Ex-Freshfields lawyer running a business consultancy
Ben Kent trained and qualified into corporate at Freshfields, before moving to do litigation at Memery Crystal. At 2yrs PQE he left law for a job at a market research agency and in 2002 he set up his own strategic consultancy called Lighthouse. We spoke to him about the various moves he's made...
mtl: Hi Ben, please can you start by telling us about your legal career?
Ben: I studied history at university and considered doing advertising or marketing afterwards. However at the time it was an easier option to delay the decision making and do something intellectually interesting by going on to study law.
I trained at Freshfields and qualified into the corporate department there in the early ‘90’s (although I would rather have joined the litigation practice). After a few months I knew that I didn’t want to stay. I was working very hard on some large M&A deals and the people around me weren’t having much fun. I found the work repetitive and I looked at the partners and didn’t see a glorious future ahead!
I decided to leave Freshfields and moved to Memery Crystal to do litigation instead. I was sent to Malawi almost straight away for six months to act (with an English QC) for a former president on a very interesting case – conspiracy to murder! When I arrived home, I did general commercial work for an array of clients including a boxing promoter and an American billionaire. Although I enjoyed the Malawi experience, I found that I wasn’t really combative enough for litigation work. After 18m there I left law at about two years’ PQE.
mtl: What did you leave law to do?
Ben: I looked around at what my friends did and at who enjoyed what the most - one of them was doing market research. I spent a day with him which was great fun and I decided that I wanted to do it too - I thoroughly recommend doing work experience like this. I arranged a job in a very small firm of 12, where a lot of the clients were law firms. This provided a link for me and a way in which I could use my experience.
Broadly speaking I really enjoyed my new job, despite the pay cut. Research has a poor image compared to the status of law but it is interesting, particularly the analysis of law firms and other professional services. The firm specialised in big market studies e.g. the UK legal market and we interviewed lots of in-house counsel and then presented to firms about how they are perceived in the market. This area of expertise is now quite competitive and developed.
LPC, College of Law
Trainee and corporate assistant, Freshfields
Litigation assistant, Memery Crystal
Worked for a market research consultancy
Worked for another research consultancy
Set up Lighthouse
After two years there, I switched to another research consultancy where the work was much broader than just dealing with professional services. I became a director after a year and was there for a total of three years, at which point the company was taken over (which was frustrating) and I decided to set up my own business.
mtl: What do you do now?
Ben: I set up a business called Lighthouse with a former colleague of mine in the depths of the last recession in 2001/2. The goal was to combine research with management consultancy and we have a focus on advisory businesses including law firms, property companies, banks and accountancy firms. Normally researchers do survey work for their clients but rather than just speaking to people and reporting back, we wanted to look at markets and the competitors within them and do the financial analysis for our clients ourselves.
So, rather than just producing a narrow report, we wanted to get more involved with the interpretation and implementation of the results. To put this into context, if we do some work for a law firm, we will present the results of the analysis but then also run workshops with the management board showing what it means and how it influences their strategy. We often take this further by training fee-earners and linking in what the clients want to the training. We also get involved in other aspects of implementation – performance management, remuneration, technolgy improvement.
It has been fun running my own business. The work itself is interesting but seeing the business grow has been immensely rewarding. We work with some great clients including Linklaters, PwC, UBS, Merrill Lynch, and Coutts & Co. The downside was that as the economy was struggling when we set it up, it took about two years of not earning very much and wondering whether it would succeed before we knew that it would. To begin with we had to be quite creative and, by using freelancers to keep down our overheads, we didn’t hire seriously until the second year. We tried to achieve a lot with very few resources, and the set-up costs weren’t high.
Three years ago I realised that the company was going to work and so far we haven’t been affected by the current climate. We are still expecting to grow strongly this year. Although the investment banking work has dried up, many of the law firms are still doing well. There are now twelve of us at Lighthouse, including former lawyers, heads of marketing, academics, and a stockbroker. We don’t have any competitors who do exactly what we do. We come across classic management consultancies, branding agencies like WPP, independent consultants and pure research agencies, but no other organisation offers a combination of these elements.
mtl: How have you found the cross-over from law?
Ben: I think that law forces you to be good analytically and gives you an understanding of business and how the City works as well as how to conduct yourself in a meeting. The fact that I’m an ex-City lawyer helps me gain respect with the partners in firms that I deal with.
The intellectual approach to consultancy is different. In law you focus on specific words and sentences but in my current role there are no real “right” answers and instead we build a story that covers a variety of issues. There is also more of a “get on with it” mentality in this world. We have intense, proactive days and more effort is concentrated on teamwork and how to get things done efficiently, which lawyers don’t tend to think about so much.
The workload is lighter in consultancy but there are more presentations so we are out and about more meeting people – it is more sociable. It is also a more fluid world, with younger staff being involved in generating business from a much earlier stage. You get given responsibility quickly and have to present results and run workshops from early on. The people who do well have solid analytical skills, good project management and interpersonal skills and are well-organised.
mtl: How do you view the legal profession and do you have any tips for our readers?
Ben: The legal profession has been a massive success story in this country and London is obviously one of the big centres of the legal world. From a business perspective law firms are a very successful model with huge profits. But I think they are getting more and more aggressive from a personal perspective and even my friends who have a great capacity for work and love what they do find the lifestyle unsustainable in terms of being able to see their families enough. There seems to be such huge pressure on partners now. However, because of this pressure at the top, I think in the future we will see the continued emergence of new ways of practising law.
Look at the people senior to you and at whether you want to be doing what they are doing in ten years. If you are considering a change, then do your homework by speaking to lots of people in the other industries that you’re interested in and network – often you’ll learn a lot and be given opportunities that way. Try and leverage your experience and don’t leave a move too late in your career as money-wise you’ll take a massive pay cut, which could be hard to stomach. I would suggest moving before you are 30. I have never regretted leaving law myself...
If you are interested in what Lighthouse does, then click here to read more about their approach.
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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