Steve Ward with his pet dog.

Steve Ward, partner, Squire Patton Boggs

Guest blogger and funds lawyer Steve Ward explains the importance of proactively managing your career path rather than simply waiting for things to happen. For more tips on how to progress from associate to partner read on!

If moving house was seen to be inadvisable during a pandemic, surely leaving the firm you’d spent years at and moving to become a partner and set up a practice at another firm would be considered madness. As it turns out, I did both.

I had been with my prior firm approaching three years when the pandemic struck. I’d got on well with clients, colleagues, had had fantastic trainees, been referenced in Legal 500 and Chambers but had felt pretty soon after joining that this was not the correct “cultural fit” for me. The pandemic had given me the opportunity (and space) to lift my head and reflect on what I wanted from my future career. I’d always known I wanted to be a partner – the question became where, when and how?

My previous firm had no formal “partnership track”. The firm had been active in the lateral partner recruitment market but there did not seem to me to be any real structure around promotion or mentoring of internal talent. I had a choice – continue to roll the boulder uphill alone or consider a move. I’d always told myself that the point at which I was in a firm or doing law solely for the cash was the time I needed to get out. That point had come.

I knew that having a transatlantic presence was important – funds is such a global industry that having strong US regulatory and tax support is vital. I also knew that going somewhere with strong corporate and real estate practices was necessary. At this stage I began talking to a couple of firms about a potential move (either counsel or partner) – one through a recruiter and one through a contact I knew at said firm. Neither were US “heritage” firms but both had a strong transatlantic presence and existing funds practices. Meeting countless partners via Zoom whilst also trying to work remotely and support a group of juniors was certainly an interesting experience!

More than anything, I was acutely focused on the culture of the firms I was speaking to. The 24-year old me would never had considered “culture” as a factor in terms of selecting a place to work – frankly, coming from a working class background where my family didn’t have huge amounts of cash had led me to veer towards US firms so that I might one day be able to afford a flat! The 33-year old me was fixated on culture – I’d seen previously how destructive internal politics could be and knew that whilst no law firm is perfect I wanted to be at one where it felt people were rowing in the same direction.

As it turns out, I joined neither of those firms. An old colleague of mine from my training contract had recently left another US heritage firm to join Squires on the private equity M&A side, so I reached out to him to pick his brains and seek some advice. He encouraged me to speak to Squires. Whilst initially sceptical (the firm did not have a funds practice in Europe), a number of conversations with partners from around the network (from the UK, Australia, the US etc.) and across multiple practice areas convinced me that this was a firm that promoted talent early (and nurtured it) and that whilst I would be setting up a practice from scratch, I wouldn’t be doing it alone. So far both of these statements ring resoundingly true.

Months after I started discussions with Squires, I accepted the offer to join as a partner. Interestingly enough, I was out walking my dog over Walthamstow Marshes and met someone from Squires who was also walking their dog – sneakily, I didn’t mention that I had been in discussion with Squires but the feedback I got on the firm convinced me that this was the right decision. My parents are from Cumbria and joke that I joined the firm because I heard so many northern accents during the joining process from our Leeds and Manchester offices (not completely the case but also not not the case either).

For what it is worth, here’s some of the key things I learnt in this process:

  1. Cultivate mentors – I’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of people over the years who have been great mentors and sounding boards (even when we have been at different firms (Michelle Moran from K&L Gates and Bronwen Jones at Reed Smith come to mind)). I have also worked for some partners who have shown scant (if any) interest in developing their associates (something I believe that was exacerbated during the lockdown in which many senior lawyers simply went MIA). Too often I find that associates assume that the partner they work for will have their back/guide them – this isn’t the case – be critical of your relationships and seek out mentors in and outside your firm.
  2. Be pro-active in managing your career – law can sometimes seem like a conveyor belt and many people seem to think things will “just happen”. Mentors can be hugely helpful but ultimately no one is going to manage your career apart from you. As a junior associate, I remember being quiet and volunteering to help a funds regulatory partner who had joined the firm without any associates – a large proportion of my work now (and over the last few years) has been in the regulatory sphere, which has given me an advantage as a funds lawyer.

Check in with yourself – ask yourself – am I doing the work I want to be doing? Am I getting stuck in a rut? Do the people I work for value and want to invest in my career? If the answer is no, it is likely you need to make a change (rather than wait on others to change).

  1. Value your relationships and nurture them from an early stage – Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are relationships. Don’t think of business development as something that (a) only matters from 5 years PQE+; or (b) is just focused on external people. Don’t be afraid to “have a laugh” with clients – people like working with people they like. Law is a relationship business and is actually a very small world.
  2. Look after your juniors – by far the best part of being a senior lawyer is developing junior talent. I have been lucky to have had a number of fantastic trainees – a large proportion of which I am still in regular contact with. Build people up, develop and invest in them and they will repay that investment. A number of my former juniors are in-house and post-move have been incredibly supportive and helpful in terms of launching my practice. Cultivate mentors but also cultivate others by being a mentor to them.