Above: from left to right — Mark Lewis, PJ Kirby QC, Jeremy Hopkins, Nicky Richmond, Matthew Ryder QC, Sean Jones QC and Nigel Hewitson.
Last week seven contributors to the ‘If I knew’ series joined Legal Cheek‘s Kevin Poulter to spend an evening sharing their wisdom with 80 wannabe lawyers. The video of the event — courtesy of Eugene Lum Photography — is above.
For those lacking time to luxuriate in the full one hour and 18 minute spectacle, below are seven of the most useful pieces of advice distilled from the reflections of the top lawyer speakers…
1. Some of the best lawyers are misfits who drifted first (Matthew Ryder QC)
“Some of the best lawyers I know are people who didn’t fit the ordinary mould,” says Matrix Chambers human rights silk Matthew Ryder. “They walked away from being a lawyer and then they came back into it, with their new experiences giving them a different perspective.”
Having emphasised that a career is “really long, taking years and years”, Ryder continues: “There’s no magic about being a lawyer. It can be one of the most boring jobs out there. If you don’t like it, find something else. If law is for you, you’ll drift back again.”
2. People who are older than you aren’t necessarily right (Mark Lewis)
Phone hacking lawyer Mark Lewis is unconvinced of the value of advice from people like him who qualified in a very different, gentler era. In Lewis’ case a 2:2 from Middlesex Poly proved no obstacle to bagging a training contract. Still, in spite of all the changes, some overriding principles still apply, he reckons — like staying true to yourself and taking chances when they present themselves. “If you want to do something, keep on trying. For two years I went through hell [after leaving a previous well paid job to pursue the phone hacking cases],” he recalls. “In 2010 I earned £10,000….I was on the point of giving up. Then I got a phone call from Sally Dowler. What a privilege it was to work on that case.”
3. Don’t blame yourself for market forces (Nicky Richmond)
Back in the boom years of the mid part of last decade, when there was a shortage of lawyers, the only way law firms could get their hands on promising individuals was to give them training contracts. The Great Recession changed all that, with the current law graduate surplus allowing law firms to employ increasing numbers of graduates as paralegals. In such conditions, Brecher managing partner Nicky Richmond urges wannabe lawyers not to get disheartened. “It’s not your fault. Realise that market forces are at play…and if law is the career for you, keep going,” she says. On the other hand, if you feel that law isn’t for you, it’s OK to try something else. “Even if you work really hard and tick all the boxes academically sometimes that light just doesn’t switch on,” Richmond adds.
4. Law firms struggle to differentiate on academics anymore (Nigel Hewitson)
“At my firm we’re as interested in what you have done outside your studies — be it extracurricular activities or a previous career — as in your academics,” says Norton Rose Fulbright partner Nigel Hewitson. He adds that his own personal experience of starting out working in a local authority, before becoming first an in-house lawyer and then moving into private practice, has made him appreciative of what people from different backgrounds can bring to a legal career. “Make yourself look interesting because it can be very hard to differentiate on academics,” he urges.
5. Forget about career templates (Jeremy Hopkins)
Riverview Law director of operations Jeremy Hopkins found his way into his current high profile position via a career as a barrister’ clerk preceded by a spell as a golf caddy. His only legal qualification is a law GCSE. This outsiders’ perspective puts him in an interesting position to assess a legal market that is becoming less obsessed with academic qualifications. Young lawyers, he reckons, still haven’t quite caught up with this change. “The skill I often see go missing is listening. You’re serving a client. The value of education as you perceive it is often not the same as how the recipient of your services perceives it. There is a tendency to broadcast the skills you have learned to others, rather than listen to clients and apply your knowledge to their problems. There’s a real gap there in the legal services market — and an opportunity to fill it.”
6. You don’t have to start at the top (PJ Kirby QC)
Hardwicke Building solicitor-turned-barrister PJ Kirby QC acknowledges that there is an element of luck in the pupillage and training contract application process, joking that chambers throw up 600 applications in the air before selecting one “because you don’t want barristers who are unlucky”. The flipside to the inherently random element of applying for desirable legal jobs, he adds, is that many top chambers and law firms look kindly on people who have begun their careers in less glamorous surroundings. “Be ready to be flexible. OK, you haven’t got into that dream City firm, and you are instead in a firm on Balham High Street. But actually you’ve qualified. You can then move on. Don’t give up your ambitions, but be flexible.”
7. Imagination goes a long way in the law (Sean Jones QC)
11KBW employment barrister Sean Jones QC wishes legal hopefuls would take some time to figure out what they really want to do — rather than follow the crowd by proclaiming their determination to be a human rights lawyer. Not that he behaved any differently when he was beginning his career.
“The profession suffers from a complete lack of imagination,” he says. “I’m a barrister through a complete lack of imagination. These days, all people trying to get into law want to do human rights. There are some great human rights lawyers. But there aren’t a lot of human rights lawyers.”
In the end, Jones ended up specialising in “the one thing which my chambers did that I was definitely not doing” after his pupil master introduced him to an employment dispute with the memorable line, “It all turns on whether the stain on the secretary’s chair is semen or yoghurt”.
“And I thought, ‘This is it!'” Jones remembers.
There will be a sequel to ‘If I knew then what I know now: at the Google Campus’ in the spring.