‘Many, particularly in their early careers, seek to disguise themselves as lawyers’

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In the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, a senior partner at one of London’s most well-known law firms shares his wisdom — anonymously — with the next generation of wannabes…

As an English graduate I wandered into law knowing only that my father had enjoyed a long career as a City lawyer and that doing law (under the regime of the old Law Society finals) prolonged my student life for a year at least. But it was a slippery slope and I found myself enjoying it. Here are some of the things I have learnt…

Law is not a secret code in a dead language

That is what it seemed to me at law school, but as soon as I started what is now called a training contract I realised that — for non-contentious lawyers at least — the law’s purpose is to give commercial efficacy to deals previously arranged between parties. I also realised that knowledge of the law actually enabled you to help people, to the extent that they might come to your office feeling really bad or nervous and leave feeling much better and rather relieved (at a price). Externally that is probably what has given me most job satisfaction.

Get on with the other side

Law to me before I started was courtroom dramas with barristers or attorneys going at each other hammer and tongs. What I found to my surprise was that in contentious law, for the most part, opponents’ lawyers got on with each other quite well as they came across each other quite a lot, while in non-contentious transactions animosity between lawyers was not unusual — even though, for the most part, their clients had a common goal. Still, it soon became clear that professional courtesy (particularly with a bit of humour) was to be embraced in transactions because one never knew when the boot would be on the other foot; usually, in my experience, in the next instruction to hit the desk.

What your client tells you…

Was it Hemmingway who said of writing fiction “start with a statement of incontrovertible truth”? Remember that he was talking about fiction. I learnt early from one of the senior partners that things always look different from the other end of the telescope, and that the truth very frequently lies somewhere in between the two sets of lenses. This was never truer than in my early career as a residential conveyancer, with what I termed the “porky pie” factor. It used to alarm me. Captains of industry, Whitehall mandarins, Domesday families — all were prone to forgetfulness and distortion when selling the major asset that was their home. This was about getting to know your client in a rather more thorough way than KYC.

A legal career is cyclical

Jack Elam, the American character actor, described the five stages of an actor’s career:

1. Who’s Jack Elam?

2. Get me Jack Elam

3. Get me a Jack Elam look-a-like

4. Get me a young Jack Elam

5. Who’s Jack Elam?

That is the cycle of many careers and should neither alarm nor surprise. If you want something else, be careful what you wish for.

Be yourself and, if possible, enjoy yourself

Just as every weekend around the coastline and in the parkland of this country, men change either into highly coloured leisurewear, or tweeds and breeches (fit for the grouse moor) to disguise themselves as golfers, so many (particularly in their early careers) seek to disguise themselves as lawyers. This is quite natural as long as you don’t think you are fooling anyone other than yourself.

Sincerity with clients and the other side is utterly critical to relationships, and I am not a great exponent of the theory that once you can fake sincerity you have really got it…

I was once instructed by an American attorney to deal with their London offices. He knew many City solicitors and when I asked him why on the strength of a meeting at a drinks party he had instructed me he replied, “because you are the person most unlike a solicitor I have ever met who is a solicitor”. So be yourself and, if possible, enjoy yourself.

The author is a senior partner at a leading London law firm.