Henry Parkinson

Litigation - an excellent grounding for an in-house career

Overview

In a de-cluttering drive prompted by lockdown, I have found the Articles of Clerkship that show that I started at Travers Smith in October 1988. Litigators always want documentary back-up.

With the naïve confidence of someone who had no clue what a rights issue was, my assumption at the time was that I would be a corporate finance lawyer there for the rest of my life. That was laughably wrong on all counts. 

The economic crash in the early 90s meant that the growth area for legal work was much more in dispute resolution and the bulk of our intake qualified into the litigation department; my mentors being Stephen Paget-Brown and Andrew King.

It is not a widely held view, but I think working in litigation is an excellent grounding for an in-house career. The sheer variety of cases that came our way meant that you had to quickly develop a degree of knowledge in brand new areas and industries which replicates the unpredictability and urgency of problems with which colleagues come to you in a business. At a dinner to celebrate the end of one case, a client advised me that everyone should look to move jobs every five years. This struck me as being a transient life plan, but it ended up being remarkably accurate. Since leaving Travers Smith, I have inadvertently followed it quite consistently.

I joined a litigation firm from Travers Smith and my move in-house was then triggered, like many others, by being sent on secondment to a client, EY. The culture shock was not too great as it was another professional services firm. However, there was an immediate change in the way people treated you when you were on the client side of the fence. It gave you a seat at a different table helping to structure projects and relationships. From a dispute perspective, it allowed me to spot potential problems at an earlier stage that helped us prevent disputes rather than fight litigation later.

I stayed on at the end of my secondment for the advised five years and then started a scientific journey around the M25 joining the legal team at Amersham plc which had been the first of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisations. It had originally been part of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, but focused its nuclear expertise on diagnostic tools and cancer radiotherapy. Amersham was where I came across the infectious levels of enthusiasm that many scientists have for their subject and I have always been taken by their generosity and enthusiasm in sharing it with the uninitiated, like me.

I then moved from diagnosis to treatments at Merck, Sharp & Dohme. This was initially a very commercial-oriented role in keeping with working for a US pharmaceutical company, but my litigation experience gave me a valuable opportunity to help on some eye-opening US class action litigation. At my interview at Merck, I had been asked what my dream job would be. My carefully prepared answer was that I wanted to work at the Wellcome Trust as it provided a unique way of funding life-changing science for the long term. Then, after I had been at Merck for almost exactly five years, an advert came out for the head of legal role at the Sanger Institute, one of Wellcome’s largest funded programmes. I moved to the site of a 17th century hunting lodge to help decidedly 21st century science looking to discover the secrets to treating cancer, malaria and other disease that sit in the analysis of big data. Although I left Sanger a couple of years ago, I am immensely proud of having been part of the team that is at the heart of tracking at speed how the COVID-19 virus is mutating.

My main role now is with one of the Sainsbury family trusts which works to foster sustainable economic development in East Africa. A slight change from genomics - I am now learning more about the science of agriculture and the growing conditions for tea, which are apparently excellent in Rwanda, due to the slightly acidic volcanic soil. It has also brought me back to my Snow Hill roots as one of our sister charities is helping fund the new Museum of London, which will redevelop the site of the derelict Smithfield pub and Beppe’s sandwich bar where we fuelled our City ambitions as trainees.

One of the things about Travers Smith that I did not appreciate until I left is the level of admiration it has from people outside the firm. It is seen as delivering technical excellence, while at the same time maintaining a friendly, human perspective. It is an enviable reputation and I feel lucky to have been part of that cultural DNA and to have made such good friends with my technically excellent colleagues.

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