City Law School pro bono director Sarwan Singh — who’ll be speaking at Legal Cheek‘s latest free careers Q&A next Sunday — relates what he’s learnt on a journey from law centres and local government to academia
If I knew what I know now about training for a career in law, I would suggest the following tips:
1. Be a Jack of all trades
Learn as many aspects of the law as you possibly can. My legal career after pupillage was anything but traditional. I managed to work for civil rights organisations, such as law centres, had a productive fruitful management career in local government (when it still existed), sat in a judicial capacity and thoroughly enjoyed the last 15 years teaching in academia. Definitely a Jack of all trades and a master of none.
Leave your comfort zone, and I don’t mean travelling beyond Ongar on the Tube. Be prepared to learn everything if the opportunity presents itself. In local government I learnt so much law not so much out of choice but out of necessity (in areas such as child protection and education law). Never say no when someone superior to you asks you to do something. They never forget, and it is credit in the bank that you will one day withdraw.
2. Have a long term strategy
Decide what career you want early on and focus all your energies and efforts in achieving that goal. I have really drifted from one job to another. I think it would have been better if I had decided early on that I wanted a career in academia (and therefore written lots of books that only a handful of people would ever read). If I had wanted to work in chambers I should have had a long term strategy.
3. If you are unhappy in your job, move on
Be passionate about what you do. Being a barrister or solicitor is a vocation. You will never be successful if you treat it just like a 9-5 job with a nice pension at the end. If you want that kind of certainty go work for a bank. You, your friends and family have to understand that being a lawyer requires great sacrifices. If you have a season ticket for Old Trafford you are not going to be able to make every game. Don’t let money be the prime motivator. Life (and a job) is not a dress rehearsal. Enjoy what you do every minute of the day. Don’t waste your time being stuck in a job where you are unhappy. I always changed jobs when I felt I did not want to go into work the next day. If you are good at your job, the money will follow you.
4. Being a lawyer is stressful — accept it
Say it quietly, but being a lawyer is extremely stressful. Really stressful. If you are not good with conflict management then it may not be the career for you. The law is an adversarial system. There are two sides to every story, which means you always face an opponent. They are not going to agree with you and they will suffer from the same delusions, namely that they are always right in everything they say and do! Lawyering is not for wimps. Get over it!
5. Be a lifelong learner
Do not think once you have secured a tenancy that you have made it. Obtain relevant qualifications and training as you go along. It should never stop. Go on training courses, obtain other skills, secure another degree. Do not stand still. Your successful colleagues will not. Nowadays you need many strings to your bow. Being a technically good lawyer is simply not enough. Develop your “soft skills”, improve your emotional intelligence.
6. Maintain a strong ethical and moral compass
The bar is a small community. Everyone knows everyone else. If you are guilty of acting in an arrogant or an off-hand manner, or if you commit a small misdemeanour, others in the profession will know and your reputation will be tainted for ever. Also remember to treat everyone with equal respect, no matter how junior they are.
7. Stick at it
The legal profession is still one of the best jobs in the world. It is a prize and goal worth striving for no matter what the odds. To use the law to protect people’s rights, secure justice and act as a counter balance to the excesses of the state is a great privilege. So stick at it.
Sarwan Singh is senior lecturer and pro bono director at City Law School. He will be speaking at the ‘Alternatives for wannabe barristers — the City, in-house and academia’ session at Inner Temple’s undergraduate careers day on Sunday 21 June. Reserve your free ticket here.
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Image via Gray’s Inn.