alongside my 1:1 legal consulting work I’m building an online 1: to many programme, to raise awareness of legal issues and to bring straight-talking pragmatic advice to as many people as possible, not just big corporates with deep pockets.
The response has been phenomenal. Tonnes of people have contacted me to find out how we can collaborate or to tell me about their own entrepreneurial stories.
Take it from me, it’s never too late to slow down, take stock of what you’re doing and change direction.
Laura qualified at Slaughter and May in 2002 as a corporate M&A solicitor, made partner in 2011 and founded Laura Brunnen The Legal Strategist in July 2021.