Gareth is the CEO & Co-Founder of Top 3 Legal, an online platform that is redefining how businesses find external lawyers to work with and how they manage ongoing relationships, informed by knowledge and trust! Gareth is also a former Corporate M&A Partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
Chambers and Partners, the world’s leading provider of legal research and analysis, recently acquired Top 3 Legal.
This is exciting news for the legal sector as Chambers will further enhance its market leading position by integrating the impressive Top 3 Legal platform into its existing product portfolio, as part of its digital growth strategy.
In this episode, Gareth and Rob discuss:
- Gareth’s hugely successful legal career and making Partnership at Freshfields
- Everything people in the legal community need to know about all things Top 3 Legal
- How Gareth finds modern-day entrepreneurial life
- Gareth’s passion for mentoring and giving back to the next generation of lawyers
- Gareth’s love for Huddersfield Town A.F.C
[0:00:00:1] Rob Hanna: Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast, powered by Kissoon Carr. I’m your host, Rob Hanna. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Gareth Stephenson. Gareth is the CEO and co-founder of Top 3 Legal, which is an online platform that is redefining how businesses find external lawyers to work with and how they can manage ongoing relationships informed by knowledge and trust. Gareth is also a former corporate M&A partner at Freshfields. So, a very big welcome Gareth.
[0:00:31.7] Gareth Stephenson: Thanks so much for having me on.
[0:00:33.4] Rob Hanna: An absolute pleasure! Before we go through all your amazing career and work to date that you’ve done, we do have a customary icebreaker question on the Legally Speaking Podcast. So, someone has been telling me you have been watching a lot of suits since lockdown began. So, I’m sure you’re very prepared for this one, but on the scale of one to ten, ten being very real, how real would you rate the hit series ‘Suits’?
[0:00:58:0] Gareth Stephenson: I probably wouldn’t give it more than three. In fact, it has been a source of absolute amusement in our house because I’ve watched every episode now with my eldest daughter and all the way through it, every time Harvey does anything clever, she says to me, do you use to do that dad? And every time I’ve had to say no, I never did any of those things that made Harvey so amazing. So, I love the series, but found a huge disappointing in that respect.
[0:01:25.9] Rob Hanna: yeah, I think most, you know, legal people have been giving well under five based on that, but I’m impressed that you’re up to speed. So, let’s start at the beginning. Gareth, tell us a bit about your sort of family background and upbringing?
[0:01:38.0] Gareth Stephenson: Yep. So, I’m from Yorkshire originally from Leeds and I was encouraged by my father to go into the legal profession I have no interest in it whatsoever myself, but not having any better alternative, I decided to give it a go. So, from Leeds, I went to a University in Leicester and then down to law school in Guildford and onto a training contract in what was then called Speechly Bircham in London. And I soon decided that what I most enjoyed was doing M&A, and there wasn’t a huge amount of it in Speechly Bircham. So, I was then fortunate to be qualifying an age when Freshfields took pretty well everybody they could get their hands on as a newly qualified. So, I ended up at Freshfields.
[0:02:23.4] Rob Hanna: Exactly. So, you mentioned your father sort of suggested the law. What were you thinking then at the time as you were younger, your younger self, what did you want to be or have aspirations on?
[0:02:32:0] Gareth Stephenson: Well, as my younger self, there were only two things that appeal to me and that was being a professional footballer or a professional golfer. I couldn’t see much beyond those.
[00:02:43:03] Rob Hanna: Are you a Leeds fan then?
[00:02:45:01] Gareth Stephenson: No, Not at all. And in fact, that was another disappointment recently as well when I got promotion, I support Huddersfield Town.
[0:02:52.1] Rob Hanna: Ah. Oh, that’s how it is.
[0:02:53.7] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah, we’ve had a couple of years of glory, which has been great because I had a season ticket out there. So, I used to take it in terms of take my kids up to go and see them. So, we’ve had a great couple of years, but it’s now back to normal service of icings and avoid litigation over here.
[0:03:09.3] Rob Hanna: Indeed, Indeed. Well, we must’ve sort of followed each other down because I’m actually from Leicester originally and I studied in Leeds. So, the other way round, so lots of, lots of synergies, but today is about you. So, I just want to talk a little bit about, well, quite a lot about Freshfields because you have nearly 30 years there and a lot of our listeners, listening will obviously have aspirations of wanting to sort of break into the magic circle and know more about it. So, just tell us more about your time at Freshfields and your general journey with them.
[0:03:35.9] Gareth Stephenson: First and foremost, it was a fantastic time, a fantastic firm and I’d say the best thing about it was the quality of the people we were with and especially the associates, they were all so intelligent, so committed and most importantly, wanting to have fun as well. I mean, at a firm like Freshfields the hours are sometimes absolutely brutal, but you are working with fantastic people and whenever you can have a laugh, people would want to try and do so. I love doing the deals. I got a real buzz out of doing the deals. Yeah. I would never regret my time there. I would always speak incredibly fondly of it and encourage anybody who is similarly minded to give it go.
[0:04:19.3] Rob Hanna: So, obviously you progress exceptionally well, right the way up being partner. I mean, what sort of tips would you give to people who perhaps wish to follow in those footsteps? Are there other things that they should be aware of or build on in terms of a skillset point of view, if they wish to make partner in a firm like Freshfields?
[0:04:35.3] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah, I guess a few tips would be one, do your best at absolutely every task that’s given to you. I think a lot of it is about building trust and there is a fair amount of Grunt work, repeat work, you do it to the best of your ability and you move up the chain and get better quality work as you go along. I guess, secondly, it’s quite helpful to have a little niche area where people in the firm begin to see you as a bit of a specialist and to go to you to ask for advice. And in my early years I did an awful lot of rights issues and became a bit of an expert on those, particularly on the technical side of it. So that when other people then have to do a rights issue, they would quite often have to come and ask me how you get around a particular problem. So, it was quite, that was quite a good way of getting known and thirdly, I think, just be curious, always want to understand what’s going on, what’s driving a deal or your client’s position, try and understand where they’re coming from and just get totally immersed in it all.
[0:05:39.5] Rob Hanna: Yeah. That’s really, really helpful. Some real nuggets of wisdom in that, thanks for sharing that Gareth and I guess, how did you feel making partner, did you always wish to be a partner? Was that the goal or was it something that you sort of got more and more merged into once you’re in that environment?
[0:05:53.08] Gareth Stephenson: When I first joined, I had no intention of ever being a partner. I was very much of a mindset that I’ll be going back to Leeds in a couple of years. But as you sort of begin to move up through the ranks, you get better quality work, more responsibility, it became a bit like a drug. You just couldn’t give it up really and I’m pretty competitive by nature and you just want to see if you can make it yourself so that can be there. Yeah.
[0:06:21.0] Rob Hanna: Yeah. You did a Sterling job there and you played a key role in the establishment of Freshfields legal services up in Manchester. So, tell us more all about that.
[0:06:30.8] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah. I love doing that. I had no intent of getting involved in that it happened sort of symbol [fatuously] but I really enjoyed setting that up. And especially giving a load of young would-be lawyers, the chance to get Freshfields on their CV and people who never thought they had a chance of getting Freshfields on the CV. So, that was great fun working with those really young junior lawyers, an awful lot of them saddled with some of the crippling debts that they get going through university and law school these days. And it was great to see them get some quality work at a great firm, what could really kick their careers.
[0:07:12.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah. Well said, and you did a tremendous job and you left Freshfields very much on a high and you know, most corporate partners who have had a really good stint decided to sort of take their foot off the gas and maybe play lots of golf and everything else, but I guess the competitive nature in you decided to set up the amazing Top 3 Legal. So, for our listeners that are very much new to that. Tell us more about it and what makes it different.
[0:07:39:0] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah. Well, I have no plans to do anything when I was leaving Freshfields and the other main co-founder Richard Fleetwood, who was also at Freshfields many, many years ago, he asked me if I fancied helping him set up an online legal directory to take on Chambers and Legal 500 and I thought, well, why not? You’re right this will be a challenge; they’ve got the market (sewn up), why don’t we give it a go? So, we started that we launched just over two years ago, two and a quarter years ago, it was incredibly tough. I thought it would be more like every time at hobby and frankly, I was doing Top 3 Legal lifting just as brutal as doing M&A deals at Freshfields because I soon discovered, but Asia Pacific region has been a great region for us. And there’s a lot of people who were very early adopters of tech solutions down there.
So again, the time difference has made that very difficult doing demos to them. But Top 3 Legal in essence is a platform that allows clients of law firms to find the best lawyer to instruct for each matter, informing them by knowledge and trust. So, they typically set up what we call a team sheet on the Top 3 Legal platform, which is a private space, there in house legal departments, effectively to collaborate with each other, and in it, in the team sheet, the half the profiles, all their external lawyers around the world. And they overlay those profiles with their own fibre recommendations and notes about the lawyers. So, if they are then looking, say for tax lawyer in Singapore, they can see who their colleagues have used and who they would recommend in Singapore and what sort of work they’d been doing for their company. And as the platform has grown incredibly grateful tool to use as for the feedback, when we started this, I had no idea what direction or what new features we would build, but as you get it off the ground clients constantly giving you great ideas for new features.
One lady GC suggested to us a few months ago that we should set up our own private network of GC’s and senior in-house lawyers around the world. So, we did that in about February called GC hub and we now have knocking on for 400 GC’s and senior in-house counsel around the world who had joined that group and they share their recommendations with each other on a name basis. So, not just within the company, but with a load of other in-house lawyers around the world at other companies. So again, if you’re looking for a corporate lawyer in India, you can now see, one – who your colleagues had recommended, and two – you can see who the other 300 plus members of the GC hub group have also recommended. And funny enough, COVID-19 has been a bit of a help for us in that respect because a lot of the users of the platform have been using it to find COVID-19 lawyers in India, Bangladesh, all over. So, that was one of the few bonuses of COVID-19.
[0:10:42.8] Rob Hanna: What an amazing journey and what an amazing amount of stuff you’ve achieved so early on. Some would say with Top 3 Legal and I’m sure a lot of our legal listeners and lawyers’ sort of listening again are going to be very inspired and perhaps may even want to get involved with Top 3 Legal. Is it possible how can people potentially get involved?
[0:10:59.9] Gareth Stephenson: Yep. Well, any in-house lawyer can register there’s no cost to use the platform and they can set up their own accounts. And if they would like to create a two sheet for their company and their colleagues, again, there’s no charge, no cost for them to do so. We set it all up for them and then it’s all ready to use. So, it’s very easy and similarly, the private practice lawyers, it’s a great way to build their own personal brands, improve their market profiles and again, they can register free of charge with a basic profile. They can take out a premium profile and share a lot richer information with all the other users, so anybody can sign up very quickly and easily.
[0:11:39.3] Rob Hanna: Fantastic. And for you, Gary, what was, I guess, the motivation for you wanting sort of get behind setting up Top 3 Legal, was there something sort of burning away? What was that motivation?
[0:11:50.5] Gareth Stephenson: Well, whilst I was setting the legal services centre for Freshfields in Manchester, I got a lot more involved in tax solutions. So that got me somewhat curious. And I guess they’re the main driver was that I’d always wanted my own business. My father had his own business and I’ve always had a desire to have my own business. I will do that again though.
[0:12:14.4] Rob Hanna: Yeah. I know. I speaking as a fellow business owner, unless you’re passionate about your business, it really is. Sometimes it can sort of just drag away or chip away at you, so I guess you just share that passion for wanting this to sort of be a success and on the topic of successes, you know, you had the recent massive announcements of partnering with Chambers and Partners, which is super exciting. So, have you got any other sort of big plans as part of that or anything else in the pipeline you can share?
[0:12:41.4] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah, I think really now that we’re part of chambers and partners, what we really want to do is leverage the Chamber’s brand content and resources to scale up Top 3 Legal, a lot quicker than we would be able to have done ourselves. It’s a huge boost for us, and we’re already seeing the benefits of that with more clients signing up and interestingly more law firms approaching us, asking to register all their firms, lawyers on the platform. So, this week we’ve got one of the leading South African firms, the 168 of their partners will be registered this week on Top 3 Legal and that’s just them approaching us, so that’s been one of the boosts of the Chambers deal as well.
[0:13:24.7] Rob Hanna: You’ve been about some super sort of impressive corporate M&A deals throughout your career at Freshfields but how easy was it to sort of make that deal with Chambers and Partners, talk us through that process?
[0:13:35.0] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah, it’s very strange. My co-founder Richard Fleetwood was an M&A lawyer as well, so we did all the legal work ourselves, but frankly it seems a lot more pertinent when it’s your own deal and your own warranty liability and everything that you’re negotiating. So, it was very strange doing that, but I’m still glad we did it ourselves.
[0:13:56.8] Rob Hanna: Yeah. Indeed, indeed. If you have the know-how in house, why not? I’d love to say, you know, that’s where you stop and you know, you down tools and relax, but it’s not the case. because I also understand you’re very passionate about mentoring and have a lot of mentees. So, what do you particularly enjoy about mentoring and tell us more about that?
[0:14:14.8] Gareth Stephenson: Before even getting onto what I enjoy, but I think I’m incredibly grateful for a lot of the mentoring I had at Freshfields. So, when I was starting out, there were certain partners there who were just effectively like fathers to me in terms of looking out for me, making sure I got the right work to develop my career and experience. I’ve always been very grateful to those people James Davis, Barrio, Brian, Gavin Darlington, some great lawyers and all taught you hugely different skills and really looked out for us, so that was fantastic. And whilst that Freshfields, Freshfields has some very good mentoring, the systems in place and the associates are given a mentor or they choose a mentor and it was always incredibly rewarding to see your mentee develop and to be able to sit there and partner meetings and look out for your associate, knowing that in years gone by somebody else has been doing that for me.
So again, you just make sure that your mentee is given the right, (breadth) of work to develop them. I got a real taste for [met out] Freshfields and again, since I’ve been doing Top 3 Legal, so many people have been so helpful to me, I didn’t have a clue about social media, for example, marketing, been using LinkedIn to get the business out there, I didn’t have a clue. And so many people have been so helpful given me a lot of time free of charge and it just seems an easy way to sort of put something back because there’s a lot of people out there, particularly junior people starting out on their careers, who you think you don’t have anything to offer you, you think you sort of old and past state, but there’s a lot of people out there who just want to hear and be able to have half an hour, an hour’s chat with somebody who’s been there and done some of this before. And just to reassure them that they’re within their rights to be demanding the right work or looking out for them financially. So, I found that hugely rewarding.
[0:16:14.3] Rob Hanna: Absolutely. And that’s really, really great again to hear some new ideas and new initiatives and one thing that wanted to pick up there was around social media. So, I still think there’s a stigma connected to the sort of legal industry and social media and people have fears that if that puts something out there, I know you and I are big fans of LinkedIn and various other platforms, you know? Well, what if there’s a typo in that? Is that going to devalue my legal credentials and all of those things? What would you say to maybe legal professionals or people connected with legal businesses in terms of utilizing platforms like LinkedIn?
[0:16:45.4] Gareth Stephenson: Well, I guess then you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s amazing how active so many of the Top 3 Legal clients are on LinkedIn, and without LinkedIn I’m not sure we could have built Top 3 Legal in anything like the timeframe we have, because it is just by far the best way to get your messaging out there. And you start off with no followers, no, yeah, no connections and you build it up and before, you know, what’s happened, you’ve got thousands of connections, people liking and sharing your messages, pushing your content out more widely. And again, there are a lot of people out there who were so willing to help you and there’s people like Alex Lowe quite sad, but I look forward to his crazy video every Friday. And again, yeah, he tells me that he never had the nerve to do anything like that to begin with doing a video and yet look at him now, some of his videos are so clever. So, I think you give it a go, you can’t really go that far wrong. So, get your message out there, build your personal brand, build your profile and it’s going to help you.
[0:17:53] Rob Hanna: Couldn’t agree more. And it’s great hearing, you know, a former Freshfields partner and now an owner of a legal related business, you know, championing, that’s something I’m exceptionally passionate about as well as getting people to embrace the platform. So good, you know, for the good of your business, for the good of your career and everything else that goes in between. And just to bring it back to mentors a little bit again, do you still have your own mentors now that you’ve sort of switched to entrepreneur? Do you have different types of mentors in terms of Top 3 or legacy mentors that you still keep in touch with?
[0:18:24.0] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah. It’s a whole new network of friends, contacts, mentors. Since I’ve been doing Top 3 Legal and people like Alan Falach at Global Legal Group, that guy has spent hours for absolutely zero benefit for him helping me out, suggesting new ideas to us telling us what we should do, tactically and people like that are just invaluable to start-ups. And there’s a huge community out there for start-ups, Legal Geek, Jimmy, at Legal Geek. Again, these people are just so willing to give you their time and help you out and they do so much good. And in fact, one of the ways I got into mainstream, a lot of the women in law is through the Legal Geek Women in Law mentoring program.
[0:19:12.5] Rob Hanna: Yes. because I noticed and know you do a lot of work with them, which is great. So, you definitely don’t sit still, do you?
[0:19:20] Gareth Stephenson: No, you got to have something to do. I do worry that if I just sat here and did nothing, I’d be bored senseless. I don’t quite want to work as hard as I have been working at the same time can’t just sit here doing nothing and especially women not allowed to do that much outside at the moment.
[0:19:35.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah, no, absolutely. But on the topic of downtime, I know you mentioned you’re a big Huddersfield fan, so alongside watching football, what do you do for downtime?
[0:19:45.5] Gareth Stephenson: My retirement present to myself with a little dog. So, I spend a lot of time walking my dog, all the family holidays had changed enormously since he came along. So, there’s been a lot more holidays in England over the last couple of years. So, I spent a lot of time doing that, I used to spend a lot of time cycling. I’d be gone for four or five hours every Saturday, Sunday morning, but that’s proving very difficult now that my life has changed since I’ve got this dog.
[0:20:14.4] Rob Hanna: Dog’s name?
[0:20:15.5] Gareth Stephenson: Otto.
[0:20:16.3] Rob Hanna: That is spooky because my wife really wants a Miniature Dachshund and wishes to call it Otto. So that is very, very spooky. So not only is it the less the Leeds synergy now there’s the dog synergy. This is scary now.
[0:20:30.5] Gareth Stephenson: Yeah. Well, you’ll love it. I’m going to say having a dog has been fantastic for the family as well as changed their outlook on a lot of things as well. So, everything isn’t all about the kids at the moment, it’s about where can we take the dog today? What is the dog going to like to do? Which beach will the dog like?
[0:20:48.6] Rob Hanna: Yeah, good stuff. And I guess I just want to link it back to maybe a more serious point Gareth, if I may, we are in extraordinary times at the moment and we do have a whole range of listeners that listens to the show, but also a lot of aspiring lawyers. And I think a lot of them are going to be really worried and concerned and not sure if they’re going to get that break or not sure what they need to do. I mean, if you were to redo your career and you know, you were thinking of trying to break into Freshfields now, what would you say to your younger self?
[0:21:18.3] Gareth Stephenson: Gosh, well, I agree. I think things are pretty tough at the moment. I think you’ve just got to keep persevering. You’re bound to get knock backs, setbacks along the way. You just got to pick yourself up, be resilient and keep going and hope for lucky break and then when you get that break, you’ve got to make the most of it. But keep persevering, don’t give up. I do believe you make your own luck to a certain extent and there’s a lot of people out there looking to start their legal careers.
And again, you see a lot of those on LinkedIn and a lot of it is about making connections and I get awful lot of law students asking to connect with me on LinkedIn. And I accept everyone because I think well done them for getting out there, getting their profile out there, giving it a go, commenting on people’s posts, getting involved, learning a bit as they go along. And I think more and more than should do that.
[0:22:17.9] Rob Hanna: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big, big advocate of that. I think engaging into platforms like LinkedIn and getting out there and speaking to you, you know, inspirational people like yourself who have got a, such a proven track record is only going to help the next generation. And it’s great that people like you are so willing to give people that time as well. And I guess on that note, if people want to follow or get in touch about anything that we’ve discussed today, or learn more about Top 3 Legal, what’s the best way and platform for them to do that?
[0:22:44.2] Gareth Stephenson: Through LinkedIn, funny enough, it’s very strange. I think when I message people on LinkedIn, I would say I get a better response rate then sending people emails. And I think that’s partly because people get fewer messages on LinkedIn. So, you don’t have a spam, they don’t go into people’s spam on LinkedIn because you don’t get as many messages, you’re more inclined to read them. So, feel free to get in touch with me, contact me through LinkedIn. That’s the best way.
[0:23:13.0] Rob Hanna: Great stuff. And do you want to give a shout-out to the web link, the Top 3 Legal as well if people want to give that a look and any other social medias?
[0:23:20.3] Gareth Stephenson: Thanks very much, Rob. Yeah, people please go to www.dot- top3legal.com. Take a look at any questions again, please just contact me will be very happy to show anybody how it works and so we encourage everybody to get involved.
[0:23:36.5] Rob Hanna: Brilliant. Well from all of us on the Legally Speaking Podcast, thanks a million for sharing your, your insights, wisdom and telling us more about Top 3 Legal it’s been really, really inspiring. So, we’d just like to wish you lots of continued success and all the team of Top 3 Legal, but for now over and out.
[0:23:52.7] Gareth Stephenson: Thanks so much, indeed Rob.