As can sometimes be the case with secondments from law firms to clients, the secondee has an opportunity to see what it would be like working in-house and then decides they like it. Back to their firm they return only to announce they wish to leave. That is what makes secondments something of a two-edged sword for law firms: they help deepen client relationships, but they also open up the scope for their staff to leave.
For Ruth Patterson, who is now general counsel for the online learning platform, Hive Learning, that was pretty much how it worked out. She actually did two secondments, the second time with hibu (formerly Yellow Pages), the directories and marketing company, on a major restructuring. “I hadn’t particularly thought that I would make the transition from private practice to going in-house,” she remembers, “but I discovered that working in-house you get much closer to the business, which I liked. It also offers a wider variety of work, which suited me better.”
And, as also often happens for lawyers who make that transition, they have nothing but praise for Herbert Smith Freehills both for providing an exceptional foundation in practice but also for the firm’s understanding that their lawyers may want to move on. (Of course, that can also be for the firm’s benefit, if the departing lawyer then instructs the firm later on.)
Ruth originally joined Herbert Smith Freehills as a trainee in March 2010. She qualified into Finance, which included both debt restructuring and real estate finance transactions. What she came to realise was that she was more interested in finance as part of a wider commercial picture, not working exclusively on purely finance transactions. Moving in-house thus became a priority in her career development.
Her time at Herbert Smith Freehills stood her in good stead in the world of business. “I learned a lot about how markets work, the risks associated with business, and how to balance those risks with commercial objectives.”
In December 2014 she left the firm and moved to a London-based hedge fund (TT International), with the prospect of a general commercial role. However, this did not pan out quite as she had hoped, as she found herself doing mostly funds work.
Then the opportunity arose to join Piksel, a global tech operation that provides back-end technology and professional services to a range of global clients, with a focus on the media sector. The location was a major draw for Ruth, since the company was headquartered in York, in her home county of Yorkshire. She joined the company in September 2016.
This was a big step up in responsibility, since Ruth was tasked with starting and then building a legal function in the UK and then globally. “I was just three or so years qualified, and I felt it was a real challenge to more or less start a legal function from scratch. But I also enjoyed that challenge. That again was a benefit from my time with Herbert Smith Freehills. The firm imbued me with the confidence to be able to take on something that was completely new.”
Nine months in, Ruth was promoted to general counsel and became a member of the company’s global executive team and UK subsidiary board of directors.
Ruth was with Piksel for two-and-a-half years until earlier last year. She left partly because the company was going through some challenges of its own and Ruth found herself firefighting (“not my preferred way of spending my days”), but also because she felt she was no longer learning. She was drawn to the law because of the opportunity to immerse herself in an interesting and changing field where she could contribute. “A lot of the satisfaction of a career in law is that you are always learning,” Ruth says.
Ruth then moved to Hive. Again, she was asked to start and develop the company’s in-house legal function. As a start-up, there are some added challenges, not least having to impress on the businesses the importance of regular consultation with Ruth as the in-house legal advisor. The company is growing fast and has recently opened its second office in New York.
Both at Piksel and Hive, Ruth has learned to fend for herself, without the infrastructure that law firms can provide. “You have to be on your toes and be able to cope with a huge range of issues that get thrown at you,” she says. “But I also know when it’s better to call on the expertise of external lawyers.”
As well as working at Hive, Ruth has also taken on a non-executive director role at a UK-wide community interest company called Inclusion Housing, which aims to be the leading health and social care landlord for vulnerable adults in the UK and which is a European Business award-winning company. This also satisfies Ruth’s desire to keep learning and keep contributing as she broadens her experience.
Does she miss anything about private practice? Ruth cites the ease with which you can seek advice from others, and the back-up structures, but, more than anything, she misses the camaraderie and the friendships. “You create friends and contacts for life in a City law firm. That is the beauty of the alumni network,” she laughs. “It helps me to stay in touch, and I really enjoy the reunion events the alumni team arranges.”
* Ruth can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org