A Step Inside the Magic Circle: Interview with Ben Packer

I was rejected by Linklaters for a Vacation Scheme in 2007 – 13 years later, I am now a Partner. The trick is not falling over, it’s how you get back up!

Ben Packer is a Partner in the Dispute Resolution team at Linklaters. Ben specialises in contentious regulatory disputes, business crime, crisis management and investigations. Ben is also passionate about mentoring the next generation of lawyers, and was awarded the University of Sheffield Mentor of the Year Award 2019. We recently asked our Instagram followers (@atalsofficial) to submit questions for Ben to answer!

Life as a Student and Journey Towards Linklaters:

When did you decide to pursue a career in commercial law?

I decided to pursue a career in commercial law during my second year at University. I initially chose to study Law at University because I enjoyed studying it at A level. I continued to enjoy it at degree level and pursuing a career in commercial law seemed like the natural progression (and what everyone else in my year was doing!).

At this point, did you decide that Dispute Resolution was for you or was this a realisation that you had later on down the line?

Not at University, no. During the LPC, I enjoyed the Civil Litigation module.  Even though it was quite heavy on process and procedure, you could see snippets of the human interest side of disputes. 

When I began my training contract at Linklaters, my first seat was in the Corporate team – I really enjoyed it. However, when I moved to the Dispute Resolution (DR) team for my second seat, I got a flavour of the work that the more senior team members did and I really liked the look of it. This was quite a crucial factor leading to my decision to qualifying into the DR team as I knew that one day I might be in those shoes myself. I also did a client secondment to Barclays which really cemented my interest in dispute-related work.

What attracted you to Linklaters? 

I could give you a much better answer now on what distinguishes Linklaters from our competitors (!) but, at the time, much of my decision was based on my experiences at open days, interactions I had with (then) Trainees, Associates and Partners, and from the Chamber Partners ‘True Picture’ Reports, which gave an insight into the firm from real employees. 

What drew you to contentious work, in particular, litigation?

Two things.

Firstly, there is a real human side to any dispute. Even topics that on their surface could look fairly anodyne, say a dispute over a complex derivative, will always have human elements that help explain what happened and why the parties are now in dispute. You need to have a solid understanding of how humans think and function, and how this may affect the strategy to be adopted in the dispute.

The second thing that drew me towards contentious work is the story-telling aspect of it. In any dispute – whether it is litigation, a public inquiry, an internal investigation or an investigation by a regulator –  you are essentially trying to piece together the story of what happened from the evidence. When you are advocating for a client, you want to present your client’s story in the way that is the most compelling to the party determining the matter. You want them to prefer your client’s side of the story and rule in their favour. Again, this is where the human side is important: the best litigators I’ve observed are those who can put themselves in the shoes of the person determining the dispute and work out way of telling the story is most likely to appeal to them.

The ‘Good Old’ Training Contract Days:

Describe the time you received your Training Contract offer.

*Laughs* After my interview, I left Linklaters and got the train back to Stockport. The phone rang just as the train entered a tunnel and there was no reception on the way home! I remember wondering why Linklaters were calling me back so soon – were they calling me back that quick to reject me? Had I just left something in the interview room?! Understandably, I had quite a sleepless night. The next morning I rang them back at 9am and they offered me a Training Contract – I couldn’t believe it.

Why did you choose to undergo a client secondment rather than an international one?

There were a few reasons. Firstly, I really wanted to cement DR as a qualification option for me. At that time, there were only two overseas DR secondments (I think) so going for a client one made sense. Secondly, there were personal reasons why I wanted to stay in the UK for that six months. Though I’m sure an international secondment would have been great, I really enjoyed my time on client secondment and found it extremely insightful. It showed me what it was like to be an in-house lawyer: being the recipient of legal services from external law firms, receiving queries with no notice from the business and having to act as the interface between internal stakeholders and the external lawyers. My secondment forced me to put myself in my client’s shoes, and I quickly picked up lots of tips and insight on what my strengths were and what I could do better as a lawyer.

Qualifying into the Disputes Team:

What advice would you give to students who are yet undecided about their specialist practice area?

Whilst it’s great to take an interest in certain practice areas, you don’t need to pick your specialism at this stage. Wait until you start your training contract and see which seats you enjoy. Once you’re in your training contact, that’s when you should think about what practice area you want to specialise in. Look at the Partners, Counsel and Managing Associates in the departments of interest to you. Ask yourself, ‘Would I like to have their job one day? Would I like to be leading that meeting? Would I want to be the one making the strategic calls?’. 

I also think that people shouldn’t underestimate the value of candidates who are malleable and are keen to try their hand at anything. Keeping an open mind allows you to explore different areas of the law while still being able to show an interest in particular sectors or clients. Overall, I’d just say don’t pigeonhole yourself because you might be surprised by what you enjoy!

Culture at Linklaters:

What has been the best thing about working at Linklaters?

The people. Linklaters is fantastic at attracting very smart but friendly people. The firm has a great culture where everyone goes out of their way to do their best for their colleagues and clients. That mixture of high-performance and a supportive culture is quite addictive and makes you constantly improve as a lawyer. 

What is one thing about Linklaters that not many students know about?

That’s quite a difficult one to answer as I’m always impressed by just how much students know about us. I would have said Silks, our amazing in-house restaurant that offers a fantastic range of food, but even that has its own Instagram page these days… 

(According To A Law Student can personally vouch for the peppermint tea!)

What are the main qualities partners look for in candidates at the interview stage for a Vacation Scheme/Training Contract?

We are looking for candidates who meet the agile mindset framework – this is a combination of skills that we believe future lawyers at Linklaters need. 

A key quality that we particularly look for is a ‘teamwork mindset’. At Linklaters, we strongly believe that we are one team, and work together to achieve the best outcome we can. Stronger candidates will know when to call upon their ‘colleagues’ for help, and will always show a willingness to help others. 

Other qualities that we look for are intellect and adaptability. We want to see how well you can grapple with the issues presented in our case studies, and whether you can discuss them in an intelligent manner. We also like to test the candidate’s resilience by seeing how they can adapt when we change the facts – for example, if they had to advise the other side of the transaction or if we change the facts in the case study. One thing not to lose sight of is that the case study is testing for other values too, including integrity. We want to see how the candidate behaves when we present them with difficult situations. Just a head’s up…don’t offer illegal options! 

Would you recommend including the Linklaters Inside Sherpa Virtual Scheme on Vacation Scheme and Training Contract applications?

We ask applicants to provide us with three examples of work experience – they should be the most recent and relevant examples. Candidates are welcome to include the Virtual Scheme on their work experience, but if they have more substantial or relevant work experience, then this should take priority. 

The ‘Day-To-Day’ Life of a Magic Circle Partner:

Describe the nature of your work in three words.

Varied, challenging, enjoyable.

Is the majority of your investigations work for private individuals or companies?

I advise both private individuals and companies, but primarily the latter.

At which point of the investigation do you step in? 

It varies! On one end, we conduct investigations on behalf of our clients. This usually happens when our client is notified of issues in their organisation. For instance, through a whistleblower report, a press article or a regulator contacting them. In this instance, our role is to gather the facts and analyse what this means. This is a huge task which often takes gathering lots of evidence, typically electronic documents, communications, data, and interviewing people. We then have to draw a narrative together of what happened and help the client analyse what this means for them. For instance, is there a risk that their organisation has breached any law or regulation? Are there any consequences that flow from that?

On the other side, it may actually be our client that is reacting to an external investigation. In this situation, the role is quite similar in some respects – we still need to understand what happens and analyse what it means for the client – but quite different in others. Our mandate will usually be to help our client achieve the best outcome it can, either through settling with the regulator or authority in question or, if they have a strong hand, contesting the case.

Out of your specialist areas (business crime, crisis management and investigations), which area do you find the most challenging? 

It entirely depends on the matter – they are all challenging in their own ways. One matter may not give you the most favourable facts to work with, whereas another matter may have a particularly difficult dynamics with the regulator or even within your client’s organisation. Other matters, particularly crises, can be incredibly time-pressured and require you to advise the client on quite knotty issues in a short timeframe. One thing that unites these cases, however, is that they all tend to be quite high stakes. 

What is the hardest part of your job? 

Like any job, the hardest part is dealing with setbacks. It could be a decision not going your way, a client not choosing you in a pitch or even something going wrong on our side. Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of the job and everyone will have times where things go against you. The challenge is to approach the setback in a calm and mature way, accept that these things happen but learn what you can from the experience. Actually, I believe that if you can deal with setbacks in a positive way, it can be a real positive and help strengthen your relationships with your team and clients.

Have you travelled abroad to any places for work? 

Yes! I have been to the USA, Paris, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and several countries in Eastern Europe.

Have you visited any of the Linklaters’ international offices?

I worked from the New York office for a week when we were conducting witness interviews on a big High Court litigation. I’ve also been to several of our offices in Europe.

And how did this experience compare to working at the London office?

London is Linklaters’ biggest office by some margin and therefore does have its own feel. However, my experience in our other offices wasn’t that different. The offices still felt like ‘Linklaters’ – you would see people in the office that you already know from various firm and division-wide events, and everyone is very welcoming and friendly. 

The legal profession follows quite a strict career ladder. Students aim to be Trainees, Trainees aim to be Associates, and Associates aim to be Partners. You recently made Partner, what is the next step for you?

Becoming a Partner is not the end goal for me – it’s just the beginning of the next stage. Now, I want to contribute what I can to the firm and continue to grow our fantastic disputes practice. There are some areas where we’re already strong and I want to help us sustain that; there are others that are almost entirely new areas where I’m relishing the challenge of building something afresh. I’m also excited to continue learning and developing as a lawyer.  

It is my understanding that you are qualified with Higher Rights. What does this mean and why did you pursue this qualification? 

A Higher Rights qualification gives you the rights of audience in the higher courts. Essentially, you have the right to conduct advocacy in the court, just like a barrister. My qualification applies to the Civil courts. 

Though I have not conducted any advocacy in the courts, the process of becoming qualified was really valuable. At Linklaters, our Associates have the option to obtain their Higher Rights when they get to a certain level of qualification. Linklaters pay for the course and the exams. When I did it, the exams were (sadly) on consecutive Saturdays for a few weeks – but it was worth it. The Higher Rights qualification has given me a better understanding of procedural rules and has taught me the hallmarks of effective advocacy and argument. I still use these skills to this day, especially during conference calls, mediations, and when advocating for clients.

General Advice and Words of Wisdom:

You were previously a mentor for the University of Sheffield eMentoring Scheme. What was your motivation for participating in this project? 

Primarily because I like to see students from Sheffield do well. I am conscious of the fact that I grew up in Stockport and attended a state school and a state college before going to University of Sheffield. No-one in my family had pursued a career in law or worked in the City. I think the geographic distance alone can make the City and Magic Circle law feel quite distant. I was keen to join the eMentoring scheme to bring life as a Magic Circle law to life and show that it is attainable.

How would you tackle a commercial awareness question? (Eg; tell us about a recent headline that caught your attention). 

It takes time to build up commercial awareness, and so it is definitely not something you can simply do on the day of your interview! This question is not about being able to recite the latest deal. It’s about demonstrating that you have a genuine interest in the business world. 

For those starting out, I’d highly recommend reading the Economist. It sounds like an intimidating read but actually their stories do not assume any prior knowledge on behalf of the reader and are great at setting stories in context. 

As you build your knowledge, you’ll find that you naturally take an interest in particular sectors, organisations or stories. Over the past six months, there’s been no shortage of stories on how COVID-19 has affected businesses. As you read around, you’ll see how the pandemic has had different effects on different sectors – for instance, the tourism and aviation sector has suffered from the decline in travel whereas many tech firms have increased revenues as people spend more time online. Then, you’ll notice how different organisations within the same sector have fared differently. That might pique your interest to buy a book on a certain topic, watch a documentary or listen to a podcast. As you do all this, you’ll start to form your own impressions and opinions.  

You don’t need to look into sectors you have no natural interest in. If you’re into sports, there’s a huge business element to sports. The biggest story in football – Lionel Messi’s potential departure from Barcelona – all turns on contractual interpretation. Similarly, if you’re into tech or gaming, you’ll be aware of the dispute between Apple and the maker of Fortnite, which is essentially a question of competition law. 

Ultimately, your aim should be to understand a story and be able to talk about it in the same way you can talk about your favourite Netflix series. You should understand the various layers to the issue: the interests of the parties, the narrative that has played out and where it could all be heading. If you’ve picked something you’re genuinely interested in, that should be an enjoyable process to go through.

Do you have any last words of wisdom?

Don’t be disheartened by setbacks. The people who tend to study Law are the high achievers who gained ‘straight A’s’ throughout school. It can therefore be a little disconcerting to apply for firms and be knocked back. It can make you question your self-worth and self-confidence. However, it’s great preparation for life, and the setbacks that come with it. Take the opportunity to get feedback and reflect on your applications. I was rejected by Linklaters for a Vacation Scheme in 2007 – 13 years later, I am now a Partner. The trick is not falling over, it’s how you get back up!

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