Alan Herbert is a property litigator and has spent much of his career working for top international law firms including Ashurst and Pinsent Curtis. Alan has also worked as Head of Litigation for a number of firms in the North where he continues to reside.
How does your day begin?
Since I became a consultant my morning starts with a walk on the Yorkshire Dales. Without a commute I can spend 45 minutes out in the countryside before being back at my desk at 8.30am. I’ve gained two hours back a day working from home. You don’t realise just how much time you waste commuting until you no longer have to do it. It’s been a real eye-opener. Extraordinary.
What prompted you to become a consultant?
It was a combination of things. I wanted to be better paid for the work I do. I also wanted to be more hands-on and get away from the politics of life as a partner. I like doing the coal face work but, as a partner in firms, I found I spent most of my time managing or having to get involved in the politics of larger partnership. It took up a lot of time and was very frustrating. I enjoy doing legal work, and working as a consultant has allowed me to focus purely on that.
Has consultancy been what you expected?
I’m not sure what I expected. It’s a bit like setting up on your own except you have a lot of people backing you up. I still work for some of my biggest clients and I am still doing good work
I wanted to be better paid for the work I do. I also wanted to be more hands-on and get away from the politics of life as a partner.
You previously worked at major firms including Ashurst and Pinsent Curtis (later Pinsent Masons) – how does working as a consultant compare?
The major differences are around billing pressure and client satisfaction. What is expected of you within a consultancy is very different to what is expected of you within a large traditional firm. As a consultant it’s up to you, you are in control. But within a major firm it’s very different. The bottom line is profit and if your firm doesn’t make enough, people start asking questions. You might be told if you add just £5 to your hourly billing the firm makes an extra £10 million in profit. But try telling that to clients. The pressure of billing targets can make you ill. I have had people in my team who have had some serious problems from worry over job security and where they were going. I don’t miss that at all. Similarly, because of the way large firms operate there is very little chance, once you are a very senior lawyer, to do much of the hands-on work. Clients want you to do it, but most can’t afford it because your rates reflect the huge overheads the law firm needs to cover. It’s mostly juniors doing the work. But that problem doesn’t exist as a consultant because overheads are so much lower. I am able to charge what I think is fair and it means I am the one doing the work – obviously my clients really like that.
How did your clients react when you left a traditional firm?
It’s not been an issue. Once they knew the size of Setfords, over 180 lawyers across multiple disciplines, they were fine. It’s important to them to know I can bring in other lawyers in other areas if needed. They rely on recommendation and if I am happy, they are happy. A Dutch client came to me and needed a property lawyer and it worked out very well. So far so good.
I am able to charge what I think is fair and it means I am the one doing the work – obviously my clients really like that.
What has been the greatest challenge of being a consultant?
I miss the office environment a bit – being able to chat to people who work close by. I see people at Setfords’ London office and I have contacts within the firm, and my network is beginning to grow, but obviously it’s not quite the same as being in a traditional office with people there day in and day out. Saying that, I am more efficient. I am not being distracted. You just put your head down and go from one job to the other – providing you don’t watch Jeremy Kyle…which I don’t! I miss that office atmosphere but overall I prefer this. I can do the work. Clients like it. And it tends to mean I’m finished by 4.30pm and I am free to do other things.
If you had to pick one, what has been the greatest benefit of consultancy so far?
The work-life balance. Feeling much more chilled out about life. It’s interesting I saw a fellow partner at my old firm and she said, ‘You look a lot healthier.’ This suits me. It doesn’t suit everybody, but it certainly suits me.
What would you say to other law firm partners considering becoming a consultant?
I would ask them what are their main aims from a work perspective. Some people want to be a partner for kudos and I understand that. But I don’t think that’s the same for most people anymore. More people are looking at work-life balance. They want to do the work. They want to get paid well.
Being a consultant is a much better way to run your working life. It is largely up to you to get work in, and whilst it would be wise to have a run-in period and some money set aside for those first few months, you are in control of your own destiny. I will earn more than I used to earn – the kind of figures I’m looking at I could take home up to 50% more.
How does your day end?
I normally finish around 4.30pm and then I like to go out for a walk or bike ride.