‘How Dare You Submit An Exhibit Which Has Been Stapled Not Tied?’

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Ed note: This is the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, where leading members of the legal profession share their wisdom with the next generation of wannabes.

I don’t interview training contract applicants now, but one thing really struck me when I did: the majority seemed to have a very fixed idea of the area of law in which they wished to practise, writes Taylor Wessing litigation partner Tim Strong.

Looking back, I’m not sure I shared that conviction when I was beginning my career. It’s a long time ago, but my recollection on interviewing for what were then rather quaintly known as “articles of clerkship” was that I was only clear about what I didn’t want to practise: litigation…

It hadn’t always been this way. As a law student, most of what you learn is case law. Although I’ve never been good with case names, I remember the main details of swathes of decisions which have shaped our current civil and commercial law environment over centuries. Law which emanated from disputes which involved real people battling it out before courts which survive today. Cases are what our law is about.

I’d also spent a couple of weeks with a local firm, and seen a little bit about personal injury claims and construction disputes. I’d been fascinated. It was like watching the law living and breathing. Litigation seemed such an obvious area to practise in as a result.

Then I went to law school, where I had to learn civil procedure, and my perception shifted. Litigation suddenly seemed like the most tedious specialism imaginable. I just couldn’t get excited over issues such as which documents I had to serve with a writ, or how to make a charging order absolute.

When I started my articles, I spent my 15 months in transactional seats. I enjoyed them. I thought I could qualify into them. But the need to do a litigation seat cast a dark shadow. Stories from other trainees filled me with foreboding. Having a strip torn off by a Master. Getting lost trying to find the Sheriff’s Office. Turning up to issue a claim with the wrong documents.

Litigation turned out to be my last seat, and within a week I found myself trembling in the Bear Garden at the Royal Courts of Justice, dreading my first court appearance. I was first to be called, and so in front of a full room I handed over my bundle and nervously began to explain my application. I didn’t get far before I was interrupted. “How dare you submit an exhibit which has been stapled, not tied?”, the Master bellowed, and I wished the ground would open and swallow me up. The sympathetic looks from around the room as I left gave away the secret: everyone goes through at least one experience like that early in their career.

But something changed that day. Despite the issue with my exhibit, I got my order. It was only an order for an extension of time, but to me it was like winning a multi-million pound trial. I felt like I had experienced first hand what makes our law what it is, and I was hooked. Nearly 20 years later I’ve been fortunate to help make some of the law which today’s students are learning about, and to enjoy the sort of career I could only dream about back then.

I suppose my message to young lawyers is this. When you study law, you will feel a natural affinity with certain areas. During your LPC, you may well be grabbed by a different area, or put off as I was. When you interview for training contracts, people will want to know what area of the law interests you and why. You must be able to answer well. But keep an open mind. You don’t need to make a choice until it’s time to qualify, or perhaps even later.

And then become a litigator.

Tim Strong is a partner specialising in financial disputes and regulatory issues at City law firm Taylor Wessing.