Ben White spent seven years at Clifford Chance before going in-house. He now runs a site called Crafty Counsel which he describes as TED Talks for lawyers. His videos give you expert advice on how to do your job and develop yourself professionally.
mtl: Hi Ben, please can you tell us about your career in private practice?
Ben: After studying history, I did a two year Masters in Chinese Studies before converting to law and joining Clifford Chance. I thought that joining a Magic Circle firm would give me options and good experience. I qualified into corporate as I enjoyed the work, liked the team and could see the trajectory of technical skills that I would acquire over time. I was fortunate to work with partners who gave me a good level of client contact and responsibility, so I was able to learn a lot in a short space of time. The downside of this was that the job could be very stressful, but that comes with the territory.
mtl: Why did you decide to move in-house and what role did you take?
Ben: While I was at Clifford Chance, I did a nine month secondment to the UK Government’s corporate finance team, which I enjoyed. The experience gave me an idea of what an in-house role would be like, although I knew I wanted to stay in the private sector. I worked on structuring the sale of part of the Government’s student loan portfolio and enjoyed being part of a dynamic team with more of a decision-making role.
I was always pretty open-minded about my career and knew I wanted to try something other than private practice. I was aware that in-house roles cover every industry and type of organisation and that there could be huge variety, so I wanted to be careful about which role I took. Over time I began to look for something quite niche and connected to startups but that also combined corporate work with a global business.
A role came up at Global Fashion Group, a startup set up by Rocket Internet, a well-known German incubator and so-called ‘startup factory’, that seemed a good fit. The model was to bring mainstream fashion brands to emerging markets through e-commerce. I spent two years there and learnt a lot, particularly as I joined at a point when the company was going through considerable transformation. My role was Corporate Counsel reporting to the General Counsel and I also covered M&A, venture capital fundraising and some degree of investor relations. I enjoyed working in a different environment with the various branches of the business including software engineers, fashion buyers and tax specialists and obtaining new skills in startup financing.
I felt that my experience at Clifford Chance had prepared me well for the technical side of the role and I also had useful soft skills from having had a variety of different clients in private practice. However, there was a certain lack of infrastructure in-house for resources and training. This was brought into focus when another lawyer joined and I had to explain that we were entirely on our own on that front.
mtl: Tell us about Crafty Counsel…
Ben: I’ve always wanted to start my own business but my ideas were often pipe dreams and unrelated to my own experience. However the lack of resources in-house prompted me to write a blog collating which law firm talks and seminars were happening where and when and how to register for them. This blog gained some traction and I soon decided to turn the idea into a website providing a more general service to in-house lawyers.
In October 2017 Crafty Counsel was born and I added my first videos to the site, with the help of various friends (including Rosie Collins, our creative director and film maker) and acquaintances. I began to spend more and more time on the site until I realised that I had to commit to either doing it full-time or close it down and focus on an in-house career, as spending the time and mental energy on both wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t really an option to close down the site though as I was enjoying it so much, so I recently left Global Fashion Group to focus on Crafty Counsel.
The site’s focus is on in-house Counsel and aims to remedy the lack of Learning & Development resources that they may encounter. We produce high quality, helpful, short videos which I describe as TED Talks for lawyers. We do the filming ourselves and feature specialists and General Counsels talking sincerely about something that they are passionate about and expert in.
These videos fill a gap between law firm marketing materials and more wordy Practical Law articles. The topics cover technical issues such as data protection as well as personal development (e.g. soft skills, negotiation, career development and managing teams). We are sector-agnostic, although there has been a slight weighting towards Tech. We currently have 80 videos and plan to pick topics and then approach the best people to talk about them. There is an M&A series in the pipeline. My aim is to produce weekly videos that in-house lawyers see as a regular and reliable resource.
mtl: What have been some of the highs and lows so far?
Ben: I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my professional career! I love creating something that is my own and it is exciting to have gone through the process of turning a vision into reality. The creative side of me was on ice for over ten years and I’d neglected the fact that I loved directing plays at university. I’m enjoying thinking visually again and feel like I’m combining directing, journalism and law now. I’m using many of the skills that I learnt as a lawyer but in a different way. I understand the legal content but without practising at the moment.
I’m fortunate that my wife acts as my friendly critic and is bringing in her strategy background with meetings concerning metrics and KPIs (!). So many friends have been generous with their time, expertise, enthusiasm and networking in helping me and that has been a real joy - I’m so grateful to them.
Some of the challenges I’ve encountered include dealing with how other people view my career change, the financial risk involved (moving away from a regular salary) and the more general lack of predictability as to where the future will take the business.
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Ben: We lawyers are generally a risk averse breed, which can be helpful if it is well-framed. For example, when considering the risk and cost of leaving a job, it is helpful to consider the risk and cost of staying too. I would suggest being very analytical when starting a business. Give yourself metrics covering time and money and consider the worst case scenario and what you would do at that point. For me, I would take the experience of running this business and happily get another in-house role, or perhaps a role in venture capital or another startup - I now have more of a sense of what sort of job I could do next.
Click here for examples of Crafty Counsel videos.
Click here to buy a book that Ben recommends on setting up your own business, which pushes the idea of learning by doing.
Click below for some useful resources on setting up your own business.
How to start a startup
How I built this
Masters of Scale
2002 - 2005
2005 - 2007
M.Phil in Chinese Studies
2007 - 2009
Law Conversion and LPC
2009 - 2016
2016 - 2018
Corporate Counsel, Global Fashion Group
Set up Crafty Counsel