John Brannigan studied at the University of Glasgow and completed his traineeship at Gallen & Co Solicitors. He now works at Russels Gibson McCaffrey Solicitors in Glasgow, specialising in all criminal and civil litigation matters.
The value of persistence, whatever career stage you're at
Persistence pays off. Not that old adage, I hear you say. But it's true. Persistence really does pay off. This counts not only for solicitors in representing clients but also for trainee solicitors, students and probably most people in general. Whether you're at the stage of hitting the books or preparing to enter the courtroom for the first time, you need to persist in what you're doing if you intend to succeed.
I had my own success this week, today in particular, wherein my persistence really paid off. I had three cases in which I had been in contact with the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service over a period of a few weeks regarding forthcoming procedural diets at court. For various reasons I invited the Procurator Fiscal Depute to discontinue the cases.
There were a few occasions where we missed each other's calls simply because of how busy we all are. As a result, it transpired that the cases were due to call at court and I had not yet received an answer from the Crown. Fortunately I was able to go down to court early enough that I could speak to the Fiscals before each of the cases called. I persisted in trying to persuade the Procurators Fiscal to drop the cases...and it worked!
The three cases I had which were set down for the day didn't call in court which means the Crown were discontinuing proceedings - a great result for my clients and also for me in so far as it was satisfying to know my persistence finally paid off. So my advice to take away from this is to stay focused on your goals and keep pushing forward and working hard to achieve the results you want in whatever stage of your career you're at.
Why solicitors should train like Olympic boxers
The Olympics this year was such a fantastic extravaganza of sporting achievements, most notably for Team GB who performed exceptionally well! Each of us will be familiar with the analogy of law, in particular courtroom practice, as being akin to the sport of boxing – the judge sits as the referee (at least in our adversarial system) with the defence/defender and prosecutor/pursuer as the fighters. The rules of the sport (rules of evidence) govern the fight.
Boxers train in the gym on a daily basis, solicitors train in the courtroom. We train our intellectual abilities, boxers train their physical abilities. The point I’m making is that there are a lot of parallels with sport and legal practice. That being said, if a solicitor’s greatest asset is his/her mind then we need to train it and improve our abilities if we are to succeed in our chosen sport.
Like in any sport, there will always be new competitors that challenge us and motivate us to keep on top of our game. Additionally, the legal world is fast-paced and ever-changing and it is important for us as solicitors, regardless of whatever stage of our careers we are at, to keep abreast of changes in the law. We all need to invest time in our learning to constantly improve our skills and our knowledge.
This can benefit us as solicitors, in becoming better at our job, and also our clients, in having the best representation available. How we choose to do this is up to us; whether it be reading the latest legal textbook in our free time (if we are lucky enough to have any free time at all!) or taking ten to fifteen minutes at the end of each day to read up on the latest case law. If we set aside some time and do this each day we can greatly improve our knowledge in a short space of time.
So, when we step into the arena to do battle against our competitor we are fully armed with the knowledge we need to win first place.
What does the average Scottish solicitor have in common with Harvey Specter?
I’ve recently started watching the TV series Suits. For those of you who have seen it, you will know that real life legal practice isn’t quite exactly like that which is portrayed in the series (unlike one of the protagonists, Harvey Specter, no lawyer can win a case by confidently striding into a courtroom and simply saying a few long-winded legal sentences!) but you will also notice some remarkably realistic portrayals and there are some moments in the series which really hit home.
One of my favourite episodes includes an interaction between one of the solicitors and his client and includes a brilliant quote which I think is true to all professions, not just law: ‘loyalty is a two-way street. If I’m asking it from you then you’re getting it from me.’ It really hit home to me that a crucial part of the solicitor’s job is to be a trusted adviser - clients rightly expect their agent to act in their best interests at all times.
So, although we can’t stride into courtrooms in the dramatic style of Harvey Specter, we are always at the coalface trying to represent our clients to the best of our ability and the solicitor’s role can help improve a client’s life. As I was watching a few episodes this weekend it also struck a chord how frequently the solicitors in Suits change between various areas of legal practice. This resonates with me as I have had the benefit of training in several different areas of law (all litigation focused, rather than transactional, but distinct, separate areas of litigation nonetheless).
This also benefits clients who sometimes seek advice on a number of different areas of law. They might seek help with a criminal matter and, in the process of discussing this, the client mentions they are seeking to get divorced or they have an upcoming children’s panel but no solicitor to represent them. Therefore it isn’t strange to discuss several different practice areas in the one appointment. Ultimately, the client leaves your office feeling satisfied that they have a trusted adviser who is able to take care of all of their legal matters.
July 2016 - 4 Steps to Success
Four steps to success
As a mentor to students through the Glasgow Legal 40 I’m often asked, what is the secret to success? The answer: there is no secret. It is no secret that hard work is the key to success. This is the starting point but I’ve come to develop a simple four-step process which has served me well over the years.
Regardless of what you are doing, whether you are studying, training or already climbing the business ladder, it is always good to set a plan for what you want to achieve, i.e what are your goals? Thereafter, you can also plan how best to achieve these goals. Without focus you have nothing to aim for. Setting goals can help narrow your focus and create that spark which ignites your ambition to strive towards achieving something.
However, you should make sure your goals are realistic. It is fine to aim big, but setting out to become the CEO of a company overnight is potentially setting yourself up to fail. The best thing is to set short term and medium term goals to work towards your long term goal(s).
How do you achieve those goals once you have devised a plan?
This is quite a sweeping statement and there are different ways to organise what you are doing. If you’re a student, organise your studies by devising a planner that maximises your time. Similarly, if you’re practising as a solicitor you need to work efficiently so as to maximise your time (and, consequently, your fees!) and you can do so by means of utilising IT in order to streamline your administrative tasks, leaving more time to focus on cases etc.
Intricately linked to step two, you need to implement and put in motion the hard work required to start achieving the goals you have set for yourself. Inertia and procrastination are the biggest obstacles to setting the wheels in motion along the road to success. Therefore it is crucial to motivate yourself. Always bear in mind the goals you have set and don’t be afraid to re-evaluate these along the way; this can be a helpful incentive to maintain the momentum of your hard work.
‘If at first you don’t succeed’....that old adage is particularly relevant. No one can predict the success or not of their ventures. Indeed, not everyone succeeds on their first attempt at whatever they are doing. But the most important lesson is to learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward to achieve your goals by avoiding making the same mistakes. After time you will begin to see that persistence and perseverance pays off and, before you know it, you will be setting new goals, having achieved your old ones and more.
June 2016 - How do clients choose which firm to consult with?
I’ve mentioned this in previous articles but it is worthwhile repeating the importance within our jobs of being more than just lawyers; we need to be businessmen and women and strive to create recognisable legal brands.
Over time, firms have had to re-structure and re-brand, of course for different reasons. One reason might be the continued difficulties which Legal Aid has presented to firms over the years; diversification into different legal areas, for example, might have been necessary for some smaller firms trying to survive both the financial crisis which gripped the country and the shrinking legal aid budget!
I work in the Queens Park area of Glasgow wherein there are several firms within a short radius offering the same services; given the limited population within the area, it entails competition between firms to secure clients. How do clients chose which firm to consult with? On the face of things, from the outside looking in, there aren’t many factors to distinguish between firms.
Mainly, I would think, especially in parts of the city such as the one I work in where everyone knows everyone, word of mouth is key. By extension, people refer their family and friends to a particular firm/solicitor based on that person or company’s reputation. In turn, that solicitor’s or firm’s name becomes an established brand, which is equated with the provision of a trusted and quality service.
Therefore, the bricks and mortar may look almost identical from the street, but clients may already have made their minds up about which firm to consult, out of the many different firms situated along the high street. There are several different aspects to creating a brand. Clients expect a reliable, trustworthy service; they rely on us to provide accurate, correct advice. Clients also expect an efficient, cost-effective service; the structure of the internal workings of the firm from admin to office management to legal work should be such that work is streamlined into a smooth, transitional process that flows as seamlessly as possible.
Overall, being part of the new generation of lawyers means staying one step ahead of the game in a market which is ever more competitive and which is constantly evolving. By creating a recognisable, respected brand, this is a crucial way in which firms can survive and, more importantly, stand the test of time.
May 2016 - Having a client’s life in your hands
I have a few friends who are doctors and I am constantly amazed by tales of life-saving treatments and near-death incidents. Quite literally the patient’s life is in their hands. In some respects, being a lawyer involves having someone’s life in your hands. Not to the same extent of course; perhaps it isn’t quite a matter of life or death, but the work we do as solicitors is hugely crucial to our clients’ lives.
Indeed, Alan Susskind recognises this in his latest article. He states that what we do and how we advise clients can impact on their life, perhaps forever. He takes the example of family law and divorce matters. This is probably true of other areas of law, too. For example, in criminal law a client’s liberty is in dispute and the advice you give can affect their freedom. In children’s panel/referral proceedings, a child’s life can be affected by means of compulsory measures and this also has an impact on the wider family life. In representing clients with mental health difficulties who are detained in hospital, their liberty is similarly at stake. Their detention in a hospital setting completely inhibits their freedom (and their choices, through compulsory treatment).
In each of these practice areas the client’s life really is in the hands of the practitioner. There are several consequences which necessarily flow from this. The first is the responsibility to the client. Apart from our duties to the court as officials, there is a strict duty to the client to ensure and promote their interests as best we can. Given what is at stake for them, this is a particularly strict and overarching duty incumbent on all solicitors.
Another consequence which flows from this is that we are afforded an insight into the foremost sensitive issues in a person’s life. Intimate details are divulged and the person’s life is laid out in our file. The client may be feeling vulnerable, for example if it is an acrimonious divorce, perhaps with a background of domestic offences being perpetrated on the client. For them to recount these details to their legal adviser can be harrowing. Relatedly, understanding the client’s situation and showing a degree of sympathy is important.
No matter how analytical we require to be, it is always crucial to see the human element in a case.
April 2016 - What's a typical day for a court practitioner?
For the past few years I have been involved in a mentoring scheme through the University of Glasgow’s ‘Legal 40’ network and it has been particularly rewarding in being able to mentor aspiring solicitors.
One of the most common questions I am asked by students contemplating a life in criminal or civil law is, ‘what is a typical day like as a court practitioner?’ The answer – extremely busy!
Across any sector, not just in law, people are under pressure to perform. In my own area of practice, aside from any business and financial considerations, my clients’ rights are my priority and protecting their rights comes first. We are a client-focused industry and at Campbell & McCartney we deal with a high volume of work which means preparation and organisation is key.
On a typical day I get started in the office at around 8.15 am, checking emails and getting files ready for court. The diary is crucial; it goes without saying that you should know what you are doing day-to-day, notwithstanding that the court dairy require a degree of flexibility and can be subject to change. Court cases can be listed for 9.30am if, for example, it is a deferred sentence and 10am if there are trials and intermediate diets. Civil proofs and procedural matters can be listed for 10am also.
Glasgow Sheriff Court is an extremely busy and vibrant setting for conducting cases. It is probably trite to anyone who appears there to say that no two days are ever the same at GSC! All of the agents and court staff are particularly friendly and helpful which can really ease the pressure during the midst of a typically busy and demanding day.
In court, my responsibilities range widely from appearing in the civil courts to the children’s referral court to the criminal courts. On any one day I could be covering cases across five or six different courtrooms, with several cases in each court. Sometimes the most difficult element of the job is the logistics of balancing so many cases and not, in fact, the complexity of the law itself.
In the afternoon there might be a few custodies to deal with, especially after a busy weekend as duty solicitor attending various police offices across Glasgow! Again, the afternoon courts might range from intermediate diets to Child Welfare Hearings to children’s referrals to custodies or, in my case, all of the above. Hopefully, all things being equal, my court commitments normally wind down around 4pm. After this, it’s back to the office for client meetings and paperwork.
I’m fortunate that at Campbell & McCartney we have a strong team-work ethic which means that my colleagues and I are always on hand to assist each other with our workload. This fact, combined with the help of other agents and court staff, means that the fast-paced days as a court practitioner are in fact particularly enjoyable and rewarding; which is the upshot of my answer when asked by students, ‘what is a typical day like as a court practitioner’?
March 2016 - Seeking out feedback from clients
I read a really interesting article in this month’s Journal by Stephen Gold entitled ‘Through The Client’s Eyes’. The article talks about the importance of client interaction and client feedback.
In a practice like mine at C&M, our clients are different from those of, say, the larger commercial firms. We invariably have individuals seeking criminal and/or civil legal advice, compared to multi-national companies in the latter. Regardless, clients should be at the heart of any type of business, not just in the legal sector. Feedback from clients can be a good way of reviewing the way in which your clients are being serviced (or, at least, how they feel they are being serviced) and make any necessary changes to improve.
How might feedback be received? One way is that clients might in fact offer this without having been asked. Whether it is critical or constructive, it is always good practice to listen and take it on board. Even if it is critical feedback, it presents opportunity for growth; what did I do wrong, how can I prevent this from happening in the future? So, unprompted feedback is one way.
The Journal article mentions the use of a questionnaire. However it goes on to state, and I would agree with this, it may not prove very useful. It could be sent to clients via email but, realistically, how many are likely to respond. A more realistic proposal is, of course, a meeting with the client. The meeting being referred to in the article is one scheduled for the purpose of receiving feedback.
I like this idea, however I would hesitate in suggesting that we adopt this approach in my own firm. Given our size and volume of work, it would be more practical and beneficial for us, I think, to include an extra five/ten minutes at the end of each client meeting for this purpose; rather than schedule a meeting solely for feedback. That being said, the article wisely suggests that any review or request for feedback should be carried out by someone not closely connected with the client/case. Again, however, in smaller firms this may not be practical and the solicitor handling the case might be the only person available to engage in such dialogue with the client.
I wholeheartedly agree with the assertion in the article that clients might partake with “gusto” in so far as they know their views are regarded as important and are being taken into account. After all, it is their case! So it may be beneficial in the long run to check in with your clients every so often for the purposes of information gathering and feedback. Listening to them and taking their views on board is an effective way, as the article suggests, in creating stronger relationships for the future, for the benefit of your firm and your clients.
February 2016 - Delegating a task or responsibility
I was recently asked by a friend of mine about the workings of legal practice and being a solicitor. After some conversation about it he sighed, ‘I just wouldn’t be able to get my head around all the different laws!’ My response was that being a lawyer involves much more than simply knowing the law.
It also requires, among other things, an ability to manage, i.e. managing people, managing a business and managing problems (in this latter sense, I also joked with my friend that lawyers are also a lot like firefighters in that we quite often have to extinguish raging fires!) Until now my only experience of managing people was in relation to my clients. However I have recently had the opportunity to broaden the scope of my remit in this regard in working closely with our newest trainee who is based at our Glasgow office.
On a daily basis he assists me directly with my very busy workload across the civil and criminal departments. This is the first time I have been able to give direct guidance and supervision to a colleague and it has added another layer to my existing responsibilities which I really enjoy. It helps, of course, that we have a great working relationship. I remember being a trainee myself not so long ago so I am using my own experience to assist him with his learning.
Effective delegation is crucial to ensuring results; it provides opportunities for the person to whom the task is delegated to increasing their learning, as the tasks which are delegated become increasingly complex, and also for the person delegating the task to have more free time to concentrate on more urgent or complex work. To ensure the task is delegated effectively, it requires a continued oversight to ensure it is completed and the results reported back.
This is not to say that micro-management is required. Once a task is delegated, it is important to allow the person the freedom to carry out the work. On the other hand, macro-management isn’t always enough because, in the midst of a busy office environment with other pressing matters to attend to, it can be easy to overlook a piece of work which has been delegated. A simple diary system or file reminder system can be a great way to ensure against either person overlooking a task.
So far, my experience of being able to assist and manage a colleague has been particularly positive given our mutual willingness to achieve results and the wider environment of the office within which we work which is close-knit. We have colleagues around us who are always on hand to help. All of this, ultimately, is to the benefit of our clients.
January 2016 - Setting New Year career goals
Happy New Year everyone! So it’s 2016 and the beginning of what I hope will be a great year for you all. I’m sure each of us, at some stage, has set ourselves a New Year’s Resolution.
Traditionally, this will be a goal or aspiration that we strive towards during the year, such as to learn a new skill, learn a new language or even just to increase our fitness.
As the New Year has crept up on us, I’ve decided this year that instead of setting goals in my personal life – which by February I will have forgotten about completely! – it would be more productive to set goals in my career.
Perhaps, like me, you’re in the comfortable position of having a good degree of experience under your belt and you are beginning to think about progression in terms of your skills and responsibilities. The next logical step, therefore, is to start planning for things that you might look to achieve over the next year.
If we think for a moment about our attempts over the years at various New Year’s Resolutions we will probably recall those ones which were unsuccessful, perhaps because we were over-ambitious.
There is a lesson to be learned there, in that the goals we set for ourselves within our careers should be realistic and achievable. Additionally, once you have an idea of a goal you want to achieve it would be worthwhile to put a plan in place to achieve it – don’t wait for opportunities to come around by chance!
I’m quite lucky in so far as I was recently able to tick off one of the goals which I had in fact set for myself for 2016. Recently I was able to conduct a client’s defence case in my first (successful) jury trial, which was a great experience. The environment of the solemn court was entirely different from the summary courts that I was used to. It was a particularly good learning curve to help me take that next step of appearing in more serious criminal cases at solemn level.
So, one down - on to the next one!
December 2015 - Dealing with clients at Christmas
It's almost Christmas - one of the busiest times of the year. Aside from the usual hustle and bustle, there are other aspects which can make it a difficult and stressful time of the year for many people.
Very often I have clients who come to me for advice on having holiday contact arrangements agreed with their ex-partners. Unfortunately, however, there are some situations in which the spirit of Christmas and the idea of 'goodwill' is lost. Contact itself can be an emotive issue for parents. Factor in the time of year it is and matters can become particularly volatile and acrimonious.
Parties may be unable to agree contact arrangements over Christmas, for a variety of reasons. So, then, in addition to the last minute rush to the shops at this time of year, there can be a last minute rush to the courtroom! Yet, on the other hand, I also handle cases wherein it is clear the client views this time of year as an opportunity for reflection; thinking of the importance of their family, they attempt to resolve any difficulties there may be.
In other areas of practice, such as criminal law, some of my clients might be facing the prospect of being remanded in custody over the Christmas period. Again, this is a particularly distressing time, especially for those clients of mine who have never faced the prospect of court proceedings before. You can only imagine the feeling of utter despondence felt by those spending Christmas Day within the confines of Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
In all cases - besides giving impartial advice - sensitivity and understanding to the client’s situation is important. I always find that when I meet with my clients, either in my office or, for example, in custody cells, simply listening to their side of the story proves to be a constructive exercise; that the client knows you are there to help can ease the stress of their entire situation.
So, as Christmas approaches, it is important to remember we have a special privilege entrusted to us as solicitors to be able to help those less fortunate than ourselves at this time of year.
November 2015 - Full Circle
Without even realising it, my first 12 months as a NQ solicitor came and went in the blink of an eye. Why did I miss this all important milestone? Ironically, because I was too busy working! At Campbell and McCartney I am primarily responsible for the civil department at our Glasgow office – a demanding, but highly rewarding responsibility. I also undertake work assisting the Partner in the criminal department. Resultantly, on any given day, I am either busy rushing around Glasgow Sheriff Court juggling a number of civil and criminal cases, or I am in the office taking back-to-back meetings with our ever-increasing number of clients.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the busy dynamics of my work. Being responsible for a large number of clients, I have to constantly stay on top of my workload. This is a labour intensive and time consuming process, which requires being able to foresee problems and deal with these pro-actively. The good thing for me is that I tend to thrive in the thick of things. Ok, I’m still learning. But every day I put to use the knowledge that I gained from the day before. For me, it is all about working towards becoming an expert adviser, ultimately for the benefit of my clients.
Coming from the position of a trainee, and dealing with my supervisor’s clients, to the situation now where I have my own clients, I can finally take a step back and reflect on how far I’ve come in what feels like a really short space of time. I owe this not only to my own ambition but to my employers at C&M for allowing me the autonomy I am presently afforded. The feeling of helping my clients and hearing how the advice and/or court representation I have provided has improved their situation is a hugely rewarding part of my job.
I have also come full circle since starting as an NQ at C&M as this week we have taken on a new trainee solicitor at our Glasgow office who will be working closely with my colleagues and me. We all have a great working relationship with each other, and our trainee has already settled in very well. Having been in his position only a year ago, I can offer advice about my own experiences as a trainee – the good and the bad – to help my new colleague on his way to becoming a solicitor! That is just another great aspect of the job.
Overall, my first year as a qualified solicitor has already been a great success in my view - and I’m looking forward to what this next 12 months will bring.
October 2015 - App technology and staying efficient
Within our firm we use an electronic file storage system. This is not to say that we don’t currently use paper files – we do, which is vital when undertaking court work. However, the electronic system is ideal for managing the administrative tasks within the office. Rather than having a paper based recording system of court times, dates and meetings, everything is entered on to the system and can be accessed remotely as an app.
There are several benefits to this. The speed with which files can be accessed is of great advantage. For example, think of the situation wherein a client has come in for an appointment but the client’s file has been misplaced, with the result that one or two members of staff have to search the entire office. Think of how much time might be wasted in that scenario (particularly when the file might turn up weeks later). Compare this to the situation of being able to access the client’s file at the touch of a button.
With this comes greater efficiency. Rather than having to input your file entries by hand into paper files, the electronic system allows them to be recorded digitally and all entries are uploaded onto the one system (to be accessed anywhere, including court), meaning that you can complete work faster and save against the need to have all the paper files sitting on your desk.
Additionally, I have found there can be a greater degree of accuracy with respect to file entries – by comparison to paper files which can, understandably, become out of order, and thereby be more difficult to follow, the electronic system keeps a clear chronological order to file entries with the provision to input as much detail as is required (which can be a lot more than a paper entry allows).
Overall, it is always worthwhile to bear in mind that IT is constantly advancing which presents opportunities to enhance our internal workings and practices, to our benefit and, ultimately, to the benefit of the client.
September 2015 ‘An Exacting Trade’ – Managing less favourable outcomes as an NQ.
There can be any number of reasons why a case does not have a favourable outcome. For example, there might be times when the case against your client is particularly strong, to the extent that he or she does not have a great prospect for success.
In those types of cases - be it criminal, civil or even a contentious commercial case – there may not be much room for manoeuvre in terms of negotiations or advocacy. I remember being told as a Diploma student, however, that solicitors don’t win or lose cases, the evidence does – some solace, at least, for the practitioner after a painstaking fight to win.
I’m sure we have all had cases that involve an element of frustration because the outcome isn’t as favourable for our client as we had hoped (or even expected). It is par for the course that we must take the good with the bad and, ultimately, as long as we have given the case our full and best efforts, that is all that can be expected.
I recently came across a particularly relevant passage from a former Sheriff – Substitute of Lanarkshire, Mr A.G. Walker;
The function of a court is to do justice, according to law, between the litigants. If that is to be achieved it is essential that both the judge and the pleaders should give of their best – whether the case be large or small. If a pleader is not prepared to give of his best – whatever the reason may be – and to do his duty by his client and the court, then he should desert the law and earn his living in some less exacting trade.
What we can take from this is that the focus of our energy as solicitors shouldn’t be about winning or losing cases, rather the primary objective in our job is to make sure we serve the client’s interests first, and above all else.
August 2015 - Being a Trusted Legal Adviser Means More than Knowing the Law
I’m now reaching the stage of 1 year PQE, but I have no idea where the time has gone! I have thoroughly enjoyed the past year and what strikes me most, and something which I touched on in an earlier post, is the importance of the role of a solicitor in helping to improve a client’s circumstances.
I have had the opportunity to work on several civil cases during my NQ role, from contact actions to divorce actions. What I have found is that in a lot of these cases the client can be feeling vulnerable; hence why they have made the decision to speak to a lawyer. They seek you out as a trusted legal adviser during one of the most stressful/hectic/important/sad times of their life and entrust their situation to you in the hope of a favourable outcome.
Of course, it’s par for the course that we will empathise with the client’s predicament but we also require to remain at arm’s length in order to fulfil our duty of giving the client objective and impartial advice. I’m sure that other NQs will agree with me that as we progress towards handling files from start to finish, it can be both personally and professionally rewarding in having to deal with all of the various issues which arise along the way to securing a settlement or resolution for the client.
I remember vividly a case in which I became involved regarding the client’s child. I was responsible for drafting and lodging the writ, arranging and attending a hearing in chambers, instructing the sheriff officers and, thereafter, attending at a child welfare hearing in court some months later. I was able to achieve a successful resolution for the client and it was extremely gratifying to hear the client speak of her relief and joy at being reunited with her child. It made a stressful case very worthwhile.
July 2015- The commercial side of legal practice
Part of our job as solicitors in private practice is the responsibility to earn fees. From litigation-based firms to large corporate firms, earning money is a necessary part of being a solicitor. From the early stages of the traineeship everyone begins to gain exposure to the commercial aspects of legal practice.
For me, my career in the law thus far has focused entirely upon the legal aid scheme for criminal and civil litigation. Legal aid is an area in itself and learning about the workings of the legal aid system is gained mainly from ‘on-the-job’ experience. There may be a few tutorials about Legal Aid during the Diploma but much of what you learn will come from your training as you enter into legal practice.
Whilst we all require to earn fees and ensure we are able to contribute to our firm’s profit income, it isn’t as crude an issue as looking at a case and thinking ‘how can I earn as much money from this as possible?’ Our primary duty is to the client and to ensure we provide effective advice and representation. Earning a fee will follow from this.
There are a few simple tips for trainees and those who are in the early stages of qualifying. Firstly, you should always ensure that you have funding available on a file before you carry out any work. You can provide initial work for a client with a grant of advice and assistance and you can seek an increase in authorised expenditure from the Scottish Legal Aid Board where required. You should be aware that increases are only granted by SLAB in certain circumstances – e.g. for advising a suspect at a police station attendance.
If you require to take an action to court, such as a contact action when negotiations have broken down, full legal aid should be sought. Criminal ABWOR (Advice by way of representation) is available in criminal proceedings when, for example, a guilty plea is entered in accordance with the client’s instructions or for other types of cases such as bail undertakings, breaches of court orders and parole hearings. Civil ABWOR is also available for representing clients at a range of hearings, including mental health tribunals.
If you are beginning your traineeship or role as NQ with a new firm, it is important to take some time to get to know the firm you will be working for – how does that firm operate, does it have a particular client-base and does it specialise in a particular area of the law? All of these should be factors that you consider as you begin to get to grips with the financial elements of handling cases.
Ultimately, whilst you require to learn about the nuances of the fee-earning scheme within your practice area/s, being commercially aware isn’t necessarily about knowledge gained from text books; commercial awareness is a way of thinking which largely comes from experience. Gaining exposure to the financial practicalities of legal work early on in your legal career can help to ensure that you are able to maximise your commercial abilities as you progress from your traineeship to qualifying as a solicitor.
It has been another interesting month for me at Fleming and Reid. I have worked on a number of cases across our service spectrum which has been both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. From civil interdict hearings in chambers to mental health tribunals to interim liberation hearings, I have been able to continually improve my knowledge and practical skills in several different practice areas.
Switching between different types of cases can be difficult at first, especially when your workload is increasing. However, it does get easier the more you get into a routine of dealing with different cases. Additionally, attending CPD courses can supplement your learning in this regard. I have now been qualified for 9 months and every day there is always something new to learn and a different challenge to get to grips with.
Don’t worry if you are making mistakes as a NQ; okay, we’re no longer trainees and can’t really get away with the silly mistakes that we were once able to, but at the same time we’re not experts. You might have other NQs in your office – chat to them and share information. Ask your senior colleagues for their advice and expertise whenever you need it.
During my transition to a NQ I have been able to gain exposure to dealing with a variety of clients on a daily basis. For me this is a particularly enjoyable part of my job. My experience of providing legal advice to people with mental health difficulties is an example of how our roles as lawyers can privilege us in being able to assist vulnerable people.
A good tip here is to make sure that you are as accessible to clients as you possibly can be. We are all busy in our jobs and clients tend to understand that, but it is always worthwhile returning that call from a client seeking urgent advice or seeking an urgent meeting. It might only be five minutes out of our schedule and, in turn, creates a great image of accessibility that the client could pass on to other potential clients who then choose to consult you because of this.
In all cases when dealing with clients you are being instructed to give independent, objective advice based on that person’s circumstances. Be realistic with the client. If their case doesn’t have a great prospect for success tell them this piece of information. I once heard that you should under promise and over deliver, never the other way around. That is true but only to an extent – never under promise on something when you are confident you can achieve a result for the client! Additionally, it is important to make sure clients understand the advice you give them. There is a fine distinction between simply giving advice and making sure it has been understood; in some areas, particularly in mental health law, it is necessary first of all to ensure that you can receive instructions.
All of these issues should be in your mind when dealing with clients. Hopefully you find these tips of assistance as you continue on the path of your legal career!
May 2015 - Practice makes perfect
How many of you play sports? Whichever type of sport you enjoy I’m sure you would all agree that practice helps to improve your game. People often use sports analogies when speaking of litigation and practice within the courtroom. For example, the boxing analogy is often used to describe the role of the opposing advocates and the judge as being akin to two boxers and the referee.
As in any sport, practice at your court craft can help you win on game day. I recently attended a very enjoyably CPD course which explored a novel approach to practising your advocacy skills.
Everyone who attended had been tasked with preparing submissions in respect of a hypothetical personal injury case. We were each given a set of papers complete with record and medical reports etc. After having the chance to read the papers we each had to make our submissions. There was, however, one unexpected twist – we were asked to do it on camera!
We thereafter had the opportunity to watch ourselves, with the added benefit of an analysis from an experienced solicitor who provided a very helpful critique of our presentation. We all received very helpful tips and hints. The exercise was designed to get us out of our comfort zones and, in doing so, force us to really think about our presentation skills and the aspects that we could all improve on.
It does feel strange to watch yourself but it can also be insightful in helping you to take a step back and spot aspects of your advocacy skills that you might want to work on. I would highly recommend trying this, especially to those of you who are just beginning to appear in court. Working on your skills early on can help you become successful in court very quickly, to the benefit of yourself and your client.
March 2015- NQ Tips: Work on the Move
One of the challenging aspects of working in a busy practice is the need to stay on top of a large workload.
This can be made increasingly difficult when a large portion of your day is spent in the courtroom; I'm sure we've all had that feeling of dread about heading back to the office to face a growing pile of paperwork.
I have probably mentioned in previous blogs about the need to be efficient. This can help not only for catching up on paperwork but getting on top of it altogether and ensuring a smooth running of your caseload.
I see solicitors in court using their iPads or their phones to send and reply to emails ‘on the go’ as well as making legal aid applications. There are an increasing number using technology to help them multitask and make the best use of their waiting time in court.
Some solicitors have an e-diary system wherein they can look at a glance at their upcoming court schedules. This can encourage forward planning; meetings, prison visits etc can be structured around the same.
The Outlook diary system is great for setting reminders. When a file isn't on your desk or within eyesight it can be difficult to remember that a particular matter needs to be actioned. A pop up reminder system can ensure that you carry out the necessary steps timeously, thereby meeting any important deadlines.
Harnessing the available technologies to your advantage can assist in becoming more efficient in handling the administrative tasks that can, at times, become burdensome. This will free up valuable time to concentrate on other pressing business.
February 2015- Handling cases from start to finish
One of the things I enjoy most about my role as assistant solicitor at Fleming and Reid is the degree of professional autonomy allowed by my senior colleagues in the office. Having recently progressed from my traineeship to NQ position, I now have responsibility in some cases from dealing with a file in its entirety, from the creation of the file until it is closed and sent for feeing. There are several important aspects to this.
Firstly, the importance of keeping abreast of updates in the law cannot be overstated. This is important particularly if you practice in several areas of law. In my last blog I spoke about having the opportunity to work across different areas including crime, civil law, children’s panel matters and mental health law.
However, in doing so, I require to have a working knowledge of the different rules and authorities in each area. This will help you when you come to the point of having to start a file, give the initial advice to the client and then have responsibility for the management of the file and preparing the action.
Another crucial aspect of managing files appropriately is the responsibility to keep clients informed at all stages of the progress of their case. Whether by writing to the client or by meeting with them and discussing the case, they should be given a realistic evaluation of the prospects of their case.
For example, I regularly meet with clients in the office to discuss the terms of the disclosure from the Crown Office regarding their criminal matter. I also attend various hospitals to meet patients who are detained on a hospital order to discuss the legal aspects of their mental health matter.
In our office case preparation can take several different forms depending upon the type of file for which my colleagues and I have responsibility. For an upcoming criminal trial, invariably we will require to research relevant authorities and prepare our cross-examination based on the client’s defence position and the information contained in the disclosure material.
Similarly, at children’s panels and mental health tribunals we may be required to prepare submissions on behalf of the client, depending upon the issue at hand in the hearing and depending on the information contained in the relevant papers. This also applies in my experience of conducting parole hearings and benefit appeal hearings.
Organisation is key. You should know exactly what papers you have, their content and what, if anything, is outstanding. Give your papers, correspondence etc some form of order and work through matters methodically, keeping your client’s instructions at the forefront of your mind at all times.
The progression from trainee to NQ can involve significant changes in your workload and responsibilities. Make sure you ask for assistance whenever you feel you are unsure of how to progress a case or if you are unsure what to do in a particular situation. Whilst you are a qualified solicitor, no one will expect you to know everything straight away. It is about managing your progression.
I expect that many of you, like me, have recently been transitioning into your new roles as a NQ solicitor. I also expect that many of you would agree with me in saying it is a large leap forward in terms of both responsibility and workload. This leap brings with it the chance to work on more complex and interesting cases which, in turn, brings with it increased professional development.
I have been working with Fleming and Reid solicitors now for almost five months. Part of what I enjoy most about my new position is the opportunity to practice across several different fields of litigation including criminal law, civil/family law and mental health law. The variety of work ensures that no two days are the same. For example I might be in the Sheriff Court for a criminal or civil matter in the morning and attending at a tribunal in the afternoon, the next day I might be in the High Court with Counsel.
At Fleming and Reid we provide representation at courts and tribunals throughout Scotland. I recently had the opportunity to appear in Kirkwall Sheriff Court for a matter which lasted several days. It was my first solemn appearance which proved to be incredibly interesting both from a factual and procedural point of view…not to mention I had the chance to go out and socialise with the local solicitors and also do a spot of sightseeing which was an added bonus!
I am also gaining more experience of appearing in more civil matters as an NQ, particularly child welfare hearings (CWHs). For those of you who appear in such hearings you will know how fraught these can sometimes be; cases might have a particularly sensitive or volatile background. Ultimately, CWHs can make for an interesting learning curve by shaping advocacy skills in a way which is distinct from the criminal courts.
Additionally, I am gaining experience in attending at mental health tribunals. These are of a more informal setting than the courtroom but the same principles apply to the extent that legal agents act on the instructions of the client/patient, e.g. to appeal against their order, and the agent will advocate this at the tribunal. Again, it makes for an interesting experience in developing advocacy skills; it supplements, and can be supplemented by skills as a court solicitor.
Hopefully you are all enjoying your new position as a NQ; it can be demanding but, at the same time, very rewarding.