Ever wondered what furry walls or fungus have to do with the GDL? Well, it can certainly be part of your future career. And if you think that’s a tall tale, wait till you meet Giles Peaker - successful housing lawyer, Chair of the Housing Law Practitioners' Association, founder and editor of the Nearly Legal: Housing Law News and Comment site and… former GDL student at City University. The Legal 500 2011 describes Giles as "one of the most impressive housing solicitors working today".
As a law student, it’s always gratifying and certainly reassuring to meet GDL alumni who survived the course, been there, done that and went on to reap the rewards of all that hard work. Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel after all.
So how did Giles achieve all of this? And more importantly, any tips for us juniors on life as a solicitor and the practice areas of housing and public law in general?
Giles was previously a senior lecturer in History of Art and after a thirteen-year career; he turned to law in pursuit of new challenges and intellectual stimulus. By now, you must be thinking, “Wow, a teacher who went back to school” and wondering what made him take the plunge into law. Giles shared that it was the unique combination of intellectual challenge together with the practical context of real-life facts that attracted him. Likewise, he was drawn to City University’s academic model of the GDL programme as opposed to other GDL providers, which were more formulaic-driven.
After all, isn’t it the academically challenging environment of City that ups the game a notch by allowing us to hone our analytical skills even further? For there’s a heightened sense of satisfaction when you’re able to distinguish yourself from your peers. Hands up, everyone who loves a good intellectual spar.
And while the GDL is undertaken by ‘courageous people whose social lives are placed in cold storage for a year’, Giles’ experience was that the pressure is not that pressuring, at least until exam time that is.
Tip: It all boils down to time management. And effective multi-tasking. You just need to utilise whatever available time you have.
Indeed, and Giles should know, having gone through the exact same process we’re now caught up with – training contracts, vacation schemes and pupillages.
Tip: Research, research and more research
It’s important to tailor-fit your Cover Letters to the firm you’re applying to. And always double-check before hitting the ‘submit’ button. Especially if you don’t want your Cover Letter to a family law practice to look something like this. “I’ve always wanted to work in criminal practice.”
Tip: Boost your legal experience to increase your chances of snagging that training contract.
Paralegal work is one way as firms do tend to prefer applicants who have some engagement with the sort of work they do. And if you’re still undecided about whether you prefer the route of a barrister or solicitor, this might help.
Tip: If you enjoy working directly with clients or running a case from beginning to end, you may prefer life as a solicitor. Or if standing and speaking in front of people is your preference, then you may want to consider becoming a barrister.
Despite the fundamental traits that differentiate a solicitor from a barrister, in practice, the relationship between the two is actually variable, dependent on practice area. But it’s really all about teamwork and collaboration at the end of the day, especially in the wake of the Legal Service reforms.
So what defines a good solicitor then? Someone with very good people skills.
Tip: Someone who takes the role of an adviser very seriously.
Clients look for someone who’s on their side, and aware of what they want –their desired outcome as opposed to the legally appropriate solution. However, what’s in their best interests may not always be what they want you to do.
Tip: Think in terms of the client’s long-term benefit. Manage their expectations realistically as what they want may not be possible legally. Advise them on the achievable outcome instead – things that we as lawyers can get for them.
“What they want is justice. What we’ve got is the law.” Take housing law for example, clients may want their day in court for the judge to hear their side of the story. Part of your job is to advise them why in the circumstances, that may not be the best route when there’s a decent settlement on the table.
As a successful housing lawyer, Giles has had his fair share of memorable cases. The biggest story to date in his area, is the human rights defence (Article 8) in public sector eviction cases since 2004. This has been a ping-pong match between the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the House of Lords (now Supreme Court) following the cases of Kay v Lambeth London Borough Council  2 AC 465 and Manchester City Council v Pinnock  UKSC 45. The next question is whether this applies to the private sector. Stay tuned…
And if you’re just as passionate about claims for disrepairs as Giles is, you’ll find the area to be one that’s often overlooked despite the miserable conditions people are forced to suffer for simple things that can be fixed relatively easily by the landlord. Such as families living in damp, sodden flats full of mould or babies in homes with furry walls. Or if public law and judicial review are more your cup of tea, community care cases and those on allocation of resources including free care support and funding tend to be tricky, challenging areas.
And because the law in these areas can expose gaping holes, people need free access to law and the latest cases. Especially since more people are now representing themselves - Giles’ reason for sharing these issues on his blog.
At present, the team writing for the blog comprises of ten members (four solicitors and six barristers) since Giles founded it in 2006. It’s now the central community for those in the housing law sector on both landlord and tenant sides. A very successful feat indeed. And if anything, Giles’ achievements are a testament that hard work put into the GDL course will pay off one day. The key is never to give up.
Giles Peaker is a solicitor at Anthony Gold Solicitors - thanks to him and his interviewer Marie Tay, current GDL student.