bckr | “Enthusiasm over aptitude!  If they like you, you are 80% there” Anna Ponton and Stuart Morton – Odgers Berndston
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“Enthusiasm over aptitude!  If they like you, you are 80% there” Anna Ponton and Stuart Morton – Odgers Berndston

“Enthusiasm over aptitude!  If they like you, you are 80% there” Anna Ponton and Stuart Morton – Odgers Berndston

This week we were delighted to welcome Anna Ponton and Stuart Morton from headhunters Odgers Berndston to BCKR to share their thoughts with us.


Law firms are generally not very good at helping their partners and alumni to make the transition to life outside law. Unhappy alumni are not useful alumni; some law firms are beginning to react and ask for advice on how to improve.


How they work

Both Anna and Stuart are lawyers.  They run the Professional Services team at Odgers Berndtson and both sit on the board practice, chaired by Virginia Bottomley.

They understand the challenges that face lawyers who want to take on outside roles and though it isn’t an easy path to take – it is doable – but you do need to work hard at it.

A great example of someone who threw themselves into getting an outside role is Caroline Goodall, who made a concerted effort to get her first role, ending up with a role on the board of the Investment Trust which was a listed role and gave her a great PLC anchor without creating conflict.


How to get noticed

Lawyers don’t recognise how important their network is.  50% of roles will come through your own network – particularly the first one.

You need to spend an afternoon mapping out who can be helpful to you and then you need to get out there.  It is easier to let people know you are looking whilst still in full time practice, when you are still seeing clients etc.

But you need to banish thoughts that asking for a coffee with someone is being a bother.

Raise your profile – speak at events.

When you meet with someone, try to leave the meeting with 2-3 other introductions.

Having more than one entry point into a headhunter is a good idea.  Don’t rely on one contact.

Don’t expect overnight results.

If you are systematic in your approach it can actually be quite energising, you’ll be gaining snippets of information all the time.

Don’t leave home without your business card.

Don’t forget Linked-In.  Keep your profile up-to-date.  Redraft so that you have the right key words and skill sets – search engine optimisation!


What to expect

Headhunters can be likened to a Labrador – cold nose but warm heart.  They are also gatekeepers.

Getting in to see a headhunter can be hard.  One of the best ways is to get an introduction.

When you do get a chance for a cup of coffee make sure you are prepared.  You will probably only get one coffee, so make it count.

You need to have a clear pitch about who you are and what you are looking for.  Don’t expect to be spoon fed by the headhunter.

Choose your headhunter carefully.  Make sure you research what each of the headhunters do. What is their practice area?


How to keep in touch afterwards

Headhunters love inside gossip and knowledge.

A short 2-3 line email every six weeks updating them on where you are, what you have done recently in your search, who you have met – show you are working hard at getting a role.  This will help keep you top of mind.  An email is better than a phone call.

Having more than one contact within a firm will help build up an important picture.  And there is a lot of cross referencing within a headhunting firm and also between firms.  The pool is quite small.


Private sector

Beware the fireside chat.  What you think might be a casual conversation may be masquerading as an interview.  Make sure you are prepared.  Be strategic; if you are meeting a Chairman for coffee make sure you know what you want to get out of it.

Headhunters love to be able to reference you with some big wig.  They like to be able to qualify you so keep them posted on important meetings. Or get an introduction.


Public sector

Respect the process.  It can be quite brutal.  The is a bar and if you don’t reach it there is no nuancing your way through the process.  You have to be ok at everything they are looking for.  Consider what they are looking for and match it paragraph by paragraph in your application.

Much more preparation involved.

  • As an aside they have just placed two partners on The Law Society Board. Despite being advertised on the BCKR website and of course more widely – they had very few applicants.  Why wouldn’t you throw your hat in the ring?  Once you get your first role it is then easier to get the next one.



We are all too familiar with the negative perceptions of lawyers:

  • Not commercial
  • Too detail conscious
  • Not creative thinkers
  • Not risk takers
  • Think tactically not strategically
  • Servant of the board – not on it

The positives are:

  • Intellectual capacity
  • Ability to identify the elephant in the room
  • Highlights important detail
  • Good antenna for risk
  • Diligently reads board papers
  • Suits a regulated environment

There has undoubtedly been a bias for Chairmen to say they have a GC already and don’t need another lawyer. But really, a good NED is someone who asks difficult questions and lawyers are good at unpicking questions.

What you need to find is the right vocabulary for describing your skill set in a non-lawyer context.

Numeracy is another stumbling block for lawyers.  Make sure you can read a balance sheet.


The interview

It’s all about the preparation.

You need to sell yourself and your strengths.  Provide strong anecdotal evidence relevant to the role.

Don’t underestimate how important it is to show enthusiasm (smile – make eye contact – look engaged).  If they like you, you are 80% there.

Make sure you have questions to ask.  Look and act engaged.  Be energetic.


In summary – It is doable, but it is a long slog.  Headhunters are more likely to be helpful to you once you already have a role.  It is your network that is most likely to help you get your first role.


Is there a different set of bias towards a GC/in house lawyer?

As a GC; you are probably better placed because of your exposure and interaction with boards through your day job.  Your ability to see things through the client lens is a place where you can add value.


Your CV

Skill set is more important than deal list.  Headhunters are not interested in your introductory paragraph.  Introductory email or application letter are more important.  From a headhunter’s perspective the CV isn’t the most important aspect of you.  They are more interested in who introduces you, and who your contacts are.  They will use Linked-In so keywords in your profile are important to ensure your profile comes up in searches.


BCKR holds regular CV workshops for lawyers in search of tips for writing or restructuring their CV.


For a copy of Odgers Berndston’s presentation please click here.