Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players at the top of their fields to find out what makes them tick, what challenges they face, and how they do what they do.
Jeremy Shebson became the managing partner at UK-based global law firm HFW on April 1, 2019, following the retirement of Marcus Bowman, a 30-year veteran of the firm. London-based Shebson specializes in aviation work, and has represented airlines, operators, and other industry clients.
Bloomberg Law spoke to Shebson about managing a firm of around 600 lawyers during a global pandemic, the importance of communicating regularly with clients and colleagues, and his friendly soccer rivalry with the firm’s global senior partner.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: What sets your firm apart from other Big Law firms?
Jeremy Shebson: We focus on industry sectors rather than practice areas. That may sound like marketing talk, but it’s at the very core of our business. All of our lawyers sit within one of six global industry groups: aerospace, commodities, construction, energy and resources, insurance, and shipping. Even the charities that we support come from our core sectors. Being so focused on those sectors means that our lawyers develop genuine industry expertise. Clients appreciate that we really understand their industry, as well as their business, as it means we can give them better advice.
BL: You took over as managing partner in April of 2019. What changes have you had to make in the past five months or so to address how the firm functions during a pandemic?
JS: Covid-19 has presented a series of unprecedented challenges for law firms. First and foremost, we’ve been focused on the mental and physical well-being of our colleagues, clients and everyone in the HFW community. Communication has been incredibly important — it’s been a stressful and anxious time for everyone, and most of us weren’t used to working from home for extended periods, so we’ve done everything we can to make sure people don’t feel isolated. Little things like having regular team catch-ups over video conference — seeing a colleague’s face can really make a difference at times like these, even if some of the lockdown haircuts have been sights for sore eyes! In terms of how we’ve functioned, the technology and systems we have in place mean that it has been very much business as usual, despite much of the firm working under government lockdowns. I often wonder what we’d have done if this had happened even five years ago — it could have been a different story.
BL: Which do you prefer: practicing as a lawyer or being in management?
JS: This feels like a bit of a lawyerly answer, but I’ve genuinely enjoyed both. I had great fun as a lawyer — I specialized in aviation, and felt privileged to work in such an innovative, dynamic and exciting sector. I did a lot of work for airlines and operators, including on major losses. Some of those were front-page news stories, and it was professionally very satisfying to be acting on such high-profile matters, but these are harrowing events for all involved and the human side could be very tough. Moving into full-time management has certainly been a big change. I miss my clients, but it’s a real honor to be able to help lead such a remarkable firm of people at HFW, and to have a hand in the continued growth and development of the business. Law firm management is a relentlessly demanding role and the pressure can be pretty intense at times, but even when things are at their toughest, I still seem to laugh at least once every day.
BL: What are your passions outside work?
JS: My family is everything to me. One of the challenging things about being a lawyer is that you don’t always get as much time to spend with your family as you might like, so I cherish every minute that I spend with them — I hope that my family would say the same! I’m also a big football (soccer) fan. I’ve supported Arsenal my whole life, and get to games whenever I can. The global senior partner at HFW, Richard Crump, supports Chelsea, which is one of the other London-based clubs and one of our biggest rivals. They’ve generally had the better of us in recent years, which Richard has taken great pleasure to remind me at every possible opportunity. But we beat them in a major cup final this summer, so I made sure to get my own back.
BL: What advice would you give an associate just starting out their Big Law career?
JS: To make sure that you enjoy what you do — most of the time, at least. We spend too much of our lives at work to be doing something that we don’t enjoy. And when you find the niche that you want to make into your career, do everything you can to become a genuine expert in that area. What will set you apart is the ability to really get under the skin of the client’s business and their industry, to know and understand how they operate. And never stop learning—read the business and trade press, go to industry events, but most of all, keep in regular contact with your clients. Good communication is key. And finally, always support your colleagues. They’ll be there to support you in return, and law firms are at their best when people are working well together in teams.