Ex-CC lawyer working for a virtual firm from a distance

Nicole Smith spent nine years at Clifford Chance doing International Arbitration before joining Lawyers Direct.  She saw the move as an alternative to joining a partnership or setting up her own firm.  She is currently visiting her native New Zealand for a few months – one of the perks of working flexibly and remotely…


mtl: Hi Nicole, tell us about your career pre-Lawyers Direct and why you made a change.


Nicole:  I started my legal career in New Zealand where I worked for four and a half years in one of the larger commercial firms.  I moved to London to get some international experience and became a senior member of the international arbitration team at Clifford Chance. I was looking at the option of partnership at Clifford Chance and also at a number of US firms that wanted to move into the international arbitration arena.   However I knew that at some point I wanted to go back to New Zealand. I therefore had to think about the future and whether I wanted to spend a lot of time and effort building up a practice in London, only to then leave it all behind a few years later. 


I therefore looked for an alternative option that would allow me to make a transition back to New Zealand, while still building up a practice in my own name.  A colleague at Clifford Chance told me about Lawyers Direct and it has managed to fill both those requirements.  It has given me the opportunity to work from both sides of the world for the last two years, while being predominantly based in London.  At the moment I am in New Zealand on an extended holiday.  While I am here I am working on a number of my ongoing cases. I also have a number of meetings with New Zealand based international arbitration lawyers and I am working on a report on New Zealand arbitration for the International Chamber of Commerce. 


mtl: Tell us about working for a remote firm.  




Career timeline



Law, Victoria University



Assistant, commercial litigation, Simpson Grierson, Wellington



Senior assistant, international arbitration, Clifford Chance



Lawyers Direct


 Nicole:  I would highly recommend it.  There are great law firms in both London and New Zealand, but I would far rather be working for myself.  I had managed my own cases at Clifford Chance for years and so was not at all fazed by working by myself.  The only change I really noticed was needing to outsource the work that trainees would normally have done.  


Lawyers Direct gives you billing and back office support and we meet every couple of months for CPD training. We are a network of about 60 lawyers and cross-refer work to each other if we can’t handle it ourselves due to the subject matter or our capacity.  I mainly work from home or at the offices of clients. When I am working on hearings, the work is usually overseas, working out of hotels and hearing rooms. I also consult to law firms, assisting on cases at a senior level when they have peaks in their work-flow and need additional resources. My former colleagues at Clifford Chance have been very supportive of my move and I have assisted them on a number of cases and I have also worked with a few US firms.   


My charge out rate is less than half my old City rate so that is attractive to clients and also when I am consulting to law firms. I don’t have to do the kind of hours that I was doing at Clifford Chance during the busiest times, but I still have more than enough to keep me happy and well paid.


mtl: Who would it suit?  


Nicole:  It is a leap into the unknown moving to a virtual firm and the work and therefore salary isn’t guaranteed.  If you are the primary earner in a family or have a regular financial commitment then it may not be ideal as you can’t guarantee your cash flow. 


You have to be senior enough to be confident to make decisions by yourself and to be able to bring in your own work.  I don’t think it would suit more junior lawyers as they would not have enough experience to work on their own or the contacts to bring in their own clients.  Although there is some support and work is cross-referred by other lawyers within Lawyers Direct, you are effectively standing by yourself.  You also have to be a self-starter to develop your own career but in return you get the time and energy to do it. 


I would definitely recommend it to someone who has built up good client connections or a following.  This doesn’t need to be a large following as your overheads are low and you have the time to develop further clients and to obtain referrals from within Lawyers Direct.  My work comes from a couple of clients I worked with at Clifford Chance, sometimes Clifford Chance and other contacts within the large firms refer clients to me when they have a conflict or the case is too small for a large firm. Since joining Lawyers Direct my clients have included a Guatemalan honey exporter, an Indian telecoms company and the owners a Russian power station.  Where my clients are based around the world, it does not matter whether I am responding to their emails and calls from London or elsewhere and we meet in whatever location is most convenient at the relevant time.


mtl: Any tips for senior assistants?  


Nicole:   Be brave!  The traditional law firm system is bound to change because of the partnership issue – there are just not enough places for everyone coming though the ranks.  Think about what you want to do.  If you enjoy doing law then there are other ways to do it. 


It took me six months to make the decision to go to Lawyers Direct.  At the moment I do not think that there are any other similar firms doing work in the commercial sphere in London, though more will pop up in the future I’m sure.  I think that I have a flexible alternative to partnership in a traditional firm and I now have the time and energy to do all the training, teaching and writing that I meant to do at Clifford Chance but just never found the time to do.  I have access to my colleagues’ broad skills as in a normal commercial firm but I get to run my own life and my own practice. 


mtl:  Thank you Nicole.


Click here to see another virtual firm called Halebury.


If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.





Send this feature to a friend:


Your Name *
Friends Name *
Friends Email *