Life after partnership at Linklaters: The Legal Cafe concept
What do you do after a successful legal career in the City, including 15 years as a partner at Linklaters? Marshall Levine retired at 49 and rather than playing golf for the next fifteen years, wanted to continue to use his legal skills, but in a different way. The result is The Legal Café in Belsize Park. On one level it is a very pleasant and popular café. On another it is a type of upmarket community law centre allowing access to good quality legal advice at an affordable price. It is also home to Marshall F Levine & Associates, where he works as a sole practitioner. We spoke to him about life after partnership…
mtl: Hi Marshall, please could you start by telling us about your Linklaters career.
Marshall: I spent more than 25 years at Linklaters, from training there to fifteen years as a partner. I set up and ran the construction department and was global head of construction and engineering during the late 1990’s. It’s a fantastic firm and it was great working there, but there comes a time when you’ve done as much you can do in a job and I realised that having had the same job my whole life was a bit narrow.
When I retired from Linklaters I had a brief stint as an equity partner at Field Fisher Waterhouse. However I very quickly realised that I didn’t want to be involved in another partnership. I took a sabbatical and spent a couple of months in Australia with my family. However, although retirement is something of an obsession in the City, I really didn’t want to stop working at such a young age, or be told what to do by someone else anymore. Instead I decided to try something different and more creative, where I could run a practice myself but also give something back to the community. The years of experience that I had gained in the City enabled me to make this a reality.
mtl: So how did you come up with the idea of The Legal Café and what do you do there?
Marshall: The idea came to me in the middle of the night. I also had something of a childhood dream of running a café… There are four aspects to what I do now. Firstly I am a sole practitioner based at The Legal Café under the name of Marshall F Levine & Associates. I run a domestic construction and property practice and am currently writing a book on construction insurance, which is due out in the Autumn. Internationally, I advise on PFI projects and have recently worked with the Turkish, Jordanian, Romanian, Maltese and Kazakh governments. I am also a consultant with the World Bank and a director of IFSL, which exports financial services abroad.
1976 – 1979
Law, UCL (followed by two further degrees in Estate Management and Construction Management at Reading, while working at Linklaters)
1979 – 1980
Law school, Lancaster Gate
1980 – 2005
Trainee, assistant and partner at Linklaters
2005 – 2006
Partner, Field Fisher Waterhouse
Set up Marshall Levine Associates
Set up The Legal Café
Secondly, the café is home to a form of law centre in the sense that we provide consultations to members of the local community, helping them to work out and resolve their legal problems, without trying to be a High Street firm. We cover issues including divorce, commercial property, insolvency and wills and probate and we advise clients on the direction in which their problems should be resolved. It is like an upmarket Citizens Advice Bureau, very few of which are left these days and those that do exist mostly focus on immigration and housing.
We charge a nominal fee per hour (and sometimes I take on pro bono work) and I bring in local experts in the different areas that come up (with the exception of criminal and immigration work). A lot of the work involves assisting litigants in person in the County Courts, who want to save money but don’t want to run a case entirely on their own. We also offer a facilitative mediation centre where we try to resolve disputes between, for example, local residents.
I have wrapped the café around the above activities. The location is a perfect corner site in Belsize Park and people can enjoy great coffee and food with access to a relaxed and informal approach to the law if they need it. Clients receive frank and honest advice from local professionals without the frills, bells and whistles of a law firm, in the way that a family solicitor used to genuinely look after people’s interests. We don’t overcharge and we are realistic about people’s chances. Local lawyers also come in to use the facilities as we have a library and a very pleasant atmosphere in which to meet and work.
Finally, we offer catered meeting areas, which are popular with local businesses (and the odd celebrity). Rooms can be hired on an hourly, half daily or full-day basis. Next week we are closing for a couple of days so that a commercial for Next can be filmed in the café…
mtl: How does your life compare to working in the City and what are your plans for the future?
Marshall: I no longer have to commute as I live in north London, my life is more creative, the work I do is more varied and I feel that I am able to “give something back.” Rather than working on a couple of major projects, I handle lots of small issues (with the odd international project thrown in). I have to be more business-like as I manage the staff, pay-roll and finances myself. I also have to get involved in the basics, for example I do my own typing and serve pleadings myself sometimes. I have more control over my time, I take time off to work on my book when I want to and I see my family more. I’m never bored and I no longer think about retirement when I wake up in the morning.
I love what I do but of course it isn’t always easy and I have to work hard to get the business going and to market it (though so far a lot of work has come from referrals). However I am never under as much pressure as in a firm, where you don’t receive much praise and are always made to feel that you should be working harder.
The international projects that I work on are intellectually challenging, a lucrative source of revenue and are good for my CV. They are also the antithesis of daily life in the café when, for example, the coffee grinder isn’t working and I have to sort it out.
I would like to take The Legal Café concept to a wider area by setting up more branches and I’m looking at doing this in Edgware at the moment. I’d run a couple in London myself but outside of London I’d franchise out the name.
mtl: What are your thoughts on law in the City these days?
Marshall: I think that you have to be really hungry for success and totally gripped by the work. I really wanted to prove myself, particularly as I didn’t come from a particularly wealthy background. There is so much competition between lawyers these days that to succeed you have to be very strong minded and determined. If you are lukewarm about it as a career, then either you’ll be found out for not being ambitious enough or you will fall by the wayside.
It is difficult to be successful in the City and women have to fight very hard, an issue that I don’t think has ever been resolved adequately. At the end of the day though it is tough as a woman to be a partner and have a family – you have to be super-woman.
Law firms are wonderful at churning out great products and advice but for individual lawyers there is still very little autonomy and this can destroy your individuality and creativity. Some lawyers don’t need a creative side to their work and get all the satisfaction they need from big projects. However I got to the point where the construction of yet another sky-scraper wasn’t my only motivation in life and I am very lucky to have found a different way of working at this stage of my career.
mtl: Many thanks for your time Marshall.
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.
Send this feature to a friend: