Some advice for aspiring litigators from a history graduate

Ahead of ‘Beyond the Bar: the evolution of solicitor-advocates in global law firms’ on Monday, Herbert Smith Freehills litigator Alex Thomson looks back on what she has learnt so far

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While I’m certainly on the junior side of many of the lawyers in the litigation division at Herbert Smith Freehills (in March 2017 I will be two years qualified), I’m hopefully therefore in the best place to advise aspiring lawyers on a career as a litigator, all the details of the process being fresh in my mind.

I completed my history degree in 2011 and started on the Graduate Diploma in Law conversion course that same year. After completing the accelerated Legal Practice Course, I started at HSF in March 2013. As well as a seat in real estate and a client secondment to British American Tobacco, I spent one year in the firm’s disputes division in both the general commercial litigation group and the firm’s in-house Advocacy Unit. I qualified into the firm’s general commercial litigation group in March 2015 and since then have worked on a variety of cases, big and small.

I have found that my background in history was actually a very good grounding for a career in law. Much of the work you do as an academic is analogous to the daily work of a litigator — sifting through large volumes of information and identifying relevant facts and evidence to support an argument, and drafting documents and advice in the most persuasive way possible.

HSF takes a holistic view of litigation and the focus on advocacy filters down to all levels. My seat in the firm’s Advocacy Unit was incredibly instructive in understanding both general court procedure, and how oral and written advocacy fits into that procedure. Like all junior associates in the disputes divisions, I recently took my final exams to get my Higher Rights of Audience qualification.

The advocacy training course, which prepares you for the exam, is delivered within the firm by barristers and solicitor advocates and teaches you the foundations of great advocacy. The skills you learn there not only equip you to become a great advocate, but also a great solicitor. The divide between solicitors and barristers is becoming increasingly fluid, and the most successful litigation teams are on cases where counsel and solicitors take a collaborative approach to drafting documents and preparing for hearings.

In terms of advice to aspiring litigators, I have three key things I’ve learned during my training contract and since qualifying, that I would say will stand anyone in good stead:

1. Keep it simple

Always keep your audience in mind, whether you’re writing or speaking. Remember that advocacy is essentially convincing whoever your audience is that your argument is the best one. The best arguments are concise and contain no extraneous details or cheap points. Whoever is judging your performance, be it an examiner, interviewer or High Court Judge, will always prefer a simple and well-structured answer.

2. ‘Brilliance’ is no substitute for hard work

While it might seem that some great advocates and speakers are born not made, the most “natural” advocates are almost always the most prepared. No amount of natural charm will help you in front of a judge if you aren’t on top of the facts supporting your case. The same principle applies to solicitors in their everyday work. Take the time when you begin to work on a case to really read through the documents and get a handle on the facts. Try to refresh your memory frequently — this preparation will be invaluable when someone asks a difficult question later on down the line.

3. Have the big picture in mind

The best advocates always keep the overall case theory in mind when structuring their submissions, and solicitors must do the same when considering litigation strategy. Being commercially aware is also a vital skill for solicitors in making sure clients’ aims are fulfilled. If you know your client’s aims and business, and the way the litigation is impacting upon these, you can build a strategy to help them achieve their overall goals far more effectively. Some of the cases I have worked on were settled out of court, with the settlement giving the client commercial benefits that would not have been within the court’s power to order. Keep in mind what it is your client ultimately hopes to achieve by this litigation and possible solutions may come from surprising places.

In summary then, the skills required to become a successful litigator or advocate are really not so different from the skills it takes to be successful in any career. Students should always keep in mind the transferable skills that make them successful in their academic life, and apply them when searching for jobs, and in their legal career going forwards.

Alex Thomson is an associate in Herbert Smith Freehills’ litigation division in London. She graduated in history from Edinburgh University before undertaking the Graduate Diploma in Law. Alex will be speaking at ‘Beyond the Bar: the evolution of solicitor-advocates in global law firms’ on Monday evening.