Tom Randell started his career as a securities and capital markets solicitor at Linklaters. He is now a director of a strategic, financial and business communications consultancy, based in the City of London but operating internationally. It focuses on managing and protecting the reputations of its clients. Tom works with a number of domestic and international listed and private companies and we spoke to him to find out how he got here….
mtl: Hi Tom, tell us why you did law and why you have left it behind?
Tom: I studied politics at LSE. When I graduated I couldn’t decide what to do next, so another two years as a student in London seemed very appealing. Being a lawyer was socially acceptable, well paid, and I liked to think it would make me look clever. After being courted by a law firm like Linklaters, the offer of a job seemed almost too good to be true.
My first serious thoughts about not doing law were when I was a trainee on secondment in New York. I wrote an article about the firm’s Christmas party and after reading it my supervisor asked me whether I had considered being a journalist. I’m not sure if she thought my article was funny, or whether she was basically telling me that I was a rubbish lawyer, but in a roundabout way it made me think about my career.
I got engaged while I was a trainee in New York and came back to London as a qualified solicitor in the capital markets department. I realised that for a legal career to pay-off, I would have to stay for the long-haul and this was a very serious decision to make. I also felt that the people around me worked far too many hours and that, though the work was often interesting, it wasn’t interesting enough to justify this sacrifice. I looked at what my colleagues were doing – even the partners at the top of the tree - and realised that it would be important to move sooner rather than later.
I stayed for a year, at which point I got married and my wife moved from New York to London to go to drama school. My plan when I resigned was to go to journalism school. I took four weeks of holiday, while still at Linklaters, to do work placements at newspapers. However, a couple of weeks before my wedding, somebody suggested PR to me, as they thought it would suit me, and arranged a meeting for me at Brunswick (another corporate communications firm in London).
After several interviews there I was offered a job the day before I flew to New York to get married. I decided to take it rather than going to journalism school. With a proper job to return to I could afford to book a honeymoon for after my wedding – which I did straight after accepting the job offer and before flying off to get married.
Brunswick took me on at the tail end of the M&A boom at the turn of the century. They were looking for someone who had some knowledge of the process of IPOs and takeovers, so my legal background really helped me get in.
I had fascinating clients, it was a very interesting environment to work in and I stayed there for about a year. After leaving Brunswick, I moved to Merlin, which has similar clients but in a much smaller office and with a stronger team ethos. In financial PR you can find yourself working for big complex clients, with global issues that get them on the front pages, even in a boutique agency. One thing that makes my job interesting is having clients that I see people reading about in the papers.
As a lawyer at Linklaters, I was often buried in my work and indifferent to what was going on in the business news beyond, and why. I was only vaguely aware of the PR people being involved in deals – in my experience people who sent out press releases – that us lawyers had failed to stop. Now I think I have a much better idea of why companies are doing what they do and the significance of the changes that get announced. For example, as a junior lawyer working on a huge prospectus, you worry about e.g. the punctuation. Now I concentrate on what is maybe the one page of the most interesting information about that prospectus – and how to explain it over lunch or in a phone call to a rushed journalist.
mtl: So what does financial PR involve?
Tom: I start the day by looking at the papers and seeing what has been written about my clients. You certainly have to like reading the papers for pleasure to enjoy this job. There is a daily timetable for things that need to be done as a matter of course e.g. getting a particular story into tomorrow’s newspapers, and also an immediate timetable for whatever has just happened.
On a daily basis I have client announcements, lots of meetings with clients and journalists and I am always planning how to get my clients’ messages across. You also need early warning systems to deal with problems, to be able to respond to a crisis and to keep your clients out of the papers where relevant. Law and PR are both about writing and in both you are advocating your client’s position, though I’ve found in PR that the relationship with the client seems much more immediate.
I’ve personally found PR to be more creative than law as there are always several competing ways to reach the same goal. We also try to be positive and proactive rather than reactive – which contrasts with a lot of work as a lawyer.
Like in the law, to be good at this job, you have to be able to juggle lots of balls as there is never just one client to deal with. You have to be good at analysing a situation, assimilating a lot of information, understanding the key messages in a brief, trying to get people to act, convincing clients of a particular strategy, and selling their story to journalists.
Like law, there can be a lot of pressure to get it right (and there are high penalties if you don’t) but lawyers will generally find this familiar. Generally there is a lot more chance to get home at a reasonable hour in PR and I frequently leave at 6:30pm. Of course there are sometimes long hours, but that depends on what is happening.
mtl: Do you have any tips for lawyers thinking of a career change?
Tom: I think that people are often afraid to leave law because they worry that they will be shown up outside what they see as the protective environment of a law firm. But I think lawyers as a group are an incredibly competent bunch who could do so many other things. Like Brits going to America and doing well there, lawyers often do very well in other jobs e.g. hedge funds and banks, as law teaches people to seek out the causes of things and not to be superficial. Be prepared to miss the unique, professional culture of a law firm though.
Work out what you like doing most. Ask as many people as you can what they think you might be good at, as they might come up with something you hadn’t thought of. Also, speak to your fellow lawyers as they have extensive contacts outside of law. For example I got my placements at two papers in London through colleagues at Linklaters.
When I made the jump, I followed the people I worked with and learnt on the job rather than having formal training. Having a professional City background definitely helped though, both in getting into this area and being able to thrive in it. I am glad I made the change sooner rather than later as I have two kids now and I am sure it gets harder to leave every year.
mtl: Would you do anything differently if you had your time again?
Tom: I have no regrets. I think that law is a good preparation for virtually any job. I think I may have regretted staying any longer though.
Whereas I was not passionate about becoming a lawyer, I am passionate about what I do now. It is enjoyable and doesn’t always feel like work. I get a real buzz from it which keeps me going if I am tired. It is fun to see something that I have had a hand in appear in the newspaper. People don’t realise what goes into a story - business news is the product of lots of people thinking about that story on every side – some trying to encourage it and some trying to stop it. It is more than just a journalist thinking about what to write every morning.
mtl: Thanks very much Tom.
LSE - politics
LPC - College of Law
Training contract at Linklaters
Left Linklaters to go to Brunswick
Moved to Merlin
Appointed director at Merlin