‘No I don’t want to take that file home this weekend, why don’t you do it Mr Head of Department?’

By Richard Moorhead on

UCL legal academic Richard Moorhead wonders if his rocky spell in private practice would have been different if he’d chosen to join a legal aid firm rather than opt instead for a “glamour posting”.

I graduated into a recession. Training contracts were hard to come by. I remember one of my lecturers saying some of us failed to get jobs because we wore white socks to interviews. Complaints about too many law schools and too few jobs were strong, but not as strong as now. So I found myself doing some research for a bit. On quality. I saw lawyers up close and personal. Even worse, sometimes, I saw their files.

I had secured a deferred training contract. Even better, I got a second one and jumped ship. I won’t name either name but I loved the firm I ended up at. It was no nonsense, a lot of fun — really nice people and excellent colleagues.

Highlights? These come to mind. I managed to instruct David Pannick QC (we lost, but ever so elegantly, and I managed to see instantly — only cos I’m so perceptive naturally — what a truly exceptional capable and professional mind looks like). A district judge rolled his eyes at me when a fellow trainee called me my learned friend. I ran a nasty little fraud case to trial and won. The judge gave us a whopping mark up. The Boss looked pleased: it was the mark up not the win that swang it. The client was relieved beyond measure. Until the jury verdict came in I was thinking: trials, they’re a bit random aren’t they? Afterwards, the Legal Aid Board were thinking, “bugger”.

There were less glorious moments. The appraisal that suggested I was not commercial enough. The time I researched a point and saw a killer blow, thought “nah, that just can’t be right” and so ignored it only to have the judge say, “Now if you had argued this Mr Moorhead…” (I started looking round for my Dad at that point).

So if I learnt one thing it was be careful, rigorous and show some belief in your judgement. Yep, even at 22 or whatever it is worth it. Sometimes it won’t pan out but give it a go. I remember trying to persuade a QC that an indictment was framed improperly. I tried too late — the morning of the trial — but I tried. So did he, a bit half-heartedly some of the team thought, though the judge was hostile, and he’d only had a very short period to prep it. We took the point on appeal and won. It was this sort of situation that brought home the very social nature of law: it’s about persuasion not being right. If I’d been the partner, I thought, I’d have got the QC to see it was a better point.

Of course, all this I-could-have-been-a-bit-of-a-superhero-in-practice stuff is a bit irritating and inaccurate. I learnt to mind my mistakes. Time pressure, adrenaline and the like — it forces mistakes which in a junior lawyer can be pretty telling and humbling. I once failed to read a document which might have transformed an early application in a case. It was gut-wrenchingly awful; the client’s predicament had half the court on the brink of tears. Compress a dozen BBC2 documentaries about social workers into ten minutes and you’ll get the intensity. And I had just kept thinking, “Gee, this is awful” rather than “Read the affidavit of service carefully”. When I got back to the office the first thing they said was, “What did they say about…” Here I learnt the next lesson: fess up and everything will be okay. Or less bad. And it was. Oh and big mistake number two: “No I don’t want to take that file home this weekend, why don’t you do it Mr Head of Department?” Hmmm.

I left practice because I hated time sheets and billing targets: lawyers were commoditised well before legal services were. I was also dabbling in professional politics and loved research. At the time, Nigel Savage was at Nottingham Law School and gunning for the College of Law (now the University of Law). Then it was a genteel basket case; a sort of BBC without the budget or the glamour. The Law Society was yet to have its fill of sex and bullying scandals. Nigel Farage types began running what remained (then) of its reputation into the ground. Believe it or not, it has improved significantly; but for a while, it was the People’s Front of Judea for fat blokes and City types. But beneath the veneer of silliness there were a cadre of people who, you know, cared about lawyers and some who (whisper it) cared about their clients. There were also backroom deals; attempts to suppress research; the politics of personality. And fine wine. Out of this came the glories of professional regulation. I’ll leave it to readers to judge if that lesson is useful today.

Ah, one more thing. I often get asked whether I would go back into practice? I always say no. I love writing (12,000 words or 140 characters or less, who cares). Students are (nearly always) great. I get to research and hang out with lawyers, who retain some of their student charm and now come with better jokes, stories and experience (even wisdom) to die for. But I do have a regret.

On qualification I had a shout at two jobs. I chose a great one. A glamour posting. Defendant fraud work. It was really interesting and the time you got to deal with complex cases was great. The clients, though — well some of them were (how to put this delicately) morally ambiguous and I did not care about them in a way that felt quite right. In respect of that choice, I think ego or something similarly venial got the better of me. If I’d chosen the other one, mental health work, “ordinary” people up the proverbial creek without a paddle, I think things might have been different. I might have stuck around. But then if I knew then what I know now I’d have see what a desperate state those kinds of lawyer are now in. Legal aid, though. If I knew then…it’d have been an unwise choice. Wouldn’t it?

Richard Moorhead is Professor of law and professional ethics at UCL, and the director of the Centre for Ethics and Law. He blogs at Lawyer Watch.

Meet some of the top lawyers who have contributed to the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series at a Q&A at the Google Campus in Shoreditch next month. Reserve your (free) ticket here.