September 9 2020
Interview with Chris Kelly, Legal Counsel at Bloomberg
An interview with Chris Kelly, Legal Counsel at Bloomberg
Kristina Ravic, Head of Client Services at Flex Legal, spoke with Chris Kelly, Legal Counsel at Bloomberg, about his career and advice for Junior Lawyers.
Q. Tell me about your career to date
I’ve had quite a varied career path, both in terms of practice area and branches of the legal profession. I started out as a Research Assistant at the Law Commission to get some policy experience and then went on to do a pupillage in a barristers’ chambers, focussing on shipping, aviation and commercial litigation. After that I joined a law firm, leaving to become in-house counsel with one of the big US movie studios, before joining Bloomberg six years ago. The shipping and aviation sector that chambers specialised in was a world away from the financial information and technology sector that I focus on today, which is Bloomberg’s main business.
Q. What prompted you to leave the bar?
I wasn’t going to be offered tenancy, so had to rapidly re-think my options. On reflection, I realised that the area of law I was in wasn’t a great fit and I was surprised by what an isolating world the bar was, which I found hard. So I had to think both about changing practice area and going to a law firm or in-house.
With very little advance planning, more with a view to exploring than having a clear career plan, I started with a law firm and focussed on intellectual property, which I had an academic background in, and I went from there. That first step from the bar to a law firm was unplanned for me, but it’s led to a lot of interesting opportunities.
Q. How long were you in a law firm before you looked at going in-house?
I spent three years at the firm. It was a great firm that gave me the opportunity to work with a number of interesting technology and media clients. One of my clients was the studio that I ultimately ended up going to work for. Ideally, I would have liked to have stayed at the firm for longer but, as I knew the in-house team I’d be joining and I enjoyed working with them, I took the chance.
I moved to Bloomberg six years later and that move was primarily driven by culture. I wanted to go into an in-house department that did things differently. Bloomberg’s a company with a culture and product offering far removed from my previous employer but the area of law is essentially the same, and it draws on many of the same skills.
Q. When is the right time to go in-house? Why did you initially want to go in-house a bit later?
It was driven by some preconceptions on my part. Mainly the belief that if you go in-house, especially if you are moving into a smaller team, you will not have the support network around you and you are not going to have access to the most interesting work which is reserved for outside counsel. There’s probably some truth in that, but in-house legal departments have really evolved and Bloomberg’s an interesting example. We do a huge amount of our legal work in-house, even for larger transactions. The EMEA legal team has grown from one lawyer in 2013 into a team of 13 lawyers, 8 contracts negotiators and we sit alongside a comparable compliance team. That all forms part of a far larger global team. This means more junior members in the team here can get the support and mentoring they need to continue to develop and can be exposed to more sophisticated projects. And at the junior to mid-level of in-house legal practice, I think what you may lose in traditional supervision and training you make up for in terms of direct access to the business and ability to actually influence events.
Q. Are there transferable skills across the bar, law firms and working in-house or are some skills more prominent than others in different areas of the legal professions?
When you start out it is easy to focus on the black-letter law and acquiring as much knowledge as you can. As your career progresses however, you rely more on other skills such as client handling, communication skills, building relationships and networks and interdisciplinary work, which are all totally transferrable. Those are not the skills that you get taught on the LPC or BPTC but they are absolutely fundamental, especially if you are going in-house. I rely on these skills day to day a lot more than skills in black letter law.
I think law firms are a lot better at teaching these now and I’m impressed with the level of commercial acumen you see from people coming from law firms. That’s partially because law firms train more on it, they send people out on secondments and they’re more aware of its importance as a method of distinguishing themselves from the opposition.
Q. Do you think junior lawyers should take the opportunity to do a client secondment?
Absolutely, there is so much you can learn from it. However, so much of what you acquire from a secondment is dependent on your attitude when you approach it. One thing that really distinguishes you from other lawyers on a secondment is to be interdisciplinary in the way you approach problems. Take the time to learn more about the field you’re working in from the non-legal experts, whether it be finance, engineering, software etc. It is easier when you are in-house to have access to those people. They can be generous with their time and teach you about their discipline. It’ll enormously increase your effectiveness as a lawyer and advisor.
Q. Do you think the legal profession is becoming more open to not pigeonholing lawyers into substantive areas of law?
Yes, firms market themselves in terms of sector expertise, so rather than just focusing on legal subject matter they are focusing on a given industry and I think the situation is similar in-house. Specialists will always be vital, but some areas of practice - especially in-house - might draw more on breadth of expertise than depth.
Lawyers also need to take responsibility for not pigeonholing themselves. You often talk to people at an early stage of their career and ask “If you don’t like this, why don’t you consider moving?” And they will say “because I am an M&A lawyer – that’s where my experience lies”. My advice is to not underestimate the transferable skills you have. If you can go back to first principles, you have good transferable skills, and you can leverage your network, then you can change practice areas.
Hiring managers should also be open to people from different legal backgrounds. You can hire someone with the right attitude, ability and transferable skills and that’s often going to be as important, if not more important, than them having done the same job before. So I’d encourage people not to pigeonhole themselves and employers not to be too restrictive about the way they define what they are looking for.
Q. What piece of advice do you wish you had been given in the early stages of your career?
- Skills - You should devote serious attention to acquiring a broad range of skills on top of the traditional legal disciplines, whether it’s project management, collaboration or communication. Make an active effort to get them, think of how to grasp new opportunities that let you practice them, get feedback, and do these things again and again, because they become key as you progress in your career.
- Culture - Evaluate the culture of the place you are in because I think the culture is just as important as the nature of the business and the type of legal work. You can find yourself somewhere where they are doing the best legal work in a given field but because it is a culture that is not a good fit for you, let’s say it is too fast or slow-paced or too hierarchical, you are not going to be happy with that. You can do amazing things with your career if you are happy and working with like-minded people.
- Volunteer - I would also say volunteer to do things that you are interested in because you can quickly become an expert in a new or niche area and it can take your career in a very interesting or unexpected direction.
- Be open to change - It is unlikely that you are going to find your feet straight away. Be open to changing fields and trying new things. It is important not to pigeonhole yourself in one area of law as you start out.