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‘Teaching is the most important thing I’ve done to improve my work as a lawyer’

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When his bid to work himself up from the bottom of a supermarket chain stalled, Laurie Anstis decided to reconsider his early views on university education and pursue a career as a solicitor.

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I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I applied to Oxford to study maths, with the vague idea of a career involving numbers. At the interview I was asked a question about making different values out of multiples of first and second class stamps. I didn’t understand the question or the tutors’ patient and lengthy explanation of the answer. They might have had more than one question to ask me, but I never got to find out. That interview put an end to my ambitions of studying maths. I decided I didn’t want to go to university at all. Instead, I would work my way up an organisation. This being the early days of student loans, I would be earning while my friends who went to university were getting into debt.

I made many unsuccessful job applications, including to British Rail, a nuclear weapons plant and my local abattoir. The only job I could get was at a small supermarket chain, under the successor to the Thatcher government’s Youth Training Scheme. I was assigned to the accounts department, where I was in charge of “sundry banking”. This meant the money from the store payphones and cash that was found lying around that no-one else knew what to do with. I went on day release to a local college where I learnt about filing. All I can remember is that McDonald, M’Donald and MacDonald all get filed as MacDonald.

The supermarket had a fixed grade structure. The managerial grades were A-G. Below that, at the clerical level, were grades 1-13. Grade 13 was the lowest. I was one level below that on the special trainee grade. After a new graduate was appointed at a managerial grade in my department, it was clear that my plan of working my way up would take years. I needed to reconsider my views on a university education.

Having now had some office experience, I got a job covering for maternity leave in an insurance claims office. We were a generous insurance company, and paid out on any claim. This made for a good atmosphere in the office, and it was there that I first got to use the magical words “without prejudice”.

While working at the insurance office I applied to do a law degree. The limited law I dealt with at work suggested it would be an interesting topic to study. It wasn’t maths or science, but you could get into it with the maths and science A-levels I had, and I was impressed by the number of world leaders and historic figures who had studied law.

When the insurance work finished, I applied speculatively to work in the supermarket’s legal department. They accepted me, and I worked there every summer during my university holidays: banning people from stores, handing out vouchers to upset customers and, in a taste of what was to come, defending employment tribunal claims.

It was only after working in law and studying law that I wanted to be a lawyer.

I applied to 150 law firms for training contracts, and got one offer. I’ve been at that firm ever since, working on employment law. Along the way I’ve done a part-time LLM (to get over my poor degree result) and taught law at an evening class.

What would I do differently if I knew then what I know now? Here are three things:

1. I would start public speaking earlier

I avoided public speaking for years, but I now think it is one of the fundamental skills for a lawyer. Any speaking in front of an audience helps to develop this skill, and I think any sort of public performance – dance, acting or playing a musical instrument – can help too. If you want to be a courtroom advocate, you need to get as much experience as you can of speaking in a public forum, and thinking on your feet. Even lawyers who never see the inside of a courtroom benefit from being confident talking in front of an audience.

2. I would be a better writer

I always struggled with writing when I was younger. It really held me back doing my law degree when I moved from the short writing involved in my science A-levels to the long writing required in legal study. Every lawyer I know has to write, usually to persuade someone to do something. The more practice you can get at writing the better. There’s a lot to be said for taking up a writing course of some kind.

3. I would take up teaching earlier

Teaching law was how I finally got to grips with public speaking and writing. It is the most important thing I’ve done to improve my work as a lawyer. It forced me to go back to first principles and really understand the law I’d been using for years and years. Regularly having to hold the class’s attention was the best public speaking training I could have had. Marking students’ work helped me to realise the difference between good legal writing and bad legal writing.

Teaching law is the best single way I know to improve your skills as a lawyer.

Laurie Anstis is an employment and business immigration solicitor with Boyes Turner.