How I became a partner at a top City law firm | Law on The Gateway

How I became a partner at a top City law firm

CMS's Aaron Fairhurst on his career history and what he thinks are the secrets of his success

Aaron Fairhurst, a tax partner at leading City law firm CMS Cameron McKenna, on what allowed him to progress into his role and his working life at the firm.

"I studied accounting and law at the University of Manchester, and it soon became clear to me that I wanted to be a commercial lawyer.

I trained at CMS, decided to specialise in tax and, after 11 years here, became a partner."

My job

"I spend quite a lot of my time on the tax aspects of buying and selling companies: making sure the tax on the sale is minimised and making sure the new purchaser is going to hold the company in a tax-efficient way.

I often find myself being called upon when a deal is almost done and sometimes have to say, "for tax reasons, you can't do it that way." Everyone then sits down and figures out a way to get round the problem, which can be quite good fun.

At CMS we take our work very seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. There's a very collegiate atmosphere, not hierarchical in the slightest and very friendly - you'll regularly see partners chatting with trainees, assistants and support staff round the printers.

And we have fun once the work's done - I set up a firm rugby team and I've done some of my best marketing on nights out with clients!"

Starting out

"When you start at a law firm you learn everything from how to operate in an office environment, to how to research, to how to work with clients.

But I think the biggest thing you learn as a junior lawyer is that if you don't understand something, read it again and think about it.

It doesn't mean you're not good enough if you don't know something or don't get something first time round, and you'll show you have ability by asking intelligent questions. Being a City lawyer is intellectually demanding, but that's why we get out of bed in the morning.

It's also very important to hone your interpersonal skills. The job can involve long hours and you're going to spend a lot of time with people you work with and clients, so getting on with them is key."

Qualifying

"I did seats in real estate, in our Budapest office, in tax, and on secondment to Nestlé, but I knew fairly early on that I wanted to qualify into tax.

You shouldn't be shy about telling people that you'd like to join their department - they like to hear it! I started doing so as soon as I knew tax was where I wanted to be.

In order to get your place, you've got to be slightly fortunate in that there has to be a position available. Other than that, it's about a good fit in terms of abilities, a good fit with the team, and personal qualities."

Moving up

"In tax, getting the technical know-how is the hardest bit - it takes years to fully understand the area.

I used to have a crib sheet where I wrote down everything I learnt. It had cross references to other documents, useful pieces of drafting I'd done, and other bits of know-how. I built it up over time and it really helped me consolidate my knowledge.

As a newly-qualified associate, you realise you're at the firm and in your team for the long haul. As well as making sure you do a good job, you start to also think more about where your work's coming from and how you can find more of it yourself to help the firm and develop your career.

I went out of my way to build new client relationships and have been involved in creating a new area of practice for the firm - advising on the insurance of tax risks. We work for all the major players in this area now."

Becoming a partner

"One thing that assisted me in progressing into being a partner is that there was a lack of people doing the corporate side of tax work and I was able to fill that gap.

Other than that, I think it came down to being someone who people at the firm were happy to put in front of their clients.

Becoming a partner at CMS involves various courses and assessments, and feedback from existing partners. Then your department put you forward to the firm's board, who assess the business case for making you a partner. The partnership then vote, but it'd be unusual for them not to follow the decision of your team and the board.

Being made up is a momentous occasion. As when you join a firm as a trainee, you know you'll be asked to do things you haven't done before, and I was naturally slightly worried about whether I'd be good at them.

But once I realised I'd reached this point for a reason, I calmed down and just got on with the job."

The future

"There are new areas of work I'd like to expand into, and I like the business development side of things, meeting people and winning new clients. My long-term goal is for the firm to become more and more well-known in my field.

I really enjoy my job, and any partner will tell you that's why they've got to where they are. And that's built on finding a firm where you get on with the people because it means you're not going to panic when you're busy and need help, and won't feel you can't ask questions - these things help people feel comfortable and do their best work.

I found a good fit at CMS, and that's why I progressed fairly quickly and am still here now!"

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