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From international firm to the bar: law remains about dealing with people

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By Charles Raffin on

Hardwicke barrister Charles Raffin — who’ll be speaking at our routes into advocacy event on 24 March — on what he has learned on his journey from the City to the bar


If I could offer you only one tip for the future, reading Mary Schmich’s Wear Sunscreen would be it. The long term benefits of that essay have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of this has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

Find out as much as you (reasonably) can about the way the world works. Law is about dealing with people. The more experience you have of different walks of life and different personalities, the better. It will help you to develop the way you engage with people when you first meet them and to build (and keep) a working rapport. At the end of the day, that’s what gets the job done.

I have come across clients who want to engage closely and to be incorporated into the legal team. Others want their involvement kept to a bare minimum. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You adapt your style so as to best help them move matters forwards. It’s similar with colleagues: some prefer a large team dynamic, others prefer working in a small unit. Again, you adjust your tack to match. Of course, these are skills you try to develop every day. But experiences, of the kind set out below, are very valuable.

Get as much work experience as you can. Of course, look at working in industry specific jobs: mini-pupillages and work experience in firms and legal services providers, across a range of different kinds of work. Working for pro bono providers, like FRU and the Bar Pro Bono Unit is — IMHO — essential. But get other work experience in the non-legal world, too. There are a lot of benefits. Most of your clients won’t be lawyers. Chances are you will have to spend a lot of your time explaining something that is second nature to you, that’s new to them, in a way non-lawyers can understand and relate to.

Teaching, mentoring and coaching are very good ways to develop that skill. Time spent teaching people of different ages to ski in Canada and coaching rowing, as well as working on cases with FRU, proved to be time very well spent for me. There are other benefits, too. In your legal job, you may need to understand how businesses and organisations operate. Historic work experience in a small business might have given you a basic introduction to accounting. Working in a doctors’ surgery, an insight into how medical practices operate. Volunteering for a community project, a sense of the day to day operation of a voluntary organisation. It’s all useful.

Work backwards. Experience filters down into this. Law is a competitive business. Interviewers should do their best to help you demonstrate your potential. But they are only human. Make life easier for everyone involved by standing out from the crowd. So, work backwards. Picture yourself in an interview: how would you want to sell yourself?

Think of what you’d like to be able to point to in your CV, to show you have those skills or attributes. Then go out and get the experience you need. If you are looking for inspiration, have a look at the online CVs of legal practitioners. See not only what they have done, but what they think it’s important to advertise. For me, working for three years as an in-house barrister at Skadden before joining Hardwicke was an outstanding bedrock. It gave me the chance to work on some of the biggest cases; the opportunity to work directly with corporate and individual clients; and to work with superb lawyers across the world.

Ask for and take advice. Don’t be shy. Careers advisors and professional societies — like the Law Society, Bar Council and the Inns of Court — are good places to start. But, meet and talk to lawyers, too. Work experience is a great opportunity, as are events run by organisations like Legal Cheek and law fairs.

Along the way, I have sought out advice from (amongst others) solicitors and barristers I’ve met through pro-bono work, and mini-pupillages; and from business people met at business development and charity events. The advice may well not just relate to career paths, but to work in practice. “Remember that clients want solutions, not a description of the problem” — a striking insight shared by corporate counsel, between frames in a ten-pin bowling game.

More speed, less haste. It’s a useful mantra, for exams and practice too. Things have to get done quickly and often at tight deadlines. But a moment spent planning how to get from A to B, before you launch almost always saves time in the long run.

Learn to relax in a storm. Sadly, the days of long vacations are probably over. Work always ticks on- as one matter slows, another is gearing up. It’s the same wherever you practise — there is always (you hope) another case around the corner. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have down time. You should. It’s about fostering the knack of closing the books on an issue, if only briefly, while you focus on other aspects of life. It is a lot easier said than done.

Good luck. But don’t forget — a lot of luck you make for yourself through proper preparation.

Charles Raffin will be speaking about his experiences at Hardwicke and Skadden next Tuesday, alongside a host of other top lawyers, at ‘Where will the next generation of advocates come from and how will they train?’ — which is free for law students.

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