Ex-Freshfields lawyer makes a good bet
Fiona Russell was a 3 yr PQE corporate assistant at Freshfields when she decided to move in-house to Sky. A couple of years later she made another move to a challenging international role at www.betfair.com. We asked her about her career choices and what it is about her current job that she likes so much.
mtl: Hi Fiona, tell us about working in private practice.
Fiona: After studying Law with French Law at Aberdeen, I decided not to practise in Scotland as I wanted to use my languages and work in a more international environment. I applied to several City firms and started a training contract at Freshfields in August 1998. This included a seat in the Milan office, which was a great chance to improve my Italian. I qualified into corporate as I had enjoyed that seat the most and stayed for three years.
My decision to leave private practice was triggered by a six month secondment to Goldman Sachs at 2 ½ yrs PQE. I saw that going in-house was a good option and that the widely held private practice belief that working in-house means poorer quality work with low pay wasn’t justified. Far from opting out by going in-house, I saw first-hand at Goldman Sachs that the legal team there consisted of very capable lawyers who were very involved in the bank’s business.
I also saw on my secondment that the hours were not too ridiculous, which was attractive. I think that once you have decided that you are not aiming to be a City partner, you should only spend a limited time in private practice as the more specialised you become, the more difficult it can be to change track later. I was doing a lot of securities work at Freshfields - something that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do for the rest of my career.
mtl: So tell us about your first move.
Fiona: I originally thought I would like to work in the retail sector but the opportunity at Sky to work in a consumer facing media business was very appealing. I also chose Sky because it had a large and dynamic legal department so I was confident that I would continue to learn. I worked for an ex-private practice partner and received good training from her which continued my professional development. I started off doing consumer and marketing law, which I had never done before, and loved that it was entirely different from anything I had done before.
Law with French Law, Aberdeen
Part of the CPE, Estage programme at the European Commission in Brussels and 3 months at Freshfields in Brussels
LPC, Store Street
Training contract, Freshfields
Corporate Assistant, Freshfields
Secondment, Goldman Sachs
In-house at Sky
Moved to Betfair
After a year the opportunity to switch to the commercial part of the legal team came up. This meant working on TV distribution deals for a wide range of broadcasters and platform providers. I also found myself running a transaction with Barclaycard to launch a Sky branded credit card, that was very challenging but I learnt a lot Towards the end of my time at Sky I worked on the launch of mobile TV on Vodafone which was very high profile and very interesting as not many similar deals had been done before.
Sky is an amazing company to work for as it is at the cutting edge of what it does, and is now a well-established and solid company. The work was good but after three years I realised that it was time to move on. I decided that I wanted to move to a smaller company with more growth potential. I had also realised that I missed not using my languages on a regular basis.
mtl: Why did you move to Betfair?
Fiona: Betfair is the world’s largest on-line betting exchange and is different from other sports betting operators in that individuals bet against others rather than the bookmaker as principal. The advantage is generally more favourable prices and the range of markets that we offer is huge. The technology is very sophisticated and we process more bets each day than the LSE processes share transactions. The company and its founders have won many awards for excellence and entrepreneurship in the seven years since it was launched.
I interviewed for a general commercial role but the Legal Director told me they were also looking for someone to look after the European regulatory side of the business. They were doing a lot of work in Italy at the time and needed someone with Brussels experience. I had done a Stage (Internship) at the European Commission before my training contract and spoke Italian, so the role sounded ideal.
I started in May 2006 and not long after the world’s press was focusing on the arrests of UK based gaming company directors in the US. This was not a problem for Betfair as it had never been targeting the US but nonetheless the regulatory environment for the online gaming industry as a whole has made my job very interesting and challenging over the past 18 months.
I now have responsibility for territories outside of Europe too. We cover around 50 jurisdictions globally. For me the job is perfect as it allows me to use my languages as well as practise law, it is consumer facing and I get to travel.
My work on a day to day basis includes reading new legislation or case law (especially from the European Court of Justice or national courts considering free movement issues), working with our Corporate Affairs, Marketing and International Business Development teams, considering whether to apply for licences in new markets, monitoring changes in the law and speaking to our country managers about legal matters in their jurisdictions. I really enjoy the cultural diversity and it can be amusing to learn about the wide ranging attitudes of different countries or cultures to betting and risk.
Betfair is a very conservative company from a regulatory perspective, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The management requires a high level of regulatory compliance and it is good to know that they respect and take seriously the advice that we give them.
I am very happy working here and as long as it remains challenging I will stay. I do get some funny looks sometimes when I tell people that I work for an online gambling company - quite a change from saying I work in a Magic Circle law firm. However the law in this sector is extremely dynamic at the moment and makes the job very challenging, so that’s more important to me!
mtl: Do you have any general comments about in-house roles?
Fiona: I think that they are a good way to get involved in a business that you find interesting and challenging while still being able to use your core skills as a lawyer. I thought about switching to the commercial side of things but decided against it. Instead I get to work as a generalist in a broad range of areas and then instruct a firm if I need specialised advice.
My advice to anyone thinking of leaving private practice would be to make sure that you research the companies that you are applying to very carefully. People who have done so will stand out and it is often not enough these days to have a good CV and come from a good firm. I would advise against treating an in-house role as an easy way out of private practice as most in-house teams will test you to be sure that you really want the job and that you are suitably enthusiastic about it.
mtl: Thanks for talking to us Fiona.
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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