Ex-Linklaters lawyer opens Axiom's London office
Al Giles was a 5 yr PQE corporate assistant at Linklaters when he left law to do an MBA at INSEAD. After graduating he joined Axiom, which is an award-winning and fast-growing US law firm that integrates experienced lawyers with its clients on a project basis. His remit was to open a London office with the co-founder and he now manages the UK practice (without practising law himself). We asked him about his career change and to describe the Axiom concept to us.
mtl: Hi Al, please can you start with your background in law?
Al: I trained at Stephenson Harwood and on qualification I decided to do corporate law. I knew that I wanted to go to the best place possible to do it and, because it was the peak of the internet bubble, the Magic Circle firms were hiring NQ’s. I liked the people I met at Linklaters and decided to move there, a decision that I never regretted. I really enjoyed the work and was exposed to some large M&A transactions for e.g. Vodafone and BP.
I stayed for over five years, though to be honest I made the decision to leave a couple of years before I actually resigned. The reason for delaying was that I was very busy at work and when I wasn’t working I was trying not to think about anything much. In the end I decided to leave because I liked the business side and the commercial aspects of the job the most, for example looking at why companies raise capital and how their business operates.
I decided that I should either be trying to do something for myself or trying to work in an environment where I had more involvement in business decisions and their execution. However at that stage I didn’t really have a clear idea of what to do and, to be honest, probably lacked the courage to follow through on a business venture myself. Law firms aren’t necessarily breading grounds for an entrepreneurial spirit!
mtl: So how did you make the break from law?
Al: I thought about doing an MBA for a while and finally did an application and the tests (which involved having to get to grips with post-GCSE maths among other things), which took quite a lot of time and effort given the hours I was working at that point. I only applied to INSEAD and fortunately was accepted. I planned to use the experience there to give me ideas, meet people and, although it sounds a little trivial, to provide a helpful vocabulary for a more business-facing role.
1992 – 1995
1996 – 1998
CPE and LPC, College of Law
1998 – 2000
Training contract, Stephenson Harwood
2000 – 2006
Corporate assistant, Linklaters
London Practice Leader, Axiom
The first four or five months were tough as they involved accounting and finance subjects that other people had done at degree level or as part of their jobs. However once I learnt the way of thinking needed for financial analysis, the course became much easier and more enjoyable. I met some very interesting people and also learnt the importance of simply ‘getting out there’ and meeting with as many people as possible to share ideas and thoughts. Again, this isn’t an impulse that necessarily comes naturally to lawyers.
During my MBA I still didn’t know what to do afterwards, but initially just focused on enjoying the experience. I knew I didn’t want to go back to a professional services environment, which is what most people do after business school. Instead I wanted to escape from the environment of a big institution that tends to make its employees think in a certain way. So, towards the end of my year at INSEAD, I wrote a business plan for a company like Axiom (without at that stage having heard of them). This was based on having seen clients’ frustrations with the traditional partnership structure in law firms at first hand.
I built up an idea around the premise of providing a service to clients that was flexible, integrated and cost efficient but which still offered top quality legal advice. The flipside of the model would be that it would give lawyers more control over their lives and diversity in work without sacrificing its quality. I knew so many lawyers who liked practising law, but who were just frustrated with the alternatives of either a career in a big law firm or in-house. A solution that provided the benefits of both worlds seemed to be a highly attractive proposition.
My idea was a very basic plan but I pitched it to a friend who was a partner at Linklaters, for her opinion. She responded by saying that she knew of someone doing the same thing in New York and that he was looking to open an office in London. She put me in touch with one of the founders of Axiom in March 2007 and things went from there. I have been very lucky to have been partly responsible for opening the London office and building it up from the ground.
Working for Axiom has been great for me as it combines a high degree of building a business from scratch, but with some lessons already learned and a supportive infrastructure in the States.
mtl: How would you describe Axiom and what has the role involved for you so far?
Al: Axiom’s goal is to work with great companies, and to offer our clients a highly sophisticated level of in-house legal advice on a flexible project basis and at a rate far lower than our law firm competitors can charge. Law is a fascinating industry that has changed very little over the years as the choice has always been to work in-house or at a firm. Things are changing relatively quickly now and the legal landscape is being re-shaped, partly by firms like Axiom. We’re fortunate enough to be small enough to be agile and we are able to respond quickly to market shifts.
We started as two of us in a rented office in the City with some paper and pens last autumn. I’ve had to think about how to attract the right calibre of lawyer, about pitching to clients and understanding which solutions best calibrate to their needs, budgeting and hiring, among other things. We’ve grown considerably in our first year and now have 6 staff in our head office, 20 lawyers and we interview about 6-10 applicants a week. I have great colleagues, who are all passionate about what we are doing, which is very refreshing.
We are driven by the market here, but we use the experience and the resources of the US offices. The growth in the US has been rapid – we now have over 200 lawyers in the New York and San Francisco offices from a base of approximately 10 or so in 2003. We hire about 1 in 100 of applicants.
mtl: What does Axiom look for in a lawyer and what work can you offer them?
Al: We look for robust, pragmatic, adaptable and likeable people, who have great experience and technical credentials. Ideally they need to know the in-house environment well, as the job involves advising businesses and working in our clients’ offices and they will have to use their judgment without needing support. Our lawyers are on average around eight yrs PQE and include ex-partners and former General Counsels. Our clients are about 50% financial services (investment banks, hedge funds and asset managers), 25% technology companies (such as amazon and google) and 25% large corporates. They come either by referral from the States or because we have pitched directly to them.
We send our lawyers on projects that typically last about 6-9 months. Sometimes this means covering leave for an existing member of staff, or, where the client often derives the highest value from our proposition, we work with clients to establish where we can displace work usually sent to a law firm. This may be, for example, to help with a product launch, a new business line, a transaction or regulatory enquiry or with general business-related overflow work.
Our aim is to strip away the costs associated with using law firms. We have low office overheads and no training costs or partners, so we can charge 1/3 of what a Magic Circle firm charges, while still offering high quality advice. This is obviously attractive to clients but our lawyers also get a good deal because they work with sophisticated clients for an annual Magic Circle salary and benefits, including paid holidays. In between projects, they can take unpaid leave, or they can move straight on to the next assignment, which offers them both variety and flexibility.
mtl: Do you have any tips for career changers?
Al: I think the key is just to be aware that working in a City firm means that you have had great training and will have learnt some very useful skills such as analysing, project management, communicating and negotiating, all of which are very transferable. You just need the confidence to make a change, which at first I didn’t have.
Lawyers can be very commercial but that isn’t necessarily their job or instinct. As a lawyer your job is to manage risk and I wanted to be able to realise and identify business opportunities rather than always focusing on the risk involved in doing so. If you’ve also come to that realisation, then you already have everything that will enable you to make a change, you just need to also have the confidence to do it. For me, business school gave me that confidence as I competed on equal terms with peers who had very different employment backgrounds to my own.
mtl: Thank you for your time Al.
Click here to see the Axiom website.
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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