As part of a series of interviews we are showcasing the potential for lawyers beyond the ‘traditional role’. In Part 4 of the series, Syed Nasser speaks to Al-Karim Makhani, a former litigation lawyer in a City firm, to discuss his experience transitioning out of private practice and into the exciting and expanding legal technology universe.
1.Could you tell us a bit about your background and your current role?
I am a Vice President at TransPerfect Legal Solutions, prior to which I was a senior disputes associate in the London and HK offices of Stephenson Harwood. The plan was that I brought that “coalface” experience to bear on a talented tech team who were breaking into the English eDisclosure market – TLS empowers lawyers to leverage technology, particularly AI and analytics. We work with firms ranging from the Magic Circle to highly specialised boutiques and GCs from the Fortune 500 to start-ups. I lead our legal technology offerings for EMEA and APAC. My role today is as different to the role I left practice for 5 years ago. But, the evolving nature of the work is why I still haven’t suffered the Sunday blues once!
2.What made you leave private practice?
The next few years would have been head down to secure partnership. Once you’re made up, it takes a few years to see the benefits. I thought to myself, if I don’t try something new now – I never will. I’d always been interested in disruption and in the business side of things. Whilst I felt my learning and passion had stagnated I didn’t want to leave behind almost a decade’s worth of knowledge and network. I wanted a new challenge, to broaden my horizons. I looked into a variety of things – going in house, litigation funding, even recruitment – there were actually a lot of good options out there. But TLS ticked boxes for something commercial, entrepreneurial and progressive. It’s not quite as brave as it sounds. The beauty of being a lawyer is that you always have the safety net of getting back into practice if things don’t work out!
3.What challenges did you face?
After 8 years you have both good friends and good will in abundance. Leaving all of that behind is scary. Going from an office with just myself and a trainee, to bustling open plan space with sofas, table tennis tables and hundreds of people was a shock to the system (although it became quickly clear I was more of a distraction to open plan than vice versa). In private practice you’re focused on giving legal advice. Tech and even business are somewhat tangential and you never know quite where you will land. That fear soon disappeared – shift in the balance of the commercial, advisory and tech elements of the roles was a surprisingly quick and smooth transition. There was of course the intangibles like status, the perception, questions marks about why anyone would leave a successful career track in a firm. Lastly – going from the middle age wise, to one of the oldest 5 people in a 500 person office. A few too many lost 80s film references.
4. In your new role, what are your biggest challenges?
The speed of change. As a technology company, you have to be at the cutting edge. What works today, may be obsolete tomorrow. So there is constant pressure to innovate and diversify. Law is always changing but technology updates faster. Either intersection – legal technology or data centric regulation seem to keep pace with the latter. When I started, the GDPR didn’t exist and you think how much that has permeated into society. Robot lawyers were painted as Susskindian machinations but real AI is being used to radically innovate all over the legal world. The diversity of the role is hugely satisfying. But it means I always feel time poor. It’s all well and good saying “prioritise”, but different hats mean genuinely urgent things for different teams. So then you’re looking at the big picture. It’s really important to keep sight of the organisation’s strategic goals and values.
5. Is your typical working day different now?
Cliche as it sounds, there is not a typical working day. On Monday, I could be advising on the GDPR ramifications of reviewing data across divergent merger control proceedings. Tuesday speaking to a room of 500 people about the application and ethics of AI in the legal space, Wednesday looking at billables, revenue, gross margins etc. to see how we can be more profitable, Thursday collaborating with a client’s innovation team on a legal hackathon to design a piece of tech responding to real client needs, Friday piloting a new piece of information governance technology that could revolutionise (but cannibalise) our legal tech offering and on Saturday diving into one of our awesome CSR initiatives. May not be quite as exciting as Craig David’s 7 days, but it keeps me on my toes.
6. What advice do you have for those considering a similar move?
Borrowing from Nike (a client!), just do it. Often lawyers are blinkered to their own transferable skills. There may be some areas of extended specialisation, especially for senior lawyers, but the soft skills you learn are invaluable anywhere. Communication skills (written and verbal) are paramount for most roles. The ability to ingest and simplify complex concepts. Strategic thinking and problem solving. A good understanding of risk. But – leaving the law doesn’t always mean less late nights. The last few years I’ve clocked more time working than even my busiest years in practice.
7. Anything you miss about the world of law firms or any advice to law firms?
I sometimes miss the pride which used to stretch across my parents’ faces when they told people their son was a lawyer! Joking aside, there is a certain status about being at a City firm in a legal/financial centre like London. That was hard for the first year. I miss some of the legal jousting – with colleagues, counsel or the other side. Overall though, anything I miss pales in comparison to what I’m grateful for. Job satisfaction, happiness levels, continuous learning, leadership opportunities, and a global business to service. The list really does go on!
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