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‘I wouldn’t recommend studying law as an undergraduate if you want to be a lawyer’

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Mayer Brown insurance litigation partner Angus Duncan — who’ll be speaking at the Legal Cheek careers Q&A at Inner Temple on Sunday — completed an LLB at Edinburgh University and then decided that he wanted to work in London…

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I took a relatively round-about route into my career and, in particular, a strange one to become an insurance lawyer in the City of London. I went to university to study biotechnology, but I changed my degree after the first year. I studied law, but not English Law. I didn’t really enjoy black-letter law, but, nonetheless, I decided to go and work in the City of London.

Looking back on it, the choices seem a bit mad, but at the time, they all made sense. I went to university in Edinburgh, so when I decided to change my degree to law, it was an easy choice to stay in Edinburgh and study Scots Law. While I didn’t really get on with the black-letter law topics, thanks to some truly fantastic tutors (Alexander McCall Smith, now with an alternative career as an author of detective novels, was one of them), I found my focus when it came to jurisprudence and similarly discursive subjects: gender, sexuality and law; justice, ethics and law; and medical jurisprudence.

If it hadn’t been for these subjects inspiring my interest, I would never have achieved the grades necessary to get a training contract, so it is ironic that, despite the fact that black-letter law wasn’t my forte, at the end of four years, I decided I wanted to work in the City of London. Fortunately, for me, as my degree wasn’t in English law, at the time City law firms didn’t care that I hadn’t focused on black-letter law and I was lucky enough to end up with a training contract at Norton Rose.

The choice of insurance was a matter of coincidence: it was my first seat as a trainee. Again, fortunately for me, the team I was working in had some spectacular cases on in my two years as a trainee, so I came back and did two further four-month seats there. We won ‘Litigation Team of the Year’ for the Equitable Life case (the first one) and I went to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords on a number of very different cases in those first two years.

So what lessons would I learn from this — if I knew then what I know now?

My immediate reaction to this is to say that I wouldn’t recommend that people study law as an undergraduate degree if what they want to be is a lawyer. That is not to say that I wouldn’t become a solicitor, just that I wouldn’t study law as an undergraduate degree. While, as I have said, I had some great tutors and very much enjoyed some of the individual subjects, I don’t think a law degree is necessary to become a solicitor. While I have a degree in law, I also have a Graduate Diploma in Law (referred to as the CPE when I studied it), which was a necessary addition to qualify as a solicitor in England & Wales. In my opinion, having been through both the law degree route and the graduate route, the latter is enough law to get you started in practice.

The second “take-away” point for me is that what you end up specialising in may be quite different to what you expected or what you studied. As I said at the start, my interest at university was not in black-letter law, but in jurisprudence. As I had studied the first year of a science degree, I had also thought that my science background may also lead me to a specialism which made use of that.

However, once you get into an office (or a chambers, as the case may be), the work you get is mostly out of your hands. While you can influence this by choosing a law firm or chambers that offers areas you are interested in, first, there are many more specialisms in practice than you are likely to have studied at university and, second, whatever your preferences are, the likelihood is that you will work in some areas of law you had not planned to and will find that some of them really work for you. I wanted to be a litigator, and I am, but I certainly had no intention of becoming an insurance specialist when I applied for my training contract.

I have been very lucky in my choices. Insurance constantly produces claims and allows you to work with clients year after year. This is not the only specialism which provides a facility for you to develop this kind of relationship with clients, but it is the only industry that is about claims. For most other types of clients, claims are something they do not want to have. For insurers, claims are part of their business. Most of the time, they do not need a lawyer’s input, but, frequently enough, the claims are complicated enough that we get involved. That was why I chose insurance and I am glad I did.

Angus Duncan is a partner in Mayer Brown’s insurance group in London. He will be speaking at the Legal Cheek alternative careers session at Inner Temple’s undergraduate careers day on Sunday. There are a final few free places available here.

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