Ex-Freshfields lawyer directs a derivatives trading business
A few weeks ago we set out to find out whether lawyers really do have a better lifestyle in the banking and finance world (see here), and we were on the look-out for banking and finance lawyers to feature on the site. First up is Emma Wright, previously of Freshfields, who is now the in-house legal director at Spread Co, a young London-based company which is in the early stages of setting up a derivatives trading platform. What’s that like?
mtl: Hello, Emma, how are you?
Emma: Very well, thank you.
mtl: Great. Now, let’s start at the beginning. Take us through your legal career.
Emma: Ok. I studied Law and French Law at Oxford and then the LPC at Nottingham. After six months out, it was off to Freshfields. My training contract was a good, solid magic circle training experience and included a seat in Singapore, which I loved.
Back at the London office, I qualified into general corporate; however, I always knew that I wanted to try out more than just private practice work before deciding what to do with the rest of my life. Qualifying into a tough, hard-working corporate team would put me right at the sharp end and would really make me think about my options.
I’d enjoyed my time as a qualified associate and, before I knew it, I was two and a half years qualified. I felt I needed a change and some time away from London to think about my future plans so I took a two-year secondment out to Freshfields’ Asian offices – six months in Bangkok and the rest in Singapore. However, after a year in Singapore, with my Freshfields secondment in Singapore coming to an end and being reluctant to move back to the UK, the opportunity at Spread Co came up.
A friend from university was setting up the company in Singapore and he suggested over a few drinks that I should come and work for him. After working another late night on a particularly difficult transaction, I sent him an e-mail asking him if he was serious. He was!
At first I took the role for a probationary period. However, it went really well and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found that my legal skills were extremely valuable and that I was able to help navigate the company through a myriad of legal issues. In fact, it went so well that after six months the senior management suggested that I become part of the senior management as in-house legal director.
Graduated Oxford (Law and French Law)
LPC at Nottingham
Qualified into Corporate
Moved to Asia with Freshfields
Moved to Spread Co
This was a really exciting opportunity. It meant that I would be one of four people directing a new and rapidly growing company. I was also given a chance to invest in the company, so I’m now one of the owners, too. It was a big step up – from mid-ranking associate at Freshfields to running and owning a part of a company that now has a staff of 45.
mtl: Very impressive. Tell us a bit more about what the company actually does. It sounds complicated.
Emma: Well, when we launch trading, we will trade derivatives with brokers and clients (such as contracts for differences and foreign exchange) and we’ll manage the risk of those trades. This will be done on an internet trading platform which we have designed and developed. It’s fairly technical and complicated, but I work with great people who have heaps of patience to explain it all to me and it’s been a very steep learning curve!
mtl: So what exactly does your role involve?
Emma: As the only qualified lawyer, I deal with all the legal work. My experience at Freshfields was of M&A work, so I have had to adapt to new areas of law and new terminology. I had the confidence to do this after my experience in Singapore where the smaller office meant working in a smaller team, doing a wider variety of work with more responsibility and advising on a wider range of issues. Not only am I now advising on the financial services related issues, I’m also involved in employment law, IP, commercial contracts, M&A – all the things that any company needs advice on day–to-day. To be honest, a lot of it is common sense, and I do have external advisers to turn to for the really tricky issues.
mtl: So how does it compare to private practice?
Emma: It’s totally different. I love the fact that I am involved in the entire business and I have a lot of influence in the direction in which the company takes itself. Obviously, being a shareholder in the company means that the work you put in is more meaningful. The money is not brilliant at this early stage, because we have all decided to take low salaries and reinvest in the business, but if things turn out as we hope, it should become much more lucrative in the longer term.
mtl: What would be your advice to other lawyers who are interested in this area?
Emma: I think you have to network, go knocking on doors and approach the derivatives trading companies directly. This is a massively growing area and there are a lot of bankers setting up on their own who will need lawyers at some stage.
An alternative way in would be to go in-house at a bank and work on the derivatives desk, building up experience and knowledge of this area – I have a friend doing this at one of the banks, for example. It is very specialised, which actually means that most companies would not expect lawyers to have expertise in this field already. If you have a general corporate background then you can learn on the job.
mtl: So does being a lawyer in the banking and financial services world give you a better lifestyle than private practice?
Emma: For me, yes. I work very solid days – 8am to 6pm/7pm – but that’s usually it. I’ve never had to cancel a social engagement. It’s also much more flexible - I can work from home. Of course, it is hard to generalise. Other areas of banking and finance may not be so kind.
It is always going to be hard work if you want to do well but lawyers should certainly feel that if they work hard in this field the rewards are likely to be high and their skills are likely to be highly valued.
mtl: Emma, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck at Spread Co.
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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