James Willmott - 2009 update

Last time we spoke to James, over 18 months ago, he was working at Jones Day in Singapore.  He is now a corporate assistant in Birmingham and living in Malvern, in the heart of the English countryside.  We asked him why he’s made the change and how he’s finding life in a regional office after working in London and Singapore… 


You can read James' original interview here.


mtl:  Hi again James, what brought you from tropical Singapore back to rural England and where are you working now? 


James:  After speaking to you in June 2007, my workload increased and didn’t abate, with Jones Day winning more and more work through its Indian corporate and energy practices, as well as a significant amount of leveraged finance work. At the same time I had a new baby who I wasn’t seeing for five days a week, so my priorities changed.  I wasn’t able to support my wife in the way I wanted to or help much at home because of the hours I was keeping and because I was frequently travelling to India on business trips, sometimes for a week at a time.  I realised that the idea of earning lots while doing a high-powered job AND being a great dad was great in theory but not really possible for me at the time – and also it was stressful.   


I thought briefly about taking an in-house role at a hedge fund in Singapore in an attempt to cut my hours but decided it was too risky given our mortgage and the fact that we would be living off one salary, especially given the impending economic doom that was on the horizon even back then.


I guess the main reason we moved back here was the realisation that we could have a lot more space and free time as a family if I worked for a provincial firm in England, plus the fact (believe it or not) that the weather in the UK is more conducive to being outside, which is something I wanted for my daughter. 



Career timeline



Law, King's College London



LPC, Nottingham Trent



Trainee, A&O



Assistant, corporate department, A&O, London



Assistant, corporate department, A&O, Singapore



Bought the Hideout bar with two friends



Assistant, Jones Day, Singapore



Assistant, Pinsents, Birmingham



Fortunately the economy was still OK at the time I was job-hunting and I moved to Pinsents in Birmingham in January 2008.  The people I work with are very nice and seem to have different expectations from their careers and lives e.g. they have more hobbies and time!   We now live in Malvern and have a house with a garden for our toddler to run around in – something that wouldn’t have been possible in Singapore – but, even taking into account the economic downturn, it can still be difficult balancing work with family commitments.


We didn’t consider coming back to London as there is a better quality of life in both Singapore and Malvern and I grew up here so I know the area well and have family nearby.  It is harder for my wife to live in rural England and without kids we would both go mad living somewhere quiet as we would feel that there wasn’t anything to do.  However we are at a different stage of life now (and number two is on the way), so whether you would want to live outside a city obviously depends on your personal life, priorities and circumstances. 


mtl:  How are you finding working in Birmingham after London and Singapore? 


James:  I am busier than I thought I’d be and have been on quite a few involved transactions, including one with a lot of travel around the UK and to Ireland.  So it isn’t that much different to Singapore, but I can leave at 5:30pm nearly every day and I virtually always have weekends...  This is in part due to Pinsent Masons being very good with using IT to promote flexible working:  I work on the train home, which takes about 1hr 20min door to door, and can then see my daughter in the evenings before she goes to bed. 


However the main difference is lower stress levels now as the attitudes of my clients and colleagues are different - they aren’t as demanding when it comes to turn-around times or availability.  A good example is drafting a share purchase agreement.  In Singapore you’d be given an evening to do it and in Birmingham you would get about three days. 


Also, being in the same time zone as the people you work with is much easier as you don’t have to wait around for parts of the day until your clients come online to give you instructions, or take calls in the middle of the night.  Plus you have specialists to be able to help out with property, employment, pensions and so on rather than having to rely on local lawyers who may not have the same incentives as you to get the work done quickly!


Of course my salary has decreased hugely and this has been hard to stomach!  Living costs are no different but, having said that, you win on the cost of housing as we are able to live in a house that we could never afford in Singapore or London.  However I do still look at friends who are making twice as much as I am elsewhere and wonder what I’m doing sometimes!  As with most law firms, the pay structure at my level and above is opaque so I have no idea what I can really expect in the future other than profits per equity partner if I ever get there (which all firms publish). 


In terms of the actual work I do, it is not dissimilar to what I did in Singapore in terms of deal size.  I always find myself on the other side of deals with top 20 London firms and the advantage of being in a regional office is that rather than getting a minor role, you can run things yourself (as with Singapore).  We also work for smaller companies and individuals that are less faceless and more interesting, though often less experienced as they haven’t done so many big deals before.  So the work is more demanding from the perspective of having to deal with real people but less demanding as you don’t get “dumped on” so much by your clients. 


I mostly feel like I am working for a satellite office of a large City firm in that we still do good work, we just aren’t based in London.   Sometimes I hear comments from people working in London that “X is done differently in the regions”, which is annoying as having worked in both, they really aren’t that different!  I just happen to work somewhere that enables me to afford to live in a house with a garden and I don’t go to work underground!  In the last 12m the Pinsents Birmingham office has established itself as one of the top regional corporate practices, so it is good to feel that I am working for a leader in this area.   


mtl:  After two big career moves, what are your plans for the future? 


James:  I wouldn’t move to another firm in Birmingham as I am happy at Pinsents.  If I didn’t make partner there, I’d have to look at going in-house or setting up my own firm (as I wouldn’t be satisfied being a career assistant) and if the economy here completely collapses or the lack of winter sunlight becomes unbearable then I guess we’d go back to Singapore!


mtl: Thanks James!


If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.





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