Ex-Clifford Chance lawyer is laughing all the way to the bank
This week we speak to Lisa McDermott, formerly a lawyer at Clifford Chance, now a full-on banker at WestLB, working in tax structured finance. How did she get here and how does it compare to legal life?
mtl: Hi Lisa, start at the beginning.
Lisa: I studied Law and French Law at Queens, Belfast. That was great as it involved a year in Bordeaux at a Grande École, a college supposedly for the French elite, and so was an interesting insight into French society.
I think I chose to do law initially because I found criminal law very interesting and everyone said law was a good first degree to have and could be a pretty good springboard for other things. After university, becoming a practising lawyer sounded attractive and I was keen to build on all I had learned by working in the business arena. It is interesting to think now that I could have gone straight into investment banking, which, with hindsight, is probably much more suited to my personality, and that it was simply the image of life as a lawyer (or rather the lack of knowledge that I could have gone straight into banking or other fields) that set me on a different path. I have no regrets about my career as a lawyer, however, as it set me in good stead, but not everyone manages to break the mould of being a lawyer quite so easily.
Anyway, I accepted a training contact at Clifford Chance. I took time out to take advantage of CC’s excellent scheme whereby they give their future joiners money to take some time out and study. As part of a broader “round the world” trip I ended up in Japan and there used the funds to take a Japanese course. After that it was straight to CC and the training contract, which was a good, broad experience. My final 6 months of this were spent in the Paris office doing international arbitration, which was fun, but by then I knew there was only one area of law for me – tax! I had done a seat in the tax department and I liked the fact that it was more academic than mainstream corporate/banking work and that you got to see a cross section of other areas – property, banking, corporate.
However, a few years after qualifying into the tax department, I started to wonder whether a law firm was really the best place for me to thrive. I sometimes felt as a tax lawyer that I was two steps removed from the front of the deal. Take for instance a private equity deal - it was the bankers who ran the deals. The corporate lawyers sat behind them and the tax lawyers behind them again. I couldn’t help but feel that it would be more interesting being at the front of these deals.
However, as I was generally enjoying the tax work, I didn’t actively look to move roles. Instead I just kept my ear to the ground through various contacts, just to see what sort of opportunities there might be and whether I could glean a bit more information about banking in the meantime, particularly tax structured finance. Then, as luck would have it, in April 2004 a secondment opportunity came up at WestLB.
Graduated from Queens, Belfast in Law and French Law
LPC at BPP Law School, Nottingham
Joined Clifford Chance
Qualified into the tax department
This was an unusual opportunity because it was a front-desk secondment rather than a legal secondment – perfect for me and a great chance to “test drive” the type of role I thought I might like to move to! It was also unusual because at that time CC never put their tax lawyers on secondment – generally there was too much to do at the office and also there was a big fear that given their skill set, they would never see them again if they did!
mtl: But hang on, isn’t it a bit unusual for a bank to put a legal secondee on to its front-desk in a banking role, rather than into a back-office legal support role?
Lisa: I think you’d be surprised at how many professionally qualified people – lawyers and accountants – are in this field, at the front end of the deals.
The division of WestLB I went to work for specialised in tax structured finance – that is, deals that are driven by their own tax position and that of their counterparties and so it is a distinct advantage to come from a tax background. After that, whether you succeed is really about commercial awareness, personality and drive.
At the time, WestLB had just had a couple of bankers leave and they wanted a secondee to plug the gap. A lawyer had seemed like an obvious choice as they knew big law firms had the capacity to send people on secondment quite quickly. Fortunately, my now boss here knew one of the partners at CC quite well and he offered me the chance of the secondment.
mtl: And how was it?
Lisa: Really good. Within a month I knew that it was what I wanted to do and, luckily, my boss at WestLB saw some potential in me. I felt it was just so much more suited to my personality. I like that fact that if you do well you get a more immediate reward. You have to be tough and ambitious – it is much more dog-eat-dog and a lot less politically correct in the banking world compared to a law firm. But it is also more of a meritocracy where you can be promoted very quickly if you’re doing a good job and be well-rewarded financially.
I decided to stay on after the secondment in a permanent position and soon I felt very trusted by my boss and able to build on that trust to develop my career in banking. I was left to get on with things so that I could really prove that I could do it on my own, manage a team and succeed. Together my boss and I worked on building up and expanding the team – increasing headcount, extending the range of products and upping the technical level. Now, I even run a sub-team within that area - which is great management experience.
I don’t think I would have progressed so quickly at a bigger bank. WestLB is relatively small and I joined a young team which was ready to grow and be grown.
mtl: So how do the money and the hours compare?
Lisa: If you do well, it is very lucrative – much more so than the legal profession, particularly below partner level. There are possibilities to move up the chain quickly for high performers and with that comes bonuses which amount to a multiple of your salary (if things are going well) rather than just a fraction of it!
It is hard work, of course. I get in early every day but it is rare that I work past 7pm. Most of my day is spent running deals and if deadlines are tight I may have to work late, or at the weekend. But this is rare and I am usually able to take work home with me. I also spend a lot of time networking with other Financial Institutions and developing new products – but I enjoy this. I find it a lot more varied than being in a law firm and I really feel that I have a stake in the business. At law firms you don’t get a real share in the profit and loss, here you do. For me, that makes the hours feel more worthwhile.
It’s a difficult job, don’t get me wrong. I have to take expensive decisions. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted!
mtl: Do you think you would ever move back to private practice as a lawyer?
Lisa: No chance! I vastly prefer the dynamic atmosphere of a bank. However, I do think I could move back, if I really wanted to. This hasn’t closed any doors and I still get calls from legal recruitment consultants.
I might consider moving away from this high-powered, front-line role at some point. It is intense and I’m getting married soon and hopefully will have children in the not too distant future. This type of job may not be compatible with that – I’ll just have to see how it goes. However, as a banker, it is possible to move sideways in an organisation to different types of roles – that might be an option one day.
mtl: Any advice to other lawyers who fancy becoming bankers?
Lisa: You should really consider what’s involved – it’s not for everyone. Try to get a 360 degree view by doing a secondment. There’s no doubt that training at a big City law firm stands you in really good stead for a career in a bank, so you should feel confident in your abilities to get along in a place like this. And remember, you can always go back!
As it happens, we are currently looking for a junior lawyer or accountant (1-3 yrs pqe) from a top City firm to join our team….get in touch below if you are interested.
mtl: Excellent. Lisa, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck at West LB.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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