Life Lessons: Tom Purton

Posted: 10/02/2017 - 20:26

What has been the single most significant development to impact your profession or area of business during your career, and why?

Technology – it has affected every aspect of the profession both in terms of how we work (communication, production of documents, research, speed of response) and in terms of what we, as lawyers, are no longer required to do. One small example – when I started as a trainee at Freshfields in 1988, my first job was to mark up a 120-page document to show the changes that had been made to it against the previous draft using a pen and a ruler. It took hours; now, you would just produce a comparison at the touch of a button.

Similarly, what one factor has most profoundly changed the way you personally work since your first day in your first job? 

Again, technology. It has made many aspects of the job so much easier – speed of communication, the ability to find relevant information and documentation – whether to help me with a similar issue or to make sure I have all the key facts at my fingertips. Technology also provides flexibility by allowing me to work in a place and at a time that suits my clients and me.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your industry today – and how would you solve it? 

To remain an attractive career for bright, talented people. Historically, the legal profession has been able to do this but the demands of the job, combined with the fact that technology has resulted in far less face-to-face interaction with clients and other advisors than used to be the case, risks making a career in law less appealing. If you can find an area of law that you find interesting and are working in a firm that has a culture that is right for you as an individual, it is a fantastic career combining, as it does, both the intellectual demands of the law, the need to understand the business of your client and the sector in which it is operating, as well as the management, marketing and recruitment aspects of the job. It is diverse, challenging and fast paced.

Who has been the most influential figure in your professional life, and why?

There have been many but the most influential would be Guy Whalley, the partner at Freshfields that offered me a training contract. He had all the qualities I most admire – intelligence, integrity, great judgment, ambition, empathy and a wonderful sense of humour. He understood the importance of getting people of the right quality into the firm and he was rigorous but fair in the way he did it.

What’s the biggest mistake, work-wise, you’ve ever seen – and what were the consequences? 

I worked on a very large transaction a few years ago where the lawyer on the other side of the deal was put under pressure by his client to make a statement in the middle of a difficult negotiation that (it transpired) he knew to be untrue. It turned out to be fundamental to the deal and the lawyer had to admit to knowing what he had said was not true, found that his client denied having put him under pressure to say it and the deal subsequently collapsed. After only a few months, the individual in question left the firm. Your integrity as a lawyer is more important than anything else.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement career-wise? 

There have been many client/deal highlights over the years but helping to establish and build the Commercial, IP and Technology Department at Travers Smith is my greatest achievement. I joined the team at Travers Smith as a very junior lawyer in 1995 working with one partner and one other associate. I became a partner in 1998 and took over the reins in 2008. The quality of the lawyers and the clients we now advise gives me huge satisfaction and we remain a very cohesive, happy and successful team; not always easy given the considerable demands the job places on all of us.

What’s your biggest (as-yet) unfulfilled ambition – and are you going to achieve it?

The modern transactional lawyer has evolved into being a business advisor with legal skills.  A few years ago, clients did not expect their lawyers to have the level of business and sector knowledge they do now. I have relished this evolution and, once I decide to stop practising law, would very much like to use the knowledge and expertise I have gained as a commercial lawyer in a business environment as a non-executive director. We have a long way to go as a legal profession but the business world is increasingly recognising that lawyers can add considerable value to a management team beyond just legal advice.

What three words do you think your colleagues and peers would use to describe you?

Calm, determined and personable.

Finally, what piece of advice would you give your younger self at the very start of your career? 

When advising a client, always ask yourself: how would you feel if you were paying for this advice – is it clear, relevant, concise and provide value for money?  One other thought – my father (a lawyer himself) gave me one piece of advice when I first started:”… remember that no one is indispensable.”  I did not fully understand the significance of that comment at the time – I do now.

Do you think you – or someone you know – would make a good subject for future instalments of Life Lessons? Contact the editor at for more information…

About The Author

Tom Purton's picture

Tom Purton is Head of the Commercial, IP and Technology Department at Travers Smith and ranked as one of the leading commercial lawyers in the UK by the legal directories. He has a broad-based commercial practice with particular emphasis on strategic alliances (including joint ventures) and commercial contracts (in particular, outsourcing and other supply agreements, franchise, brewing, agency, sponsorship and distribution agreements).