Stephan Ford trained at Freshfields, was a partner at Eversheds for nine years and now teaches property and debt finance on the LPC at BPP in Waterloo. We asked him about his career and how he found the move out of private practice.
mtl: Hi, please can you tell us about your career in private practice?
Stephan: I trained at Freshfields, including a six month seat in Paris. I qualified into the property department as I enjoyed the work and the people were friendly. When I was 15 months qualified, my wife and I decided that we had had enough of life in London, so we “emigrated” to Yorkshire. I joined a firm in Leeds that later merged with Eversheds, and was made a partner in 1997.
In 2003 I went on secondment to the Paris office of Eversheds for a year and in 2004 I moved to the London office. I had been there for about 18 months when I decided to throw in the towel and look for something else.
The immediate reason for this decision was the break-up of my marriage while I was in Paris, which led to some time off work while I dealt with depression. In retrospect though, I don’t think that I was ultimately the right personality type for a highly pressured job in a big City firm. The warning signs had been there for a while and eventually the pressure and stress, particularly of business development, did get to me. I had said to a number of people over the years that my self-confidence was being eroded by the job and the market I worked in. In retrospect, I think that these feelings were early signs of potential problems with stress/depression.
Although I enjoyed the work, I was told by a number of senior partners on several occasions during my career that if you don’t get up and really want to come into work then you shouldn’t be doing the job. Now I finally understand that. Comparing my previous job, which I did enjoy up to a point, to a job like the one I have now, which I love, is extraordinary. My career as a partner was tied up with family though and it would have been very difficult to leave it while still married, due to the huge pay differential and the lifestyle that we led.
mtl: So what options did you consider when you decided to leave Eversheds?
Stephan: I considered a variety of options and Eversheds paid for careers advice for me, so I saw a consultant a few times. Possibilities which I considered included: private practice in a much smaller firm; being a PSL; going in-house, possibly with a charity; being a Parliamentary draftsman; looking for a quasi-judicial appointment; or teaching. Some options were obviously more feasible than others.
I thought quite hard about being a PSL and I am sure that there would have been opportunities to do this, but I was not sure that I wanted to make that kind of work a full-time career and, although the pay would have been much better than teaching, I felt that I wanted to be completely out of a commercial, pressured environment. I had discussions with a small firm but decided that I didn’t want the client pressure anymore either. A friend of mine put me in touch with someone at BPP and it went from there.
mtl: Did you find it hard to make the shift?
Stephan: I started at BPP after a one-week induction course designed to equip me for a classroom. My new wife spent four years training to be a teacher, so she found this amusing. It was certainly the best training I have ever had though. It was remarkable what we learnt, how much we learnt, and how we learnt it. We spent the week doing role plays and teaching. I noticed that not one word of criticism was spoken to anyone, which was mind-blowing coming from the competitive and critical environment of private practice.
The culture here is very much one of team work. The atmosphere is positive and supportive, which is so important, and one of the major reasons why I enjoy the job so much. Everyone wants their colleagues to do well and to get the most out of the students.
There was obviously some mental adjustment required to go from being a partner in a huge practice to being just another lecturer at BPP. Occasionally I get frustrated that I can’t make things happen in quite the same way as I could at Eversheds, but it is a minor issue overall, against all the positive aspects of having moved, including the basic fact that teaching is fun.
mtl: Please can you describe a typical day...
Stephan: There will be one or more teaching sessions. These can be small group sessions for two hours with a maximum of 18 students, where the knowledge from the lectures and the reading is applied through practical exercises. We strive hard to make these classes student-centred i.e. about the students really learning rather than just us standing at the front teaching, so we ask a lot of questions to elicit responses. Lectures are for about 100 students and last an hour. In the lectures, we aim to introduce a topic, give structure to the students to aid their learning, and explain some of the more complex areas.
When not teaching, we work in an open plan office preparing for our next sessions, which is pretty time-consuming. We also review sessions and give comments to the designer of the session about what worked and what didn’t, as courses are revised all the time. There is also some admin to do. The hours I work are about 8:30am – 6:00pm if I am busy, and 9:00am – 5:00pm if less so. It is worth adding that, even when I am busy, I am not under pressure in the same way as I was in practice. There is the opportunity to volunteer to teach additional sessions in the evenings and at weekends and this is paid on top of the normal salary.
There is no career path as such at BPP, though you can add on responsibilities as they crop up. For example, I am the property co-ordinator, so I make sure materials are ready, preview and review the sessions and pass on comments to other tutors in Waterloo. It is generally much less hierarchical than private practice.
mtl: Do you miss private practice?
Stephan: Apart from the money?! Occasionally I miss the buzz of the commercial world – doing real deals that are going on out there - but overall, no. Being a partner in a top firm gave me knowledge and skills though that are very useful and I wouldn’t have acquired them if I had left practice years earlier.
mtl: What sort of person would suit this role?
Stephan: You do need to be someone who likes working in a team environment and who isn’t a hierarchical person.
You need a reasonable grasp of the black letter law and a degree of academic interest, though the class content is given to you on a plate really. Teaching requires empathy and a concern for others as your job is to help the students to learn and this comes across in the classroom when you are dealing with small groups. You also need the ability to communicate well at a variety of levels.
mtl: What would you recommend thinking about before making the switch to teaching?
Stephan: 1) Could you cope on the money and make the necessary practical adjustments to your lifestyle? 2) Would you really enjoy the teaching role i.e. standing up in front of small groups of students and encouraging them to learn? 3) Is kudos important to you and can you handle the loss of some of it?
mtl: Do you think it is possible to go back to private practice from lecturing?
Stephan: Yes, I think there is a period of a few years when it is fairly easy to go back, either as a fee-earner or as a PSL. Any longer than that and I imagine it would be hard to make the step back to the pressure. People do seem to step out from private practice and teach for a year or two while they re-evaluate their lives. So it can be used as a career break or a step off the treadmill to reassess what you want while you decide whether to go back. Not that I have any plans at the moment to go back myself!
mtl: Do you have any advice for lawyers who are questioning whether private practice is for them?
Stephan: Try not to get trapped by your job, and by that I mean the feeling that you have no alternatives – there are lots out there. It is easy to get swept up with the pressure and it feels very hard to get off the treadmill.
You can also get very used to the lifestyle – depending whether you are the sort of person who needs an Aston Martin! If you leave you will need to think differently about your income and how to spend it. Lots of people in the big firms are turned on by the money. I expect that a lot of entrants to the profession don’t realise what life is really like when you get to partnership level. The people that are successful are very ambitious, don’t need much guidance and pastoral support, are often focussed on the money, and are very tough mentally (and physically too, to cope with the hours). It is no longer enough to be just a good lawyer as you also need to be very good at business development and winning new clients.
So, have a serious think about what it takes to succeed in private practice and look at whether you have got what it takes and whether you want what comes with it i.e. the money, pressure, hours and all of that. Do you have the drive to get new clients all the time? Some people are cut out for that kind of career and others aren’t. I had the intellectual capability to do the job but not the right kind of motivation, drive and toughness. This is not about self-criticism or looking at yourself as a failure – it is about being self-aware and aligning your skills and personality with your chosen career. If you don’t match them, you will find it hard to be happy in and satisfied by your work.
mtl: Thank you very much for your time Stephan.
Law degree, Magdalene College, Cambridge
LLM at Tübingen University, Germany
Law Society Finals
Training Contract at Freshfields
Partner at Eversheds
Left Eversheds and moved to BPP