There are two ways to become a serious injury lawyer: I took the scenic route

Ahead of ‘How to become a serious injury lawyer’, Fletchers’ Adrian Denson recalls how he worked his way up from slips and trips to big money cases

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I began my working life as a teacher at a secondary school near Wigan.

I suppose it was something that I just fell into. I did a history degree at Queen Mary University of London, before going back home to Bolton. I did a few jobs here and there. And then I fell into teacher training.

Before university I had been quite interested in the idea of becoming a lawyer one day. And during my degree I always had the vague idea that I would do the law conversion course. So after a couple of interesting years as a teacher this is what I decided to do.

I was fortunate enough to obtain a paralegal job doing whiplash claims and slips and trips at a great local law firm, alongside which I did the CPE, as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) used to be known, part-time at Manchester Met followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) part-time at what is now ULaw in Chester. Those four years were hard graft.

I was fee-earning by day in Bolton then tearing over to Manchester for seminars, and later spending my weekends doing the LPC. I remember thinking at the time, “What the hell have I done?” In many ways life has got easier since then.

After law school I trained as a personal injury (PI) solicitor. Having begun right at the bottom, where I gained a fantastic grounding as a litigator and saw every type of possible accident scenario and procedural issue that you could imagine, I moved on to spend six more years doing general PI fast track work.

I was handling sometimes two or three hundred clients at any one time, settling maybe five or six cases a week, and taking on 10 or 15 new cases a week. In that environment you sink or swim. You have got to be good at managing your time, because if you fall behind you might never catch up.

What I really wanted to do was serious injury work. And I kept knocking on my boss’s door to tell him this. Eventually I was given a role as an assistant in the catastrophic injury team — and the caseload plunged. Suddenly I was just handling 30 or 40 cases at any one time. It was a completely different way of working. And as you work your way up to higher and higher value cases that caseload just keeps on dropping. Four years ago, when I was working exclusively on million pound-plus cases, I was asked to head up Fletchers’ serious injury team.

Nowadays many of the young lawyers I work with enter the world of serious injury law directly. They are effectively parachuted in from their LLBs or LPCs without spending years working their way up from lower value PI work. And I constantly tell them how lucky they are to be working on such massive cases at the outset of their careers. So you can have graduates coming in at 21, immersing themselves in the practice area for 10 years, and finding themselves at 31 with some fantastic expertise under their belts and most of their careers still ahead of them.

Some of them are excellent lawyers and I am constantly impressed at how quickly they develop the necessary skills and empathy to thrive in this world of catastrophic injury and complex litigation. But there can be downsides to this route as well. Those who come through it lack the general grounding that you gain from working on hundreds of cases and settlements at any one time.

Changes to the legal costs regime mean that it is becoming rarer for people to work themselves up from the bottom, and this will continue as firms do less lower value PI work. Very soon whiplash cases could be handled without a solicitor at all. There are also changes taking place higher up the value chain, with a renewed focus on ensuring that the right people are working on the right part of the case. In the past you had partners doing everything, but this is no longer a viable way to operate.

At the end of the day, though, as important as processes and profitability are, our job is about people. It’s funny because I am an emotional person. I don’t fit the cold and calculating stereotype that people often think you need to have to work in this area. I’ll sit down and watch The Supervet and be in floods of tears. I’m also pretty squeamish. My wife doesn’t understand how I can do the job I do. But you actually need empathy and humanity to work in this area. Over time you do find a way to switch off from your cases, which is really important as well.

Certainly there is no greater joy than meeting a seriously injured client at the outset of their case, gaining their trust and then doing a great job for them. You are invited into their close family circle when they are at their lowest ebb, when they are incredibly vulnerable, and the trust they place in you is a real privilege. Then two or three years later you achieve a settlement for them so that they can focus on a new and hopefully more optimistic future. I’m yet to find a lawyer in another area of law that can persuade me they get this level of job satisfaction.

Adrian Denson is head of serious injury at Fletchers. He will be speaking at ‘Beyond corporate law: how to become a serious injury lawyer’ on Thursday evening.

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