Lessons I Learned in Law

Peter King on why you must learn to say "No!"

December 02, 2021 Heriot Brown Season 2 Episode 3
Lessons I Learned in Law
Peter King on why you must learn to say "No!"
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to Peter King.

Peter King is the Legal Director at HM Treasury.  He leads a team of some 90 lawyers which provides in-house legal advice to Treasury ministers and civil servants.  Previously he worked as a corporate and M&A partner at Linklaters.  He is also a trustee of several charities, including the Salvation Army and Riot Ensemble, a contemporary music group.

Peter shares the three lessons he has learned in law including:

  • The power of networking for developing your career and client list.
  • Learn to say ‘No’!
  • The importance of being able to recognise the signs of stress in other people.

Peter also talks openly about his faith and how he views the legal profession as his vocation.

If you’re interested in exploring a career with the Government’s Legal Department, click  Here.

Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment.

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This episode of Lessons I Learned in Law is brought to you by Beamery.

Beamery is an AI-powered talent platform, designed to hire candidates faster, develop the skills of your workforce, and increase employee retention.

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Scott Brown  (0:02)  

Hi and welcome to Lessons I Learned in Law with me, Scott Brown, founder of Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. On each episode of the podcast, you get to hear my conversations with top legal minds as they break down their three key lessons that they've learned working in law. With any luck, you'll be informed, inspired and armed with a bit more knowledge to work your way along your career path. Today, I'm delighted to be joined by Peter King. Peter is legal director HM Treasury, which is part of the government legal department. The government legal department is an organisation that has an estimated 1500 lawyers in the UK to quite the size. Pierre also has a slightly uncommon career path in the in house aspect of that, given that he previously worked as a partner in corporate law teams at Linklaters Sherman Sterling and wild goats Show. Welcome to the podcast, Peter. Thank you. Nice to be with you. Peter is also born and bred in Dulwich and proud of that. So he lives he lives close by to myself as well in southeast London. So more to come on More to come on that. But, Peter, if we could just kick off with lesson number one?


Peter King  (1:14)  

Yeah. So for me, lesson number one is about the importance of networks. So maybe I've heard just unpack that a bit. So when I first started as a lawyer, I thought it would be more than enough, if I was just really good at my job. And if I was really good at my job, then work would calm and I would be fine. And I would have plenty to do, I soon realised that was just wrong. And a couple of things really made that clear to me as as my career developed. And as I went on, through my time at Linklaters, I started when I was fairly young, doing some work for some investment bankers, and I worked for some junior investment bankers my sort of age, and did little things like helping them out with presentations they were making to more senior people, that sort of thing. And then they became more senior, I still was helping them out, they became more and more senior, I became more and more senior. And eventually, they became the source of many millions of pounds of work worth of work many millions. And, you know, that was just a couple of investment bankers. And I think probably, it was a little bit later on that I realised that if I'd kept up with for investment bankers, instead of to my practice would have been even more valuable than it was.


Scott Brown  (2:36)  

Yeah, it's, yeah, good point. But yeah, I guess something, something that you've taken away? Were you encouraged to do that by the partners in the firm at that time?


Peter King  (2:47)  

I think not really, I think, I think the role of an associate at that stage was very much just to get one's head down and get on with doing the work and deliver, you know, really good, accurate, and, and, you know, and helpful work, which I did. And, you know, was always thought that all this marketing stuff was for partners, and we didn't do it. I always thought that was probably wrong, actually. And I thought relationships mattered at all levels. And I still think that actually, I think they do I think, you know, the people who I saw being successful are often people who kept up not, not some, you know, not in any sort of way, spending time with people you don't like, or, you know, trying to exploit friendships, but actually just spending time with with friends they'd made, you know, university or through working opposite them on transactions or whatever it might be, and just developing those relationships. And they, they succeeded well, because of that.


Scott Brown  (3:49)  

Yeah, yeah, no, it's good resonates a little bit with me. When I was a lawyer in private practice, I think I liked that aspect of what a partner was doing versus the becoming a good lawyer, but couldn't really see the career career path ahead of me, which is, which is kind of what's drawn me towards recruitment. But do you think it was there any structure or in your, your conversations? Was there any any structure and having associates that were more minded to do business development or call it call it out? Or sales or marketing and splitting splitting it? Perhaps?


Peter King  (4:23)  

Not really, I don't think I mean, it seems to me that if you're working in private practice, you need to be rounded you know, you do need to be extremely good at the law if you're going to succeed you need to be able to get the law right. And you need to be the sort of person who can engage with people across a wide range of different people. And you know, I've always worked when working with with more junior people tried to encourage them to to find their own level find their own place where they feel happy, you know, some people feel happy. Spending hours in pubs and things like that. Others others don't. And you know, if you're one of those There's people who doesn't find something else that you like doing with people, you know? Yes, find it find your own way of doing it.


Scott Brown  (5:06)  

Yeah, no, good. That's good advice. And today, how do you view networking? Today in this in this era with LinkedIn and other other sources,


Peter King  (5:16)  

I mean, you know, I do use LinkedIn and other sources to keep up with people. And, you know, I have a pretty wide network now, which actually extends around the world, particularly because of the sort of work I used to do. In my previous job. I have actually found, interestingly, that it's quite important. Part of my role in government is actually to have a very good network to get on very well with my fellow legal directors in other departments across Whitehall, to, you know, to know, other civil servants across the whole of the Treasury and other departments and to be able to, to, to, to use those relationships to get things done.


Scott Brown  (5:58)  

Right. As an in house lawyer now, do you find having worked in a partnership has been good for that?


Peter King  (6:04)  

Yes, it is. It's interesting. You know, the government legal departments are unique organisations, you know, it's basically the the organisation which covers most of the lawyers who work in government, there are a few who work outside the government, legal department, biggest group of those being the ones who worked for HMRC. But but it is a bit like a partnership in the sense that there are there are a lot of us who have the sort of general counsel type role that I have in different departments, but we we relate to each other. And the way we relate to each other is much the same way as you relate to partners in your partners in a law firm, you have different skills, different areas of responsibility, and you and you you work together a lot.


Scott Brown  (6:57)  

Onto lesson two, you tell us tell us about that.


Peter King  (7:00)  

Okay, so lesson two, some bit more negative, I suppose it's about learning to say no. And again, I, you know, I come back to the way that lawyers naturally behave, I think, I think if you're a lawyer, you you naturally say yes to things, you don't want to say no to a client, you certainly don't want to say no, if someone's offering you some work, that might actually pay the firm some money. So you develop a habit of saying yes to everything. And that I think also spills over into your private life, at least my wife would say, it spills over into your private life. You can play ads, I never say no to anything. And, you know, sometimes it is the right thing to do to say no, because, you know, you could be committing your own resources, your own energy, your own your own time, or indeed the resources of other people, the resources of the firm, the resources of your department, whatever it might be to something that really isn't worthwhile, that really doesn't get you anywhere that really, you know, either doesn't pay or, you know, is with a client who's going to cause you more trouble than they're worth. And you have to learn how to say no. And, and there's a thing about limitations as well. I mean, when I, I learned this the hard way, I have to say, you know, very early on, I did one of those transactions where, you know, I was working 100 hours a week or whatever. And fine, we got near the end of the transaction, actually, we got to Easter, it was Easter, and the partner in charge at the transaction said, look, we've all been working terribly hard, we are going to have Easter off, we're going to have, we're not working over Easter, which I was very pleased about. And so, you know, I went home, and I was ill, was ill for about a week. And that was the release of the stress of all that time. And I realised I had limitations, I just was not able to work that sort of intensity forever and ever and ever. So, again, you know, learning to say actually, I've reached my limit, I can't do any more.


Scott Brown  (9:11)  

Yeah. Was there a point in your career where you felt confident or comfortable to say no?


Peter King  (9:17)  

Pretty soon after that, actually. Because I knew, I knew if I was getting to that stage again, I knew what the result would be. And I knew, you know, I was felt confident enough and actually, I was supported enough by people around me that that I was able to able to say that and you know, there's a lesson in leadership here for me, which is that, you know, you need to create the sort of culture around you where where people can say, Look, I'm at my, my limits, I can't go any further.


Scott Brown  (9:47)  

Because we may have junior lawyers listening that in city practices that might think it's all all well seeing that but actually, when when you're on a transaction and being asked to do all ours under the sun, I know it's still fairly common and has been during lockdown. What advice would you have for them in pushing back to managers?


Peter King  (10:09)  

I mean, I would advise you to be honest to be honestly, to be honest, that's the key thing. I think it is important, you obviously don't want to pull that trigger. Now unnecessarily or too often. But that if you are reaching your limit, then please say so. Because, you know, there are things that can be done. And actually, you know, most most partners in law firms are not ogres. If they hear this and they know it's genuine, then they will, they will do something about it. They may well say, actually, we need to take you off this and put someone else on eight, or we need to bring in more resource or whatever it might be. But actually, and this is going to spill over into the third lesson, which we'll come on to in a moment. But you know, if you know, then you can do something.


Scott Brown  (11:02)  

Good point. Yeah. I think having that having that trusting relationship. Do you see a career limiting? I suppose that's where people think is, if I say no to something, I'm limiting and limiting myself. Well, what people think of me.


Peter King  (11:16)  

Yeah, I mean, again, I would, I'm not sure it is career limiting, actually. You know, I think if you're doing really good work, and you're producing really excellent results with clients, and you say, actually, I can't do any more of this. No one is going to is going to hold that against you. At least I wouldn't. I do know there are people who would. And I do know that will people who say, you know, you're not up to it if you can't take this sort of pace. I don't think that's the way the prevailing climate is going at the moment in law firms, I'm pleased to say


Scott Brown  (11:54)  

yes, yeah, no, there's there's a lot more awareness around mental health and issues around that. Yeah. Great. So moving on to yourself, personally, Peter, how many years as a partner in private practice? 


Peter King  (12:08)  

Well, so I became a partner in Linklaters in 1990. And I stopped being a partner in while in 2017. So I can add that up 37 years, I think,


Scott Brown  (12:18)  

was captured the profession for for that long? 


Peter King  (12:21)  

Well, I mean, a couple of things. First of all, I really like the work. You know, I'm, I've never had a period where I thought, I really hate this, and I can't do this anymore. Connected with that is something which is, which is a bit unusual, which I've talked about before publicly, which is that, you know, I feel I have a vocation, to do this. I'm a committed Christian, it's something that that something that means a lot to me. And I believe, God has called me to be a lawyer, in the same way as he calls some people to be a vicar or some people to be, you know, a nurse or a doctor. Yeah, a lot. Many people think about the law in that sense. But I do feel that you know, and I feel that, you know, the values that go with being a lawyer, the values of integrity, and truth, and so on, are, are very close to the values that I hold dear as a Christian.


Scott Brown  (13:18)  

when did you feel this? When did you decide that law was the the right career for you,


Peter King  (13:22)  

I can tell you that I can remember it very well. I was at university. And I actually switched. I did French and German for my first year at university, and switched over to law, which was something that was allowed at the university I went to. And if you did that, you had to go come up, do some extra law lectures. So you sort of got into it, because you joined the lawyers in their second year when they'd already been doing some law. So I came up in the summer, I did some did some law lectures. And I think about on the second day of the law lectures, I thought, This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Yeah, it started off. Did you hear that? The light bulb went on? 


Scott Brown  (14:01)  

Yeah, that is good to get to hear then being committed to the French and German did you keep did you keep up the language? 


Peter King  (14:06)  

Yeah, I did. And I was very fortunate, you know, I had a chance I've had chances all the way through my career, particularly actually, after I became a partner to work with, with clients from those two countries. And I spent about 18 months living in Frankfurt for Linklaters, which just after they'd done their big merger with a German law firm, right? I just enjoy that. While Frankfurt itself is not my favourite city in the world, but I you know, I'm actually there's a lot in Germany, which is very, very nice and it's a great place to be and I really enjoyed being involved with the people and and helping them to become if you like more part of the Linklaters family and integrate with what we were doing worldwide.


Scott Brown  (14:51)  

A point of interest for me, obviously, is the move then to in an international HM Treasury. How did that come about?


Peter King  (14:58)  

Well, I reached a point in my A career at Weill where you know, I really had two choices, I could either carry on for a few years and then retire. Or I could do something else. And I thought the only way I'm going to find out if there is anything else out there I could do is by trying a few things. I did try a few things. This job came up. And to be honest, I thought I had absolutely no chance of getting it. Because I knew that government, senior legal jobs in government tend to go to government lawyers, you know, all their lives. So I had a word with the headhunters who were doing it, you know, a bit like your profession. But yes. And I said, you know, is there any point in me applying, and they were actually very discouraging? Well, normally, these jobs go to senior government lawyers, but you can apply if you like. So I put my application in and to cut a long story short, here I am. And it's, it's been absolutely fascinating. It's a really interesting job. You know, you see the inside of government in a way that that, that gives you real insight into the way in which things work. You know, you see the good and the bad, you see everything. And it's, it's a really fascinating role. And I worked with some great people as well, you know, with some really talented lawyers and some really talented civil servants as well.


Scott Brown  (16:27)  

Fantastic odds stacked against you, I think, partners that come to us looking to make a move at that stage, it is a is a challenge. So yeah, great.


Peter King  (16:37)  

Yeah, I think I was very fortunate actually, Scott. And, you know, I do think, you know, I do talk to quite a number, I'm sure you do, too, to quite a number of partners who are thinking about making this sort of move towards the end of their careers. And, you know, there are lots of people who have done it, but they're equally large number of people who've never found the thing that they can move into and, you know, have just gone off into the sunset


Scott Brown  (17:08)  

do the lessons, lesson number three, if you could walk us through that.


Peter King  (17:11)  

Okay, so, lesson number three is a bit more about leadership, it's about recognising the signs of stress in others. And again, I realised this through some bad experiences, as well as some good experiences. You know, I, I worked a lot with with junior associates, you know, throughout my career as a partner, you know, they would say things to me, like, it's all fine, I've got it all under control. I'm working on it, I'll get it done, don't worry, then I would notice that they were still in the office at 11 o'clock, or whatever it might be. And I'd say things like, you, okay, you know, is it okay? You want to control? You know, are you getting enough sleep, those sorts of things? And they say yes, it's fine. It's fine, don't worry. And then And then, you know, I'd realise it actually wasn't fine. And, you know, I've realised afterwards that without really trying to do it, I've actually pushed that person far too hard. And, you know, I've spent some time and actually talked to friends who are in the, in, in professions where they know about these things, you know, learning to recognise when things are going wrong for somebody when they when they are reaching that that point of stress, which they're not going to come back from.


Scott Brown  (18:23)  

Yeah. Did you having been in that position? As a as an associate? Did you recognise any of the warning signs from your, from yourself?


Peter King  (18:32)  

Yeah, I did. I think I mean, the, you know, there's that sort of spiral you get into where you're, you've got a lot to do. But actually, each step is taking you longer and longer and longer, you're not able to work at the level of efficiency that you you feel you should be, you know, I was certainly aware of that in myself and I you know, when I knew that was happening, I would actually go home, have some sleep, come back, you know, even come back at seven o'clock in the morning or something really early in the morning and do the thing and discover that the thing that was taking me ages and ages and ages at eight o'clock at night, I could do in half an hour at seven o'clock in the morning. Yeah, you know, it's little things like that, that made a huge amount of difference to me. And you know, I tried to help others to see the same thing you know, sometimes that that, that working all night on something is not the way to do it, actually, the best thing to do is to leave it go away, come back, and it will take far less time.


Scott Brown  (19:29)  

I guess it goes full circle from less than less than to where you've been in that position of not seeing no recognising those people that are in your team that don't like to say no or don't have the natural, the natural tendency to say no law firms or professionals in in large corporates like that, that get to management positions. My opinion is this should really remember what it was like to be in that position.


Peter King  (19:55)  

Yeah, and sometimes, you know, people work in different aways as well, don't they? So, you know, again, there's that sort of morning evening thing I work very well, in the mornings, my best work is always done in the morning. Some people are much more the other way around. I had a, an associate once, who's who's gone on to great things done very well. And she, you know, she actually came into the office generally about 12. And she worked, you know, very, very late into the evening. Really good at what she did, you know, did brilliant work actually worked a lot with us because it sort of worked for her. But but, you know, getting her to do any work at all between before about 12 in the 12 o'clock in the morning, 12. Noon, was was almost impossible.


Scott Brown  (20:47)  

Right? Well, find the rhythm. Yeah. At best this last year, with everything being remote and virtual. Do you think that has any, any impact on that lesson? To be able to see that?


Peter King  (21:03)  

Yeah, I think I think there are a lot of issues, which we could spend a long while talking about, I mean, boundaries has been a really important issue for for me. And certainly in the team. You know, I'm fortunate I can, I can close the door of the room where I work and not go into it again. And, you know, feel that there is a barrier, if you like, between my work life and my home life. Other people can't do that so easily they work in their sitting rooms, or their kitchens, or whatever it is. And, you know, I've been spending quite a bit of time encouraging people to have proper boundaries. Yes to say, right, I've stopped for the day. I'm not doing any more. I'm not looking at the computer. I'm not turning it on.


Scott Brown  (21:44)  

Yeah, that sounds it sounds good way to go. And what's next, and what can you tell us about the team? Hm, Treasury and the government, legal department and working there.


Peter King  (21:55)  

So what's next? I mean, we we have a we have a very demanding programme of work. The government has a big programme. Most of that programme involves some work on the law, whether it's changing the law or or setting embrace legal frameworks or whatever it might be. You know, there's a lot of legal advice needed. We're recruiting, you know, as a as a department, the government department is recruiting all the time at all levels. We definitely need more people that's important for us. And, you know, it's something that we're, we're very keen on getting the best people. And, you know, we we will have a lot of challenging work for many years to come. 


Scott Brown  (22:34)  

Yes, absolutely. I'll share the link to the careers page on the on the bio, for anyone that might be interested.


Peter King  (22:41)  

And I've been I'm personally very happy to talk to anybody who's interested in a career in, in, in the government legal department, and I'd tell them a bit more about it.


Scott Brown  (22:50)  

I'll share your LinkedIn profile. You'll be inundated. But thanks so much, Peter, for for joining me today. It's been been great to hear about your lessons and appreciate you taking the time and talking to me.


Peter King  (23:04)  

No problem at all. Nice to talk to you, Scott.


Scott Brown  (23:11)  

And thank you for listening to lessons learned in LA for more information on all of our guests, head over to heriotbrown.com/podcasts. We'd love to hear from you and hear your recommendations of people that you'd like to hear on series to. So please feel free to drop us a line on hello@heriotbrown.com or drop me a message on LinkedIn. I'm Scott Brown. Thank you for listening