‘Would I really be happy being told what to do by a 25 year-old?’

By Giles Peaker on

After quitting his job as an art history lecturer to retrain as a lawyer ten years ago, Giles Peaker has just been made up to partner. In the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, he reflects on the ups and downs of a career change.

When I sat down to write this, I suddenly felt like a bit of a fraud. I have only been doing paid work in the law for seven years, starting as a paralegal. What could I possibly have learnt in that time that I wish my younger self had known, particularly as my younger self wasn’t exactly young? What to say to that callow, merely-teetering-on-middle-age me?

I suppose the first thing would be to offer reassurance. Turning to the law was a late career change for me, a big leap into something entirely new. I had previously been a university lecturer in art history and critical theory. Feeling myself getting stale after 13 years, and looking ahead to the next 30 or so, I got an opportunity to re-train — and jumped. Law had been lurking as an interest for years. I first thought of taking the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) after my first degree.

At the time, my confidence in the likely success of this leap was not helped by traineeship applications that would only accept GCSE results, not my O Levels. They also demanded endless information about my school activities, which I had either forgotten or actively repressed. The fleeting look of bewilderment and pity on interviewers’ faces as I walked in didn’t go unnoticed either. Nor did the repeated questions about whether I would really be happy to do photocopying while being told what to do by a 25 year-old.

But it turned out OK. There was someone who was willing to take a chance — indeed repeated chances — on me. Mature applicants do have an uphill battle on training contracts, perhaps even more now, as those looking for people to mould in their firm’s likeness look with suspicion at applicants who have already had a career and been in a position of authority. You will be lucky to find someone who looks past that, for luck it was in my case. But there are people out there who will take your experience as a plus.

I was also lucky in my choice of practice area, housing law. It has litigation with complex law and clients for whom you can make a real, sometimes vital, difference. There is also a very rewarding legal aid funded element to it. Just don’t expect it to stay as a functioning system or a sustainable practice. On reflection, I was lucky, again, to get in when I did. The prospects for lawyers working solely on legal aid housing cases now are not rosy and I doubt there will be many traineeships coming up in that area. The key now is using Conditional Fee Agreements (CFA) and private work to keep your practice viable.

Surrounded as you are on the GDL by ultra-ambitious, backstabbing, competitive sneaks, cads and posturers, it may be a surprise that it is important to behave decently once you start work as a lawyer. To colleagues, clients and — even when metaphorically standing on their necks and crowing triumphantly — to opponents. It doesn’t mean being a pushover, or letting things go by, but it does mean being reliable, returning favours, and not being unnecessarily hostile, abrasive or sarcastic. You are going to come up against the same opponents again and again. And most cases will need a bit of leeway and co-operation to run smoothly. Take others with you and you will have their support when it is needed.

As for the actual practice of law, one of the most important things I’ve learnt is that most cases settle. Accordingly, rather than fighting every point to the bitter end as if justice itself depended on it, good lawyers work towards achieving the best outcome for their client. It may mean your cherished new argument doesn’t get a chance to be tested in court — and yes, that is annoying. But unless it is going to significantly improve the client’s position so as to be worth the risk, I’ve learnt to wave it goodbye. Sometimes you will need to fight, at length and in detail, but choose your battles where you can.

During that fighting process, it’s important to be able to work with the grey. Sometimes the cases are clear cut. Mostly they aren’t. My previous studies in 20th century Hegelian Marxism are strangely useful here, at least in being able to hold both sides of an argument in your head at once.

Above all, as someone transitioning from one career to another, I had to get used to uncertainty. It has actually held me in good stead as a lawyer. I know things will seem very uncertain to law students reading this, but even when you have an office and practice, uncertainty will be your daily diet. Cases can turn in an instant, on a single document. The client’s instructions change or your advice is ignored, the Court of Appeal does something clever, or less than clever. Any — and all — of this is yours to deal with each day. That’s why the little things are important, like getting your billing done. I would also tell you to keep your desk tidy, but, in my case, I know that is a lost battle.

Giles Peaker is a partner in the housing and public law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors, and runs the Nearly Legal housing law site.