“Getting close to the sun: pinch points in Commercial Litigation”, a talk on commercial litigation by Ian Gascoigne – Marie Tay
Marie Tay gives us an insight into commercial litigation, thanks to a talk given at The City Law School by Ian Gascoigne, Partner at Eversheds, LLP.
Commercial litigation: analysing the legal position, identifying useful tactics and tailoring them to meet the goals of different clients against the backdrop of today’s challenging economic climate.
For those who have always liked the idea of a role in commercial litigation, here’s what it involves in a City firm.
Its foundation is in contract law, lots and lots of that, almost every aspect, but particularly formation, breach, remedies of termination and damages and the application of limitation and exclusion clauses. Add occasional aspects of tort and company law plus the Limitation Act 1980, which determines when claims are made too late. Add in arbitration law, if that is the chosen dispute forum, and you’ve got the life of a City solicitor in commercial litigation.
The commercial dispute lawyer also needs a detailed knowledge of the court rules, as well as experience in the use of mediation. Today, the main practical aspects for the clients are estimating costs accurately and then controlling them.
And the most satisfying part of the job? Using the process productively for the client's benefit: that wonderful feeling of winning against the odds, deploying the right strategy and getting your opponent to settle on terms close to your client's goal.
What essential skills are needed?
1. Forensic skills
Being able to work around the unhelpful documents, but making full use of the good material. The ability to identify significant written and oral evidence which will win your client the case is a crucial skill.
2. Strategic skills
The battle plan and how to achieve a victory or a desirable settlement. The client may expect a ‘leave no stone unturned’ approach. Identifying the other party’s vulnerable areas in the dispute and applying the right strategy at the right time to press home the advantage, such as making a well-judged offer to settle under Part 36.
So you’ve recently graduated, or on the track to this year. You’ve studied law and are eager to get the ball rolling on your future career. Unfortunately, you’re entering into a level of competition in the work-place that is unrivalled by generations past. Nowadays, your CV needs to be perfect, concise, relevant and professional; but also engaging. You need qualifications alongside work experience, and most importantly, you need to spend the next few years working hard to secure the position you so desperately seek.
Tomorrow is promised to No-one!
Law is a very serious game, and too often those engaged in it forget that they are, in fact, not just a body of legal utility. The seriousness of the profession – the stress, the hard work – it can be a difficult thing to adjust to. Though, the rewards are certainly worth the toil, why don’t you weigh up your options and consider ways to get professional experience, life experience and qualifications all while utilising the most important characteristic freshest graduates have at their disposal: Youth.
International internships are a great way to fulfil all of the above criteria and have a great time in doing so! You can earn money, travel, meet new people and learn things about the world and yourself, whilst in the meantime still maintaining the thread you want to pursue in the future.
Many legal practices take on international interns, and, if you were to secure one you would have a stand-out, unique addition to your CV. Something that’s certain to put you ahead of the curve in the job market.
Now, don’t be fooled, an internship is not a free ticket to travelling abroad. They are hard work and can provide little in the way of immediate benefits. For example, The Hague is currently recruiting for a round of interns through a cross section of their legal departments. However, none are paid positions. The interns are informed from the beginning that they must meet all personal and financial requirements themselves. Moreover, accommodation is not provided, travel is not paid for and visas are requirements are the responsibility of the intern, not The Hague. However, thanks to the beauty that is the EU we can now travel freely through member countries, and take up residence and employment without the need for a visa or permit. So, whereas working at the Hague for free may sound like a bit of a raw deal, it is, in fact, a great opportunity for fresh graduates with a bit of money saved up to open their wings and get their first taste of a professional legal environment.
Being a first year student is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. There are so many decisions to make in addition to the overwhelming amount of workload and information that is thrown at us. The year has just begun and I already feel like time is flashing before me and it is just a matter of time when we will be in our second year and having to apply for vacation schemes and training contracts. As an international student I had no idea what vacation schemes and training contracts were until I started here at City.
The Law school system in the UK is quite different compared to Canada, where I am from. I quickly began to realize that the most effective way for me to get an idea of what’s to come would be to attend a few of the many workshops and events that are available to us.
I had attended an event at Freshfields a few weeks back where I got plenty of useful information and a better understanding of a legal career in London, so when I heard that Freshfields was holding another event at City I jumped at the opportunity. I have always been interested in commercial law so the fact that the event was based on ‘commercial awareness’ was an added bonus.
Commercial awareness is one of the main criterion that commercial law firms look for in their potential future lawyers. But what is commercial awareness and how can one acquire such thing?
What is ‘commercial awareness’?
Jessica Booker, the trainee recruitment manager at Freshfields was the perfect person to elaborate on the concept since she interviews people every hiring season to see if they have commercial awareness or what she likes to call ‘commercial insight’. She sees the word awareness as something that you can teach yourself, whereas having insight is more of a skill.
Life after University
After completing my law degree at the University of Manchester in 2004, the pressure was on to decide which path I wanted to take: whether I wanted to be a barrister or a solicitor or whether I even wanted to pursue a career in law. However, the decision was not so tough for me as I had made my decision about the profession I wanted to go into when I was aged just 14. I knew I wanted to be a barrister and it was my love of advocacy that drew me to the profession.
A Pupillage in London
As soon as I finished my law degree, I applied to do the Bar Vocational Course (BVC - now the BPTC) at The Inns of Court School of Law in London (now The City Law School). Before I had completed my BVC, I had already been offered a pupillage at 14 Grays Inn Square. Based in the centre of London, this was a predominantly family law set with a strong reputation in all aspects of family law. As I knew how difficult it was – and still is – to obtain a pupillage, the assurance that I had already obtained a pupillage gave me an incentive to work even harder during the BVC.
Moving back North
The hustle and bustle and the fast pace of London life is something I will never forget. It was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed and I feel it helped me to grow as an individual. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of living and working in London, I soon began to realize how increasingly expensive the city was. I decided to return to my hometown of Manchester and continue my career as a barrister there. In Manchester, I joined Kenworthy’s Chambers, one of the most sought after barrister’s chambers in the North of England and a leading set in Immigration and Asylum Law. I continued to practice in Family Law and also added Immigration and Asylum Law to my practice.
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.
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.
I have always believed in karma. I think that acquiring first-hand advice from a law student recruiter and not sharing it with my fellow City University LLB classmates would probably constitute as bad karma. Tammy Engelsman, law student recruiter for the renowned global law firm Allen & Overy, shared some invaluable advice and words of wisdom for us aspiring lawyers.
Law student recruiters are unique in the sense that they recruit students extremely early. Tammy is currently recruiting students to begin work in September 2014! It is definitely important to begin networking, applying for jobs and getting involved as soon as possible. When recruiting law students, Tammy explained that first and foremost, academic excellence is essential. She said that beyond simply having good grades, maintaining consistently good grades is of equal importance. Doing well in first year is just as important as doing well in later years.
Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) are well worth checking out - they are a not-for-profit organisation focused on improving access into the most competitive professions for students from under-represented ethnic minority backgrounds, Law being one of them.
Here's some blurb from them:
SEO London is a diversity focused charity that every year provides hundreds of outstanding undergraduates from under represented ethnic minority backgrounds the unique opportunity to not only gain direct access to all of the very best graduate employers, but also comprehensive training and mentoring to ensure that exposure leads to graduate opportunities. This support is designed to address the lack of experience many ethnic minorities have in relation to the industries we cover. As a result of our support more than 80% of the 1,850 students that have taken part in the SEO London scheme since 2000 have secured full time graduate positions with partner firms, a success rate far in excess of the industry average.
In addition SEO also provides both first year undergraduates with the opportunity to get early insight into the industries of their choice and also final year students with graduate opportunities. In 2012, SEO will provide more than 750 internships at many of the UK’s best graduate employers, including ALL of the City’s leading investment banks and professional service firms and many top tier law firms, management consultants, multi-national corporate and advertising agencies (more than 35 firms in total).
In 2011, more than 100 students received training and exposure through the SEO London Corporate Law programme and for Summer 2012, 150 places are available for easter and summer vacation placements with partner law firms.
SEO are visiting the City Law Fair later this month - so go and find out more!
Working in a law firm isn’t just about knowing the Law. That might have been true decades ago before the advent of newspaper advice columns and consumer advice programmes, but now every senior practising solicitor spends a considerable amount of time in “client development” and keeping up with what is going on in the businesses and lives of existing clients. Law firms now place considerable emphasis on the acquisition of “soft skills”, for example knowing how to make existing clients feel valued and learning how to acquire new clients.
Certainly these are skills that trainees will need to develop and good law firms will guide them, but trainees who recognise that their main purpose is to assist their firms to earn money by being helpful, by being willing to learn and by having a degree of humility, save themselves a great deal of anxiety and heartache.
First of all accept that your supervisors are busy people and may ask you to do relatively menial things to save them time, such as getting a cup of coffee, arranging a meeting room, rushing down to the Post Room with an urgent request or even typing up a letter. This may seem like a waste of your expensive legal education, but will earn you goodwill from a frazzled more senior lawyer, especially if you do the best that you can, because the name of the game is now to provide the most efficient and accurate service that you can for the firm’s clients. It’s not about passing exams in academic subjects. In legal practice a 50% pass mark or even a 70% one will not do. Anything less than 100% accuracy and efficiency can have severe consequences for a firm’s clients and indemnity insurance premiums.
New trainees find that most of their work consists of research, form-filling, getting “ the ducks in a row” (a.k.a organised), attending meetings and drafting documents through from simple letters to Instructions to Counsel. The precise mix will depend on the individual seat, the size of the firm and the complexity of the matters that your supervisor is working on at any one time. All will require that you can communicate effectively, both orally and on paper.
I hope you all found my January tips useful, kept your resolutions and are ready for some more.
This month we will look in detail at group exercises, written exercises and problem solving exercises /tests of judgement /case studies
The bad news is there are no easy ways to help you here because it’s all about behaving in a way which is appropriate and helpful to the objectives /needs of the group.
• In a quiet group draw others in
• In a noisy group use names to get a word in edgeways
• Engage body language with all
• Watch feet...observers watch these!
• Don’t try and play a role if it’s not you. Be yourself and adopt the role you are most comfortable with.
• Stare at the observers (we hate it!)!
• Try and ensure the contributions you make are a mix of original thoughts and those which build on those made by other group members.