A Blueprint For Success – Acuity Law Partner Promotions
We catch up with our two newly promoted Acuity partners Liz Gibbons (Real Estate) and Tom Saunderson (Corporate), to find out about their careers so far.
Acuity Law (AL): Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Liz Gibbons (LG): No, actually! I didn’t always want to be a lawyer – I started off wanting to be a journalist. I did work experience as a lawyer and thought: that’s absolutely not what I want to do! I saw a trial, which was interesting, but most of the other days were in a law library researching what was mundane and monotonous law. The reality of my job now is very different. It’s varied, involves meeting lots of different types of people and keeps me busy and entertained on a day-to-day basis – which I love!
Tom Saunderson (TS): Me neither. At school, I wanted to be a doctor. But when it came to picking my A Levels, I didn’t fancy physics or chemistry and picked subjects I enjoyed more, which ruled out medicine as an option… I used to have a reputation in my family for arguing, so everyone told me I’d make a good lawyer and I just kind of went with it! (Laughs)
As with many aspiring lawyers, my only exposure to what it was like to be a lawyer growing up was on TV, and you learn very quickly that’s completely unrealistic. Law as a taught subject is also very uncommon and I think it has one of the higher drop-out rates at university, perhaps because it’s not what people expect. Fortunately for me, I really enjoy it, even if my workday will never look like a day in the life of Harvey Specter.
AL: What was your journey into law, Liz?
LG: I did an English Literature degree at Cardiff University. I graduated and then I got my first temporary job with a mortgage company. I came across a mortgage deed, and somebody said, “Oh, that’s just a piece of paper, that’s not important!”
I knew that was not the case, so it started my interest in property.
“I always did something drastic when [my parents] went on holiday. This time, they came back and I told them I was going to be a lawyer!”
I then saw an advert in the newspaper for an office junior at a Cardiff firm of solicitors. I applied and they told me I was overqualified, but I was offered a job as a legal secretary – and that started my journey.
I was working as a secretary for a property partner, and he said to me, “You ask far too many questions! Did you know you can convert your English degree to Law?” I wanted to understand it, basically.
My parents were on holiday at the time. I always did something drastic when they went on holiday. This time, they came back and I told them I was going to be a lawyer!
I attended Glamorgan University [now the University of South Wales] initially. I did a full-time conversion course while I was still working part-time as a legal secretary. So that was challenging. Then I went to Cardiff University for a year to do the Legal Practice Course and, thereafter, a training contract.
AL: Was it what you expected?
LG: When I was a legal secretary, I remember saying to the partner I was working for: “When I’m qualified, it will be great, because I won’t have to study and do all of the reading and learning!” He just laughed because, obviously, you keep learning every day.
AL: Tom, why did you choose Corporate law?
TS: The cliché is that you’re either a contentious lawyer or you’re not. When it came to studying and practising law, I found that I really didn’t enjoy contentious work; it didn’t suit my personality.
“Doing things in a more collaborative way is a better way to go about work and life in general.”
In the world of Corporate work, generally speaking, everyone is trying to achieve the same thing, and wants to work together to get a structure, a deal or a document that works for both sides. I think that’s quite rewarding – doing things in a more collaborative way is a better way to go about work and life in general.
I work best under pressure, and there isn’t anything quite like getting a deal over the line after being up to your eyes in emails, documents and deadlines, pulling all the various strands together, and then finally completing – that’s part and parcel of being a corporate lawyer, and I find it really fulfilling.
AL: Is there anything you wish you had known when you started out in your career?
TS: When I started my training contract, my first seat was in commercial property and construction, and I really liked the team. Based on that first seat, I made a decision that it was where I was going to qualify, and I didn’t keep a particularly open mind going into my subsequent seats, because in the back of my mind I thought I already knew where I wanted to go.
“It’s never too late to change.”
But actually, when I went back to that seat at the end of my training contract and started doing more of the work, I started to realise that I had made a decision because of the people in the team and not because of the work. I changed my mind and made the decision that I wanted to be a corporate lawyer, and I got into this sort of frenzy because I had already been offered an NQ role and I felt a little trapped. I had to leave the firm to pursue a role in corporate, which was a big decision and felt like a big risk at that stage in my career.
I wish someone had told me to keep an open mind and not jump in too soon. It’s never too late to change; don’t let yourself be shoehorned into an area of law you don’t particularly enjoy or that you’re not suited to just because there is a job there for you. It is a long career and you’ll end up resenting it.
AL: How about you, Liz?
LG: Early on in my career, I didn’t understand the importance and value of your ability to connect with other people and build relationships. The work is great, but unless you have the relationships behind that, you won’t build a network and your client base.
“Relationships are hugely important and it’s not just about the Law.”
I consider many of my social housing clients to be my friends – the individuals I work with in these organisations are the types that like to get to know you as a person as well. Relationships are hugely important and it’s not just about the Law.
AL: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
LG: Making partner was a pretty big moment! Everyone close to me realised how important that was to me. One of my best friends left flowers in my porch and a card, which said, “I know how hard you have worked for this.” I am a single mother with a daughter, and he knows it has been early mornings, working silly hours, working late to make sure that the hours are in but that my daughter has everything she needs too.
TS: The same for me – making partner. It’s seen as the pinnacle or “gold standard” of a law career, and getting that title feels like a massive achievement. I’ve worked very hard, and it feels great to get that recognition from the firm and my peers.
AL: What are your career goals?
TS: I’m working quite hard at developing my own area of specialism, growing my own network and building my own team. I’m quite passionate about working with founders, start-ups and early-stage companies and that is where I’m focused. The aim is to and continue to building those relationships and to get my name out there as being the go-to lawyer when it comes to pre-seed, seed and other early-stage investments.
LG: To continue to grow the Social Housing workstream at Acuity and have a standalone Social Housing team.
AL: What does your typical day look like – how do you spend the bulk of your time?
TS: Since I’ve had kids, and since Covid, that has really changed. Acuity is really good in that I have incredible flexibility on how my working day looks. I drop my little girl off to nursery and I go home, do dinner time, do bedtime and, if I need to, I’ll log on after that. That time is really important to me. As a professional, there’s this expectation that you’ll just work long hours, but at Acuity, I’m supported to have a proper family life outside of work.
“At Acuity, I’m supported to have a proper family life outside of work.”
In terms of what my day actually looks like – it is as you’d expect! I sit at a desk, whether that is at home or in the office, and type furiously for most of the day. That is broken up by phone calls, Teams meetings, coffee breaks and catching up with colleagues. Every now and again, I’ll get out into the world and meet clients and other contacts; that’s the best part of the job, especially when it is on a golf course!
LG: Most of my time is spend on Social Housing-related matters. I grew up in a council house, and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in. I don’t come from a moneyed family, and I think that is why I wanted to be in this area, because you see the value of what you’re doing. Real Estate generally involves money and I work on a variety of property transactions where significant sums of money are involved. However, there’s good that comes out of working for a housing association and acquiring a development site so that much-needed housing can be built.
“There’s good that comes out of working for a housing association and acquiring a development site so that much-needed housing can be built.”
It’s hard juggling the demands of work and managing my role as mum too. But I became a lawyer for a reason, and I can do my job and be a mother. Because where there’s a will, there’s a way, isn’t there? If you want to do it, you find the hours and you do it. But I’ve also always said that my daughter will always come first, and I will be at the school gates. I’m very open about that: I promise I’ll deliver, but I do need to be “mum” as well.
AL: What’s your message to your daughter in terms of her future?
LG: You can be anything you want to be. I’ve already said to her that you don’t necessarily need to go to university for every career. What you need to do is think about what you want to do and go out and get the best experience that you can. Follow your dreams and do what makes you happy. But do everything you do well. I’m not a half-hearted person. If you want to do it, make it count.