UK Managing Director, Peerpoint
Managing Director, Asia Pacific
Global Marketing Manager, Peerpoint
If there were any doubts how rapidly attitudes to employment in the legal profession have changed, a ground-breaking and substantial piece of research in 2018 should have laid them to rest.
Commissioned by Peerpoint, Allen & Overy’s international platform for consultant lawyers, the report – The Future for Legal Talent – canvassed the views of more than 1,000 lawyers at all levels across the industry, as well as law students.
It painted a picture of an industry undergoing profound change, propelled by the disruptive effects of technology, new business models and, above all, by demands from lawyers for new ways of working and progressing in their careers.
The survey found that while a resounding 74% of lawyers were happy with their choice of profession, a surprisingly high number admitted to being frustrated with conventional career paths.
A good work/life balance was the top priority for many – and they were prepared to sacrifice both income and seniority to achieve it.
The report also found consulting had entered the mainstream, with more than a third of respondents saying they had considered working as a consultant lawyer and more than half saying they would recommend consulting to a friend.
It’s a picture that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
This is the fast-changing backdrop against which Peerpoint has come of age, reaching its fifth birthday in October 2018.
In that time it has grown from scratch into a vibrant international business with an expanding presence across the UK, parts of continental Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.
From small beginnings
Ben Williams was one of the main architects of Peerpoint and is now its managing director. Looking back over those five years, he finds it unsurprising, but encouraging, how quickly consulting has taken hold.
It was an employment model he was familiar with from his years in HR, focusing on technology and business improvement. In these areas, as in many others, consulting has long been commonplace.
“To me, it was always a bit weird that it had such a low profile in the legal profession,” he says. Here the traditional paths to career progression held sway.
For most lawyers that meant joining a firm as a trainee, qualifying and moving up the ranks to perhaps, one day, make partner. Some might sidestep into a knowledge management or counsel role; others might opt to go in-house. For those most dissatisfied with this ‘monoline’ process of progression, it could often mean leaving the law altogether.
Five years ago, it was almost unheard of to find consultant lawyers working within A&O.
There were three trailblazers, however: all working mothers who stepped in at busy times to boost the resources of the Banking practice, much as Peerpoint consultants might do today.
Ben had just finished setting up A&O’s Legal Services Centre (LSC) in Belfast and was looking at a range of new business improvement ideas. Consulting was one of them, and the work of these three highly qualified lawyers naturally caught his eye.
“We could see it seemed to work well for A&O and for the lawyers. And clients didn’t seem to mind,” he says.
“Wim Dejonghe (then global managing partner) and I talked about it in passing and we started to wonder whether it was scalable. That’s the piece of work that became Peerpoint.”
Ben is reluctant to call the launch of Peerpoint pioneering. A small number of consultant lawyer businesses were already in the market.
“But this was the first time a top-tier global elite law firm had considered doing it,” he says. “Including Peerpoint in a portfolio of other A&O Advanced Delivery initiatives, and integrated with the wider firm, is where the innovation lies.”
In five years, Peerpoint has grown from that germ of an idea into a business now achieving significant revenues and making a net contribution to the firm. Today, Peerpoint has a panel of more than 300 consultants, with some 230 in the UK, around 20 in Amsterdam and 70 across Asia.
A cautious testing of the water
The first steps on that journey of growth were, necessarily, tentative. This was new territory and predicting the potential size of a market that scarcely existed was tricky. Much of the early focus was on risk.
Would Peerpoint cannibalise A&O’s main business? Would it be possible to find enough lawyers willing to leap into the relative unknown to build a business of sufficient size? If consulting were such an attractive option, would a whole host of associates quit the firm and opt for this way of working instead? Would clients see this as a cheaper option and push for discounts more widely? What about conflicts of interest?
Many of those potential risks proved illusory. “I have a presentation from those early days and it makes me laugh when I look at it now,” says Ben. “At least 50% of the slide deck is about risks and how we planned to mitigate them. In reality, only about two or three of them turned out to be real. The rest were hypothetical and never came to fruition.”
But caution prevailed and strict limits were put on the business at first.
It would only operate in London. It would recruit exclusively A&O alumni and would focus solely on work within A&O itself, rather than on site with clients. “Looking back, it was a pretty severe hobbling of what we could achieve – a cautious testing of the water,” he says.
The key challenge in the early days was to match supply and demand, with Peerpoint determined only to hire lawyers if there was a reasonable chance of placing them on high-quality assignments.
“When you boil it down, it’s a pretty simple dynamic,” says Ben. “This is a business that runs much better at scale because supply and demand coincide more often as you expand – which means actually having good work for real people.”
To grow, the team needed new skills. In early 2014, it was decided that Peerpoint needed a CEO with front-line business experience and a track record in client-facing roles.
Towards the end of that year, Richard Punt, previously managing partner for clients and markets at Deloitte, was appointed to the role.
In the interim, Peerpoint turned a significant corner when it placed consultants with clients for the first time, with two lawyers taking up temporary roles at big international investment banks.
Carolyn Aldous, then working in Singapore as the Asia Pacific client relationship manager, moved to London to help further build relations with clients. It was meant to be a three-month secondment, but she ended up staying for three years before returning to Asia as managing director of Peerpoint in the region.
“That was a big transformation point for us,” says Ben. “Work for A&O was patchy, always dependent on how the firm was doing and often involved very intense periods of work over a short period. It was less reliable for consultants.
“By contrast, we knew there was huge demand from clients for interim help and that demand was more consistent. Suddenly we had reliable demand and that opened up opportunities for lawyers, particularly those who wanted the benefits of consulting, but actually wanted to work on a pretty full-time basis, at least for the parts of the year they chose to work. Going after client roles was a big moment for us.”
Today, 70% of Peerpoint lawyers are working client-side rather than on internal A&O assignments.
A focus on quality
The make-up of the Peerpoint panel has changed too, with A&O alumni now comprising just 40% of the consultants on its books globally. While 60% of the panel are women, consulting is clearly proving almost as popular an option for men.
As the concept has grown, there has been a consistent focus on the needs of the consultants, rather than building the business primarily around the needs of clients.
“We’ve developed Peerpoint around offering really interesting and positive development opportunities for lawyers. We now spend a lot of time talking about the merits of consulting because we have a lot of people coming to us looking for a different kind of career,” says Ben.
“They are coming to us because they have a clear view of what they want to achieve and what they want to do. We can help with the thought process, but increasingly they are very career-minded, very organised, very considered – people who can manage their own work flow, their own network of contacts and their own brand.”
Carolyn Aldous agrees. “Although not the right choice for everybody, consulting with the right platform can actually boost your career in ways often not possible within a more traditional employment setting,” she argues.
“Far too often, talented lawyers are leaving the profession because it can’t offer what they want or need. It’s harder these days to make partner, and it can be just as hard to progress in-house. The people we meet are frustrated by slow career progression and they come to Peerpoint because they want access to quality projects, but also the support through A&O’s training programmes and resources. For those who want a change from a more conventional career path, it really is a win‑win!”
That fact is borne out in the stats. Many people wrongly believe Peerpoint is aimed mostly at senior or partner level lawyers, and there are many lawyers on the panel at this level. But a good proportion has less experience, and Peerpoint is keen to attract more mid-level lawyers at earlier stages of their careers.
For most attracted to a career in consultancy, whatever level of experience, the motivation is similar: the freedom to choose a role or an organisation to work with and the chance to take on front line, high-end legal projects rather than, for example, getting drawn into line management roles as might happen if they stayed in permanent roles.
Because Peerpoint cannot absolutely guarantee work, it does not insist on an exclusive relationship with its lawyers. Some, keen to ensure a consistent stream of work, may choose to sign up to a variety of platforms.
“Rather than seeking exclusivity, we try to make ourselves the most attractive group to work for,” says Ben. “That not only means finding high quality projects for consultants to work on but providing great support, training and advice during and between assignments, and opportunities to network extensively with peers so that they can share ideas and experiences.”
That’s important, he stresses. Consulting can sometimes be a lonely experience, particularly after life in a big global firm or a busy corporate setting.
Challenges of growth
Peerpoint’s rapid growth has been achieved entirely organically, but it could have been different. In 2013, Ben and A&O did look hard at acquiring an existing consulting business that would have added more than 100 lawyers to the panel, considerable market know-how and revenues from day one.
But the idea was quickly dismissed. “We just thought we could do better growing the business ourselves,” says Ben. “The focus for us is on the quality and calibre of the lawyers we take on and we have a rigorous recruitment process to make sure we maintain those standards. That’s always been more important to us than scale and income.”
So has it been challenging growing the business and taking the Peerpoint model to new markets?
Carolyn again: “Every market has its own unique characteristics in terms of employment culture and regulation, but the Peerpoint model translates well in each location and the drivers for lawyers and clients remain largely the same. Our clear mission is to be the leading global platform for self-directed lawyers.”
The legal consulting sector may become increasingly competitive in future, but for now there is still work to do to establish it as a credible proposition.
As Amy Sullivan, Peerpoint’s global marketing manager, puts it: “The market is still relatively young, so our campaigns are about demystifying some of the misconceptions about consulting as well as positioning a career with Peerpoint as an appealing alternative proposition for top-tier lawyers who question whether traditional paths to progression in our industry are for them.”
The team is convinced there is scope for much greater growth in selected markets, thanks to changing client needs, developments in technology and demographic and other pressures leading an increasing number of lawyers to question how their careers develop.
There are opportunities to grow in continental Europe, particularly post-Brexit, and the Middle East shows some signs of promise too. But the U.S. – a huge and currently under-served market – presents an even greater opportunity, and one that could easily be as big a prize for Peerpoint as the UK.
“We’re nowhere near topping out,” says Ben, “and the reality is we have plenty of headroom to grow, even before we start looking at new markets.”
Peerpoint Consultant, London
I trained and qualified with Allen & Overy and spent seven years working within Capital Markets and Corporate law, before being seconded to a bank. I enjoyed the lifestyle of working in-house and I continued in this direction for 20 years. I joined the Peerpoint panel in search of a new professional challenge and took on my first assignment in structured finance with a major bank.
I love the freedom that comes with consultancy to get on with the job and, while you need a level of flexibility, the reward is greater experience through increased exposure to different organisations, contracts, projects and people. New and different roles, such as moving across to the buy-side, are much more accessible when you’re a consultant, which means lots of opportunities to broaden your skillset.
I’ve enjoyed returning to the familiarity of A&O, with its on-going support network and regular feedback meetings. The great thing about consultancy is that it can be very similar to working in-house. I work full-time on high-calibre projects. It just requires a slightly different mindset.
Peerpoint Consultant, Hong Kong
I’m a Financial Services regulatory lawyer and had worked in private practice within Magic Circle law firms for several years before moving into consultancy. I loved my work but there came a point at which the demands that a permanent, full-time role made on my time no longer suited me. I took a brief sabbatical but missed the challenges that came with working in law.
Since I’m an A&O alumna, Peerpoint was a natural fit. Everything A&O sets out to do is always to the highest standard, so I was confident in my decision to join the panel. I signed up as a consultant in December 2016 and began my first assignment with A&O’s Financial Services Regulatory practice team in the Hong Kong office in January 2017.
My experience with Peerpoint has been top-notch. They truly listened to what both the client and I were looking for from the arrangement, and tailor-made a package that ticked all the boxes in a supportive, open and innovative way. In addition to great projects and access to top clients, consulting through Peerpoint has freed up time in my schedule to manage my property business and has made it possible for me to spend quality time with my young family throughout their formative years.
Ben Williams joined Allen & Overy in 1998 as the most junior member of HR with a focus on technology. From 2010, he worked in, and then led, A&O’s Business Improvement Unit and, among other things, played a key role in establishing the Legal Services Centre in Belfast. In 2013, he set up and launched Peerpoint, becoming COO, and later UK managing director.
Carolyn Aldous leads the Peerpoint team in Asia. She transferred to A&O’s London office in 2014 to join the Peerpoint management team on secondment from Singapore where she was the Asia-Pacific client relationship manager. She became head of clients and worked in London for three years before moving back to Asia last year.
Amy Sullivan joined Peerpoint as global marketing manager in 2018. She has worked in marketing for 10 years at top tier firms including Slaughter and May and Clyde & Co.
Find out more about Peerpoint