Elizabeth Annys has worked in a large City firm, a small City firm, a regional firm on the south coast and has now been in her role as in-house banking solicitor at Coutts in London for the last three and a half years. We asked her about her moves and why she enjoys her current job so much.
mtl: Hi Elizabeth, please can you start from scratch with why you did law?
Elizabeth: I actually studied psychology at university with the original aim of qualifying as a clinical psychologist. However, during my degree I discovered that although studying psychology involved learning about, and research into, all the different psychological theories and methods, when it came to practise, you were usually governed by the rules and methods set by the hospital that you worked for. Unless you went into a purely research role I felt that there wasn’t much scope for forming your own views on which theories and methods were best to use.
Instead I wanted to do something where I could be a bit more creative and use my analytical skills at work. I investigated lots of careers and chose law as I felt I could potentially practise it anywhere in the country or even the world, and because there are many different areas within the discipline to choose from and specialise in. I did my CPE and LPC at The College of Law and then worked as a paralegal at Herbert Smith while I waited for my training contract to start. I was extremely lucky to be involved in some very interesting deals. I also gained trainee-type experience, which the Law Society allowed me to count towards my training contract to reduce it by 6 months.
I trained in the London office of a Scottish firm called Maclay Murray Spens. It was interesting to compare my experience there after seeing the life of a trainee at Herbert Smith. I was definitely able to get more involved in deals at MMS, with greater responsibility earlier on, and I probably learnt more in a shorter space of time, with the result that qualification wasn’t daunting. As the deals were smaller it was much easier to grasp the key issues, and see a deal from start to finish. However there were bigger and more exciting deals, more support for trainees and more of a social life at Herbert Smith, so there are pluses and minuses to both environments.
My training contract consisted of three different seats, and I wanted to qualify into the banking team. However the department was shifting back to Scotland, so I was offered a role in their London commercial litigation team. When I qualified in March 2004 I took the litigation role and then looked elsewhere for a banking role. I was set on becoming a banking solicitor, although the London market was not great at the time, and so I ended up moving to a firm in Bournemouth called Lester Aldridge.
mtl: Why did you make that move and how did you find working in a regional firm?
Elizabeth: I wanted to try working out of London (after hearing so much about how great it would be in various legal magazines etc!) where I would have a better quality of life and good hours. The firm I went to is a decent medium to large sized south coast firm, with reasonably good quality work and responsibility from an early stage. The work wasn’t as exciting as in London as the clients and deals were smaller but the quality of life was amazing. I had a great time living there with e.g. a flat two minutes from the beautiful sandy beach, and many fantastic places to visit like Studland, Sandbanks, Durdles Door and the New Forest very close by. I found people very friendly and there was a lot to do socially. The 10 minute commute was bliss! However I did take quite a big pay cut, and although the cost of living was less than London it still didn’t cover the cut in pay.
After a year I decided that I missed my friends and the buzz of London too much and I was in a long-distance relationship that involved driving up and down between London and Bournemouth at weekends. So I began to look for a role back in London. I was keen to go in-house to be closer to one client, rather than feeling slightly detached from a number of different clients. I had been lucky enough to spend some time seconded to a client while at Herbert Smith, and I had really enjoyed working so closely with the client.
In private practice you deal with the many different clients, all with different motivations, ethos and business plans, which means you can never really immerse yourself fully in understanding what the client wants (you simply don’t have time as you have so many different clients). I wanted to get more involved in these aspects of a client, and become part of just one business. Being in-house also enables you to see the outcomes of the legal advice you have given, and you have a vested interest in this as you are part of the organisation, rather than an external third party. I also thought that in-house work would give me a more varied workload and would avoid me being pigeon-holed into a specialism too early in my career.
mtl: What do you do now?
Elizabeth: I’m a banking solicitor (“Legal Counsel”) for Coutts Bank. I advise mainly on structuring and documenting commercial and private lending work but the role is varied and I can be asked all sorts of questions on subjects such as probate, procedures for divorcing / separating clients, client disputes, and media issues for our large commercial media banking team. I also advise on things such as new banking products, and any other projects or initiatives which the bank is involved in, including marketing, sponsorship and events. I also keep know-how within the legal team up to date, and act as training co-ordinator for the team to ensure that everyone takes full advantage of the training and update sessions that we are offered by external law firms, and those organised by other teams within the wider RBS Legal team (Coutts being part of the RBS Group).
I find the job very rewarding in terms of the type and variety of work I do and the level of responsibility that I have. It is hard work, and definitely not the “easy option” compared to private practice as some people might think. There are simply different pressures because although there are no hourly billing targets, you work very closely with your client, who is often demanding immediate assistance as they have a client at the end of the transaction, who is putting pressure on them. Coutts prides itself on providing a very high standard and bespoke service to Clients and we therefore need to work hard to ensure we uphold this when advising on matters.
Also, as we are in the same office as most of our internal clients, they will often walk up to our desks and stand over us waiting for an answer, which can become frustrating when you are trying to focus on another piece of work. However it is very important to forge strong and trustworthy relationships with our internal clients so you need to learn to be assertive, but also to handle these situations with tact so as not to alienate them – this is one of the most important skills I have learnt here.
We are expected to understand the bank and the way it works more than a private practice lawyer would have to and often have to provide input on issues that are not strictly legal e.g. policy and operational issues etc so the advice generally goes further than a private practice role. Having said that, the hours are better and I rarely work past 6pm unless it is essential. There is no culture or expectation of being in the office late to prove you are working hard. The money is slightly less than in private practice but is still good, and there are lots of other benefits, as well as the shorter hours. The fact I can get home to my new husband and spend the evening with him, or arrange to meet friends or go to the gym without having to cancel at the last minute because of work is priceless in my mind.
Coutts is a very interesting bank with some fascinating clients and it keeps the work exciting, especially when a well known name stumbles across my desk. The clients usually want bespoke solutions so we get to be creative and provide input on creating new structures and solutions, particularly in the commercial lending world. There is also a real family atmosphere at Coutts – people are treated very well and are happy which is shown by the fact that many people stay at Coutts for their entire career. I have managed to build some excellent relationships with some relatively senior people here, some of whom I would go so far as to call friends now.
We also have the advantage of being part of a much larger organisation (RBS) which means we are part of a very large ‘Group Legal’ team. There is a real drive to share knowledge and build contacts across the Group Legal community, so in some ways it’s like working for a large law firm, with all the advantages of working in-house as mentioned above. RBS is a real advocate of work-life balance and looking after its employees, and as a result I would say that it is a family-friendly company. There are a number of female lawyers in particular who have come back from maternity leave on a phased-back basis, and then changed their hours to part-time to accommodate their family life, which is very encouraging as I am expecting my first baby next June. I feel fully supported by RBS in this and am confident that it will not affect my career.
mtl: Who do you think a role such as yours would suit?
Elizabeth: I think you need to be fairly thick-skinned and assertive in some respects and prepared to stand up for yourself and the legal position when approached by the business. Clients often don’t like the legal advice you are giving so you have to explain the position even if it is not popular and then stick to your guns regardless of the pressure put upon you to change your view.
You are ultimately a risk function however, so also have to learn to be commercial when you apply the law and then advise on the legal risks and their potential impact. In some cases it is simply advising the Bank what the risks are if they don’t follow the legal advice, and allowing the business to come to a decision as to which route to follow. You need to learn to think outside the box while ensuring the legal risks are covered. I think you learn this skill over time and from more experienced colleagues, and we are also provided with a great deal of cross department training being part of RBS Group Legal which helps with sharing experience and knowledge.
You also need to be able to take responsibility for your own career progression as there aren’t always the natural steps to follow as there are in private practice. I think you have to push yourself forward if you want to progress, for example, by becoming a manager of a legal team. I currently line manage one of the secondees from an external firm that we have working with us which is a step in the right direction.
Equally though, if you aren’t interested in management you are not classed as a less successful lawyer. There is no pressure to move to a management role in the same way that there is pressure to progress to partnership. The pay structure is quite different to private practice as it is not automatic to go up a band based on your level of qualification. We are assessed on our yearly performance and what our job role is, and as we don’t have hourly targets we have to prove our worth by what we do on a daily basis against performance measures that are set at the beginning of the year for each individual lawyer.
mtl: Do you have any tips on in-house work generally?
Elizabeth: The fact that the client is so close is a very real pressure, so be aware of this, and of the fact that some people within the business won’t know how to use their lawyers effectively, which can be frustrating at times. Think about the potential lack of clear career progression and whether this will bother you. There is also not the same level of administrative support as in private practice e.g. typing and photocopying.
On the positive side, there is a very steep learning curve at the start of an in-house career which is challenging and exciting (if not slightly daunting at times!) and as a result I feel like I have progressed a huge amount as a lawyer in the last few years. I don’t think you cut yourself off from going back to private practice either by taking an in-house role and in fact it is great experience which could potentially make you stand out from lawyers who have only worked in private practice.
You learn what is really important to an organisation, particularly what is important in terms of legal support, and you work with people at a fairly high level of seniority within the organization. This is very rewarding, and can potentially help you build up contacts for the future which would be very useful should you decide to return to private practice.
mtl: Thanks for your time Elizabeth.
1996 - 1999
Psychology BSc, University of London (Royal Holloway)
1999 - 2001
CPE and LPC, College of Law, Guildford
2001 - 2002
Paralegal, Herbert Smith
2002 - 2004
Trainee and assistant, Maclay Murray Spens
2004 - 2005
Banking assistant, Lester Aldridge, Bournemouth
Legal Counsel, Coutts