Professional Support Lawyer & Entrepreneur – Johnny Shearman – S3E9

This week on the Legally Speaking Podcast, powered by KC Partners, our host Robert Hanna was joined by Johnny Shearman.

Johnny is a Professional Support Lawyer at Signature Litigation, with expertise in all aspects of dispute resolution. He was the Co-Editor of the Chambers & Partners UK Litigation Global Practice Guide 2019 and recently Co-Authored the feature article on the Disclosure Pilot Scheme for PLC Magazine’s 30th anniversary edition.

Johnny has featured in publications, such as the FT Adviser, Dow Jones Financial News, & Compliance Monitor.

In this weeks episode we cover:

  • Johnny’s journey into the law
  • How the role of Professional Support Lawyer (PSL) duties differ from an Associate / Partner position
  • All the BENEFITS of being a PSL in a law firm
  • Why others might wish to consider the PSL route as an alternative to Partnership
  • Johnny’s impressive writing, overall media & entrepreneurial successes
  • Johnny and Rob’s mutual love for LinkedIn and the benefits of personal branding! 


[0:00:00.0] Rob Hanna:  Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast powered by Kissoon Carr.  I’m your host, Rob Hanna.  This week I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by Johnny Shearman. Johnny is a professional support lawyer at Signature litigation with expertise in all aspects of dispute resolution. Johnny was co-editor of the Chambers and Partners UK Litigation Global Practice Guide 2019 and recently co-authored the featured article on the disclosure pilot scheme, the PLC Magazine’s 30th Anniversary Edition.  Johnny has featured in numerous publications such as the FTAdviser, Dow Jones, Financial News, Compliance Monitor, and many more.  So, a very big welcome Johnny.

[0:00:42.1] Johnny Shearman:  Thanks very much, Robert.  Thanks for having me on.  It makes me sound like I do a lot of writing.  So, I’m grateful.

[0:00:50.0] Rob Hanna:  Good stuff. Well, you made me have a bit of a mouthful on the introduction, so you definitely keep very busy, and as you’ll know, I believe you’re a fan of the show, which is great. Before we go through all of your amazing achievements and your experiences to date, we must start with our customary opening question, which is about Suits.  So, on the scale of 1 to 10, 10 being very real, how real would you rate the TV series Suits?

[0:01:16.7] Johnny Shearman: I’ve been ready for this question for quite a while now Robert, and you know, I am a fan of the show and actually just before I answer the ice breaker, let me just say I think you guys are doing a great job in terms of capturing the legal industry.  And you know, I think this podcast is going to strength to strength.  So, it is really great to be on here.  In terms of Suits, I think I’ve got to go with, I think with the majority here in terms of about four.  I have been a fan of suits and I think there is an element of truth in what they do.  I know a lot of people would say there isn’t, but you know a lot of law does actually happen like not necessarily with a whiskey in hand.  But also, what I would say is sort of cracking soundtrack.  I mean, I would give that ten out of ten.  You know, the music on the show is absolutely brilliant.  So, there we go, I think in terms of legal reality it is a four, but in terms of the music it is a ten.

[0:02:02.2] Rob Hanna: Yeah, I think you have got that fantastically well.  I’m also a big fan of the music.  I had that on one of the quiz questions really.  You know when went through the whole Zoom quizzing phase, and they had a section on sort of theme tunes.  And I obviously as soon as I heard that I was like, at-least let me one of these questions right on the TV series theme tunes.  So, we have to start at the beginning Johnny.  So, tell us a bit about your sort of family background and upbringing?

[0:02:25.9] Johnny Shearman: Sure, I’m the youngest of five children, so it was a bit of a competitive upbringing, but also just coming of a loving and supported family, which I am very lucky to have, and actually for me I grew up in the countryside, went to a kind of local comprehensive school, and was always kind of fascinated by science and nature, being outside, and being in the garden.  And actually that was always very much a focus for me growing up, and actually I didn’t answer law through a law degree, you know I went off and did a science degree in biology down at Plymouth University, and because that was actually very much my first interest and it still is really, and I still absolutely love the sciences.  But I did, you know, kind of transitioned into law slightly later in my life.

 [0:03:06.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah, and maybe tell us then a bit about your legal experiences, sort of your training days.  And yeah, – tell us more about that.

[0:03:15.4] Johnny Shearman: Sure, so I trained and qualified with a firm called in Nabarro, which has actually now merged into the huge kind of behemoth that it is in terms of CMS, and it was absolutely fantastic kind of training experience.  I was very fortunate for it.  But when I came to during the GDL and doing the LPC, I actually didn’t have any kind of experience in terms of training contracts, and I didn’t even know what a training contract was to be perfectly honest with you Robert. 

And I was looking and I finished my biology degree down at Plymouth and was looking at a graduate entry jobs and further training and Masters degrees, and actually quite genuinely I was living down in Devon at that time, and I was – Sat on my computer and I was looking on the Guardian website for jobs, and there was a little kind of a banner on the side which was from the College of Law as it was back then, which says, you know you can convert your degree to a law degree. 

And I thought, ‘oh wow!  That sounds great. I’ll do that.’ And not really appreciating kind of everything that was involved in that in terms of funding, training contracts, and so on. So, when I then kind of rocked up to the College of Law later on that year to do my conversion quite quickly felt like I was a bit out of depth, and actually one of the first things I did was to go to the Careers Centre and kind of asking for some help.  And that’s what I needed and I did get a mentor back then, just kind of gave me a bit of insight into what was required, but also actually had an upfront conversation with the Careers Centre kind of an adviser, and they were kind of talking to me.  And you know I’ve got a half decent degree in biology and they’re saying, what kind of law firms, you need to do what to kind of apply to, and I kind of knew enough to say that, you know, well maybe not the magic circle, you know.  Maybe somewhere a bit below that and quite genuinely I was kind of saying, you know, at that point would be interested in taking environmental law.

It just so happened that the careers adviser kind of knew that Nabarro had a bit of an environmental team.  And so, she said, what about Nabarro?  And I’ve got to be honest with you, I just went, yes!  I will get a training contract with them then.  I didn’t really think about it in any other way apart from that, you know, that sounded sensible to me.  And again, you know, I don’t necessarily recommend this, but I was very focused on getting a training contract with them, and I did very few training contract applications, but I made sure that the one that I did for Nabarro was pretty much the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life.  

And thankfully I was successful in getting that and I went to the vacation scheme and thankfully, you know, obtained the training contract through that.  And actually, Nabarro was a great place to train.  One of the things that I also was attracted to was the fact that they had a training contract which wasn’t four, six-months seats, which is quite typical in law firms, it was actually six, full months seats. 

So, you got to see more of the firm and that was actually really important to me because yes, I kind of came in with this slight environmental side to me, but you know, I really didn’t know at that point what area of law that I wanted to go into.  And so, I was very much kind of, you know, an open book and ready to learn really.  And it just so happened that actually I ended up kind of really going into Litigation Department, and I have to be honest with you, that was the last thing which I thought I was going to go into in terms of a legal practice, but actually I absolutely loved it, and during my training I was working both in the Commercial Litigation Department, and also back then they were doing an element called clinical negligence works.  They were on a panel for one of the large medical defense unions and so we used to get a lot of work through that, and that was defending doctors either through clinical negligence or through regulatory complaints that maybe brought against them.  

Yeah, that was a really, really kind of a steep learning curve for me.  I think that when anybody that’s in that line of work, knows that actually your caseload is very large, is quite demanding, and you know, actually really kind of, you know, learn to love litigation and to speed resolution.  And for me, I think it does also wants to come down to the fact that I think in many other practices of law, you know what the law is and you’re working around it.  But in litigation, new law can pop up at any point in time.  You know, when you get any judgement coming out from the High Court, from the Court of Appeal, or the Supreme Court, you need to pay attention to that, because that may well impact your case.  And for me that’s really exciting and which I love about this area of law.

[0:07:32.0] Rob Hanna: Good stuff.  And so, you talk very fondly then of your training and then sort of getting into commercial litigation and then obviously you then make a move.  And so do you want to tell us a bit about that decision-making process and then you’re the next legal role, and then we can perhaps talk – And then an interesting fact for you Johnny, your first PSL to come on to Legally Speaking Podcast.  We are going to be drilling down into that a lot more shortly, but yeah so tell us just a bit more before that as well.

[0:07:56.8] Johnny Shearman: Sure, I’m keen to talk about the roles because I think it is a really exciting role as well and I did kind of moved away from Nabarro.  And actually, it was a recognition of wanting to move more into the kind of commercial space. I found that the clinical negligence work had been absolutely fantastic in terms of the experience, but I was doing then about 50:50 in terms of straight commercial litigation, and clinical negligence work. And so, I needed to kind of move on to kind of you know actually kind of broaden my experience, and at that point in time, Signature Litigation had been set up, and it had been founded in 2012.  

And so, I joined Signature Litigation in 2014.  So, still when it was very, very new.  Very, very novel.  And very, very young.  At that point, there was only a handful of us in a small office space, just off Fleet Street.  Although we’re still near that area.  You know, I just thought that was a really exciting thing to be a part of a new specialist law firm that had just kind of set up and you know for me, I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as an entrepreneur, you know through and through, but I do think I’ve got an entrepreneurial spirit, and for me it was very much kind of you know aligned with Signature and what they were trying to achieve in this space. 

And perhaps I could just quickly say a bit more about Signature because for me what really resonates is I would describe it as kind of just three pillars of Signature and that they go to kind of the service that we provide our clients, but also our culture as a firm.  And the first pillar is, we operate in a conflict-free space, and that’s not new or novel necessarily, there are other firms that do that, and that largely came out of the 2008 financial crisis when there’s a lot of litigation going on that in terms of work against banks.

And you know partners found themselves conflicted because the banking teams or – we were on a bank’s panel and therefore they couldn’t come along and bring a claim against them.  So, you know, a number of company specialists and boutique law firms were kind of set up from that, we were operating on this conflict-free platform, but actually, that does mean a couple of things.  I think it means that we get some really interesting work.  This actually never happened in terms of what I’ve seen in terms of an actual genuine conflict that has arisen, we may not act on something kind of strategically or so on.  That means we can pretty much turn our kind of focus on any matter.  

The next pillar that I kind of always talked about is actually how we operate in terms of the time that our fee earners are actually currently dedicating to their work and this stuff spins out from our founding partner, who comes from a very large kind of international multi-practice law firm.  And actually, he was finding that he was spending, you know, you perhaps 60% of his time on steering committees, management time, and very little on what he really wanted to do, which was to provide legal advice to his clients.  And his clients, which he was growing type of a very good and strong commercial relationship with.

But actually, he was being pulled in all these other directions.  So, with the focus at Signature and we were very management like, and we essentially have a symbiotic relationship and outsource our kind of management function.  And what’s that mean?  Is it means that actually you know the lawyers are there to do the law, and that’s not to say that they don’t kind of have extracurricular activities and other focuses, but it means actually, when the client picks up the phone, they know they’re going to speak to their lawyer, and I think that’s a really important point to happen.

I know for clients, that’s what they want. They don’t want to you know kind of be passed around and saying that your lawyer is in a management meeting.  And then the final pillar, and I think this is really fundamental for me in terms of why, you know, I was really attracted to Signature Litigation, was that we essentially operate on a kind of cooperative basis, and what I mean by that, when the Signature was first set up, the founding partners went with this idea to the SRA to say we would like to set up a law firm which is essentially a cooperative.  Like your John Lewis model or your Co-Op, where each other members of the firm benefit from the profits and are invested in it.  

Now, SRA didn’t quite understand this, and so if you actually look at us in terms of, from the SRA’s point of view, we were set up as a traditional LLP, both firm with partners and equity partners and so on, but essentially what we built out underneath that, is this co-op.  So, that means that, you know, we don’t just have that traditionally, as you’re probably aware, partners taking the vast majority of profits in terms of you know the work that is done within the law firm.  Those profits were actually shared amongst everyone, and when I say everyone, I mean you know whether it’s me as a PSL or associate teams or even our PAs.  And actually, if you were coming into our office, I’d say this to you then actually the people that you see at the front of house there all invested in this co-operative and for me it just generates such a good culture in terms of being invested in the firm, invested in how we do, and the service that we provide.  And then I think that’s a really, really strong point for us.  And I am very proud to kind of talk about it to be honest with you.

[0:12:44.1] Rob Hanna: Yeah, I think it’s very unique.  As you say, and I think it just encourages that whole collegiate culture and yeah, I guess everyone is kind of moving towards the same goal, which is great.  And just to sort of build on that then, you obviously had great fee-earning days and you did so decide then to sort of become up here.  So, for those that are perhaps new to PSL, do you want to explain what it is and perhaps how that role differs from say an associate or a partner role?

[0:13:08.8] Johnny Shearman: Sure.  So, the PSL, otherwise known as professional support lawyer.  And if I’m honest with you and there’s now a number of other names that this role kind of gets referred to as though it might be knowledge lawyer or knowledge development lawyer or practice development lawyer, but essentially, it’s non fee earning role. 

So, I’m not strictly working directly with our clients and on client matters.  However, what I am providing is support to the rest of the team and actually my analogy to kind of explain that is the way I see it is that I’m very similar to what say a sports coach or even a football manager is doing.  And so that kind of sitting back and taking on all the information and kind of saying actually you need to be focused on, say, this recent judgment because that is going to help you in your case, or there’s some new technology that we might want to use within firm, because I think that’s going to help us improve our client service.  And so, it’s kind of you know, I think that is a good way of describing it, because it’s kind of saying you have got to be coming across everything.  It certainly gives me a lot more time because I think it’s right that you know fee earners are those elite athletes, as it were.  You know, they are the ones who are kind of laser focused on work that they need to do.

And it goes back to that point, both spending time with our clients and making sure that they get the advice that they want, but as I say, I think the professional supporter role is perhaps ones that removed.  As I say it is quite a good way of describing it is this kind of head clinch way of thinking about it because I think that it is about coming and picking up – I don’t mean this literally, but I’m looking at kind of what nutrition or what tech we might want or scouting out you know what is the opposition doing?  What we need to pay attention to?  So, I think that is a good way of kind of describing the role.

[0:14:48.6] Rob Hanna: Yeah, I think you have analyzed that really, really well.  And then, I guess to encourage people to maybe consider a PSL role as an alternative to partnership, what would you say to those?  Maybe you have quite new sort of PSL role considering it as an alternative to partnership.

[0:15:03.4] Johnny Shearman: What I’d say is that I think more generally, I think it’s really important to kind of, you know, consider all the options to you.  I think it’s very easy to get focused or get stuck on this trajectory to the partnership, and that is completely fine if that’s genuinely what you want to do, but I think one of the things that I recognized within myself is that I was involved in a race which I didn’t want to win.  You know, I didn’t want to kind of you know win the race and become a partner, and so I think it’s really important to you to kind of be able to step back and to kind of have a look and say, what race do I want to run?  And ultimately where do I want to take my career?  I think you know PSL or knowledge lawyer is something which is going to be increasingly important. Law has changed over the past 10, 20, 30 years.  We’re not in a time where a letter would take two to three weeks to go out.  We’re talking much more demanding, and frankly, it’s just not possible I think for any one individual to be on top of absolutely everything all at one time, and also then, you know deliver the kind of service that clients are expecting these days.  

If you’re kind of thinking actually, where does my skill set sit?  And for me, you know, I do think of myself as being much more academic, but when I was fee earning, I always had a big stack of papers next to me, of things I wanted to reuse, whether that’s judgments or articles, and I just never got around to doing it, and that was partly because I was focused on fee earning work.  But now, you know, I’m afforded that luxury as it were to be able to be able to read those articles and journals and indeed contribute to those articles and journals myself, and I think that’s an important point to be considering where do you want to kind of you know see yourself in that next kind of you know five, ten years’ time, and I think you know, that transition I think can be through PSL. It is actually on the law firm management, and I think that’s something which you know, I certainly see myself kind of going into, but it’s not necessarily a traditional partnership role.

 But it is a role in terms of you know actually looking at how a law firm manages itself and what martial gains can we get, goes back to another sports analogy that in terms of you would probably aware in terms of marginal gains in British Cycling that was achieved in 2012 London Olympics, but for me that’s you know, again, some really interesting concepts, but I wanted to kind of half the time to explore those different angles and the different aspects that I could kind of bring to law, and I think that’s why it’s important to kind of being keep open when you’re going through your legal career and understand what your skill set is, if actually you’re feeling that your skill set is being drawn to something else, then you should definitely investigate that and look at it more.

[0:17:26.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah, good stuff.  And you mentioned earlier around, so the entrepreneurial flair.  I wanted to talk a bit more about because you are a founder and director of JD Legal.  So, do you want to tell us a bit more about that?

[0:17:38] Johnny Shearman: Sure, JD Legal Company which I set up a year ago, which is my own company and actually provides some consultancy services to the legal industry and absolutely the focus on the E-discovery industry.  It’s really around content and content generation and actually it is something which I’m really have passionate about and you and I have engaged a lot across LinkedIn, and I think that’s a really important platform for all businesses to be using, not just lawyers. LinkedIn as a platform has changed dramatically over the last two or even one year, and it’s a fantastic place for content and so actually you know JD Legal was something which I kind of set up as a bit of a side project.  

And again, I actually think it is a really valuable skills that you need to learn when you’re setting up your own company, which again, I think, you know often we miss when we’re just going through law school and legal training.  We set up a lot of companies for our people or we are doing corporate deals for other companies, but there’s a real insight that you gain when you’re setting up your own company and when you’re having to do your own invoicing, when you are having to chase for your own invoices.

And that’s a skill set which I wanted to gain.  I recognized that you know I wasn’t necessarily at a point in time where I could just jump into that in terms of the big international law firm, but I knew actually that I could generate something which was beneficial in terms of content and content marketing.  It has been really good.  I have a very you know kind of small client base on that. I have something which I keep ticking over. I find it hugely beneficial to me and I think it will be hugely beneficial kind of going forward in terms of adding those skills to my quiver because I think the really valuable ones whether you are a lawyer or just operating in the commercial sphere to have.  I think you get a lot more insight. You would probably agree with me probably as an owner of your own business.  It’s very different from just being an employee. And I think I wanted to understand that and which is why I kind of did that as a bit of side hustle.  A bit of a side project, but thankfully it is going very well.

[0:19:30.6] Rob Hanna: I am really pleased to hear that and I completely echo what you’re saying because it is a slightly different ball game having your own business and again, I guess the beauty of you know the whole networking thing, great that you and I first connected via LinkedIn because we think we both agree such a sort of valuable platform and I know you have got a keen interest in the algorithm.  And so, I guess as we look to try and wrap up, what advice would you give to lawyers who perhaps want to use LinkedIn more, but don’t really know where to start.  What tips would you give?

[0:19:57.8] Johnny Shearman: I actually think it one of the best things that you can do is actually start to look at what other people are putting out in terms of content and I actually think this doesn’t necessarily just apply to LinkedIn, but it applies more generally, I think, especially for young lawyers and the firing lawyers.  I think it’s really important just to come observe what others are doing. It is something which I have always done.  

I’ve kind of always looked at those people that are perhaps, you know, five or ten years ahead of me in terms of their career.  I kind of go, what are they doing?  what are they talking about and they actually are now posting about?  I think it is really important, just kind of gain that exposure, because then what you can then start to do is dip into that and you can frankly just kind of copy it a bit and kind of see what they did and see what you know what you can add to it.  And I think that is an important point. You do need to kind of add your own spin to it. You should not worry about putting yourself out there and it is a big thing for people in terms of you know, are they going to get the likes? And frankly, you know just as well, you put out a post and you think that it is the best post that you know anyone has ever written, and just because of the timing that you did it, it doesn’t go anywhere and you just have to drop that down and you just go, it doesn’t matter.  I’m gonna do another post tomorrow.  I’m going to do another place in the next couple of days, and you’ll see where you get with that one. 

And I think you got to be prepared to have a bit of fun with it.  And yes, it is a professional platform, but I do think that people are much more ready to understand you as a person rather than just necessarily a corporate entity.  So, I think that’s where you can have a bit of fun with it as well.

[0:21:24.2] Rob Hanna: Yeah.  No, absolutely.  Because sometimes it can get quite heavy, the working world.  So, I think it definitely is a great, fabulous, fantastic sort of professional networking site and I think some of the content that you’ve been producing recently Johnny, I have really enjoyed.  So, I definitely encourage our listeners to follow on you on that and I guess as we wrap up, I would just like to say a really big thank you for coming on the show.  It has been a real pleasure learning more about you, your journey, your entrepreneurial flair.  So, on behalf of all of us from the Legally Speaking Podcast Team, we wish you lots of continued success with your legal career and entrepreneurial suits.  So, from us, over and out!

[0:21:59.4] Johnny Shearman: Thanks so much for having me on.


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