If you had been embarking on your legal training 100 years ago, what would life have been like?
First of all the terminology was different. You would not have been “trainee solicitors” but “articled clerks” who paid qualified solicitors to provide training over a 5 year period in return for a “premium”. If you already had a university degree the training period could be reduced to 3 years.
Could you afford it?
Finding the premium was the first real obstacle for any potential articled clerk to overcome. The usual sum required was 300-500 guineas (£315-£525) paid upfront when the articles of clerkship were signed. In addition £80 Stamp Duty was payable on the articles, making a total of anything up to £600. This does not sound very onerous until comparison is made with other money values at the time. A newly qualified solicitor might earn £150-£250 per annum, a qualified teacher as little as £100 per annum and a modest house could be bought for the cost of the initial premium.
As the contract between articled clerk and principal was for training in return for payment and not payment in return for services performed, a principal was under no obligation to pay his articled clerk any salary at all during the period of his training. The family of a young man who wished to become a solicitor had to be prepared to keep him for the whole period of his training as well as paying the premium.
Young men of limited means could certainly be engaged in solicitors’ offices and could become extremely proficient in certain areas of law, but they were excluded from partnership and therefore from the more lucrative aspects of legal practice. Despite this financial impediment many solicitors argued that the profession was overcrowded, which brings us on to one of the other major differences between then and now.
Gary Player once said of his success at golf, “the more I practise the luckier I get”. This is certainly true of giving presentations, but only if you take them seriously, prepare well, think about your audience and afterwards reflect on how successful they were and what you could do better next time.
Presenting the presenter
Introducing someone effectively is an art in itself. If you are asked to introduce a speaker, accept willingly as it’s good practice for getting the feel of the podium. Your purpose is to focus the audience’s attention by smiling, welcoming and possibly saying something amusing if the occasion warrants it. Don’t risk getting your facts wrong. Ask for the speaker’s resume, do a Google search and if possible have a chat beforehand. It can avoid the embarrassment of welcoming a speaker as an expert on corporate tax when he specialises in VAT.
It follows that if you are the keynote speaker, sending your resume beforehand and arriving in time to have a few words with the person who is introducing you increases the chances that you will be introduced in a way that you will be pleased about.
Looking and sounding natural when you are very nervous takes practice. Here are some suggestions:
- Type out what you are going to say in large type and then read it through aloud a couple of times, looking at yourself in a mirror if you can bear it.
- Speak more slowly than normal. Most people speed up when they are nervous. But don’t slow down to a crawl.
- Break up the pace of your presentation. If you ask a rhetorical question, pause and sweep the audience with your eyes. And then move on to the next point. BUT if you are asking a real question and nobody replies, treat it as a rhetorical one, give the answer and then move on; don’t risk an uncomfortable silence where your audience feels inadequate and hostile.
We can interpret this question in two different ways – how do you present yourself or how do you present your ideas? This article is not about dressing smartly and looking well-kempt, but about what you do once the neat and tidy appearance has been achieved. It’s not about making a presentation of yourself but about making presentations a.k.a. public speaking, which you might be asked to do:
- at an interview for a law firm summer vacation scheme
- at a training contract selection day
- when delivering a CPD seminar
- when pitching to a group of clients.
Even if you don’t want to be an advocate, you will find that public speaking is very much a part of legal life, from start to finish.
Do you think you are a good presenter?
In many ways it doesn’t matter what you think. However good, or for that matter bad, you think you are, it’s the audience’s perceptions that really matter. If the audience thought that you were boring or uninformative, then you were. If they thought that you were knowledgeable and persuasive then you were. You can’t make the audience think a certain way (unless perhaps you possess special hypnotic powers which would in any event be unethical to use without first getting their consent) but you can increase your chances of making an audience listen attentively – in other words of being a good presenter.
Caring and sharing
It helps to show that you care. You don’t need to adopt the admirable and sympathetic characteristics of a counsellor, social worker or nurse but you do need to:
- arrive in good time
- take care with the way you look
- do your research
- prepare and practise what you are going to say.
We all know that there are 24 hours in a day, but do we always remember that we can maximise their usage through proper Time Management or TM?. This means managing your books, your notes, your surroundings, your day and yourself.
It’s all about structure
Have you ever thought why working in a library is so pleasant? It’s not just because you will find a flat desk, free warmth and friends to have a “quick” cup of coffee with when you are weary.
It’s because the information that you need has been helpfully arranged and made easy to locate by your librarian.
Replicating the library structure in your own work space will help you to avoid wasting time locating material before you get started on an assignment. You can do this by:
- Arranging books properly by subject or author on a bookshelf rather than on the floor.
- Sorting out notes in subject files with proper file dividers and a contents list at the front of each one file.
- Ordering documents into folders with sub-files to make information easy to locate on your computer.
- Getting your stationery stationary, together with all your other work paraphernalia. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ may sound like boring advice but searching for a stapler, which when located is devoid of staples, is not only time wasting but is likely to terminate your work session through frustration.
The training contract process can generate a swamping amount of paper or computer space if you are not careful. Paper applications and correspondence can be most easily handled if you file them in firm alphabetical order with a contents list at the front of your file. The contents list should include the following to indicate how each individual application is proceeding:
- Date application was sent and to whom.
- Date acknowledgement was received (if any). If your application is not acknowledged after a couple of weeks, you may decide to send a polite enquiry, taking the same care that you did over the application and covering letter.
- Date of interview/assessment day. Make some very brief notes of your impressions of the firm, the interviewers and what you spoke about.
- The result of the interview. Don’t throw away rejection letters in disgust.
- The date by which you should provide an answer to an offer.
You will then be able to see at a glance how many applications are outstanding and if – and it does happen – a firm phones you up at short notice to ask you for interview, you will be able to find a copy of your application and covering letter. Trite as it sounds, it’s astoundingly important to remember in minute detail what you told your interviewing firm about yourself in your application.
Respect is a powerful word. We all want to be respected. It’s the swaggering demand of cinema stereotype gang members. It’s the name of the UK membership association for domestic violence prevention programmes and integrated support services. It’s the name of a political party.
Lawyers’ professional codes of conduct insist on respect for the rule of law. The SRA code of conduct requires solicitors to ‘uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice’ and to comply with ‘legal and regulatory obligations’. These are written rules that lawyers must follow but at law school and in law firms the rules of showing and earning respect are not always so obvious.
Like trust, respect is something that has to be earned and one thoughtless act can destroy what has been carefully built up. For you as a law student or a trainee, earning respect is something you should be working on if you want a smooth career path. One of the best ways to earn it is to show it.
Showing respect will get you assistance with your work, your job applications and your future career
First, recognise that for the next few years most of the people who can help you are older than you and many of them have struggled as hard as, or even harder, than you to gain their qualifications and their present positions. It’s not pompous to expect a little acknowledgement of their position.
Second, remember that seniority does not bring only power and pelf, but also pressure and time shortage.
One of the main differences between being at Law School and working in a law firm is money. Not just the money that you earn for yourself but the money that you earn for the firm. One of the most difficult adjustments you will have to make is assessing how well you are working. It will no longer be calculated by the number of hours spent studying your law books but by the number of hours spent earning hard cash for the firm.
The external valuation of your work at Law School (as at university) is done in terms of percentage marks and final grades, where high numbers are good, low numbers are bad and nobody expects you to get 100% -- well, not too often anyway. Law firms are different. The result that is aimed for is 100% accuracy -- anything less could result in your client making the wrong decisions and your firm being sued.
Law firms are businesses
Law firms don’t make chocolate bars or designer suits or even fill teeth, all of which are visible end-products. Their end-products are mainly legal advice, representation and negotiation.
At one level trainees are simply part of the tool kit used to provide these law firm products, so your firms needs to know what you are doing. Older lawyers may reminisce about the days when partners used to weigh files in their hands before plucking a figure out of the air which represented the amount of time spent on a matter and its “complexity” although it could be simply an estimate of what the client would bear. Those arcane practices have long since disappeared, along with would be solicitors paying substantial amounts of money to their principals and receiving little or no salary until they qualify.
In 1919 Parliament passed the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which permitted women to enter the professions and to serve on juries. In 1957, almost 40 years later the Law Society recorded that 356 women now held practising certificates; by contrast this qualification was held by 18, 244 men. Over the last decade the total number of women holding practising certificates has nearly doubled and now women account for 45.8% of solicitors holding practising certificates.
Massive progress has been made and it is now easier than ever for women to enter and progress in the legal professions. However, a glance at the proportion of women made up to partner in the major legal firms does not reflect this. Certainly not 45.8% of them are women. The general proportion is much nearer to 20% and in some City firms it is much less.
If you are a woman how can you maximise your chances of getting a training contract and then making progress through the ranks?
Like it or not, women are seen as being meticulous in their attention to detail, conscientious in their attitude to work and caring towards others.
Play to your strengths
Attend to the details in your CV and application letter. Make sure that they demonstrate your precision and excellent presentation skills. Make sure there are no sloppy spelling and grammatical errors – prove to your prospective employers that any advice that you give to clients will be not only be well thought out and accurate but also legible and easy to understand.
Demonstrate your conscientiousness by thoroughly researching the firm you are applying to and tailoring your application to the firm’s requirements. Don’t say that you are interested in Media Law if the firm does not offer that but specialises in Human Rights work and equally don’t trumpet your concerns for the downtrodden if you are applying to a major corporate firm – they may applaud your humanity, but give the contract to someone else. Remember that law firms are businesses and need to make a profit in their chosen areas of legal expertise.
The unwritten office manual
On your first day in most legal offices you will be handed a heavy folder called the Office Manual, which contains information on such things as health and safety, holidays and complaints procedures.
What you will not find in any Office Manual is information on the unwritten rules, otherwise known as “office etiquette”, on how you should behave towards your work colleagues. The word “etiquette” has connotations of a set of rigid social rules – think “Downton Abbey” for fastidious rules relating to cutlery placements or standing aside for someone regarded as a social superior.
Office, or business, etiquette on the other hand is essentially a set of rules based on the assumption that we want to make other people feel comfortable by showing them respect whatever their position in the office hierarchy, in the hope that they will accord us the same respect. If we follow these rules we have a better chance of rubbing along together in close proximity without causing offence. In modern parlance we are simply “respecting each other’s boundaries”. On the other hand, breaching them could make you very unpopular or even spell the end of your career at your firm. The difficulty with these rules is their unspoken nature.
In my final blog this year I have chosen to interview a recruiter to give you an insight into the other side.
I assume you are an expert at being interviewed –the perfect candidate? But have you ever made a mistake as a candidate?
I have made many interview mistakes; nerves cause us all to make a gaff. Two major ones spring to mind, telling an interviewer “I don’t know the answer and I’m not going to b**l S**t you” I was rejected unsurprisingly for swearing but I was unaware I had even said it until I received the feedback! And secondly telling a story about my dislike of children at an interview for a well known retailer of children’s wear .These anecdotes make the point that engaging mouth before brain is NEVER a good idea and over confidence and relaxing too much can be a big mistake. The best interviewers will put you at your ease and that’s where these mistakes can occur.
What’s the most bizarre thing you have seen a candidate do?
That’s an easy one and you may find this tale hard to believe but I swear it’s true!
Many years ago I was running an assessment centre. A young woman arrived late and was very loud and erratic telling other candidates that she had been out all night. Not a great first impression but it got worse. In the group exercise she proceeded to grab a glass of water and pour it over her head. I thought I was about to feature on “you’ve been framed” but Jeremy Beadle didn’t appear so I removed her from the group and her chance of a legal career at the firm was no more.
To this day I have no idea why she did this but I suspect she spent many hours regretting it.