‘I don’t ever regret not going to university’

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By Stephen Gowland on

Entering law straight from school as an apprentice put Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) president Stephen Gowland in a position to start his own law firm aged just 32.


I started out in law at 17 years-old via what was then called an employment training course. I was given a one year work placement that was paid at £35-a-week and my first year of CILEx tuition was paid for. It was essentially the equivalent to the legal services apprenticeships that CILEx launched last year.

I hadn’t considered law up until that point, so that was how a long-haired, jean-wearing, rock music fan ended up in a suit — still with the long hair I must add, although it is long gone now.

I spent a number of years in various firms dealing with mainly personal injury matters on both the claimant and defendant side. I qualified as a chartered legal executive and also as a solicitor. Due to my CILEx qualifications I was exempt entirely from having to do a training contract.

I then went on to set up my own firm in 2004 at the age of 32. I set off into unchartered waters with a huge bank loan and no clients, but with lots of drive and enthusiasm. Despite recent changes, the firm is still going and providing a service to local people.

When I was asked to write this article, I spent some time reflecting on my career so far and what, if anything, I would do differently. In relation to how I qualified as a Chartered Legal Executive, I wouldn’t change a thing. By the time I qualified as a Fellow of CILEx I had so much practical experience coupled with qualification as a lawyer. I don’t ever regret not going to university, although I did manage one year of student life, when I quit work to do the Legal Practice Course (LPC) full time.

In relation to qualifying as a solicitor, given the ability to become a partner, a judge and advocate and very shortly to be able to set up a firm as a Chartered Legal Executive, I would not have bothered obtaining that extra qualification.

One thing I would change is the way I used to deal with opposing parties, although in my defence it was the accepted culture back then. Pre-CPR, or the Woolf rules as those of us around at the time remember them, litigation was a very confrontational process. Mediation was just a new thing in law and the accepted way of dealing with matters was to be confrontational, score points and win matters on technical arguments, not the merits of the case.

Nowadays I know that was the wrong approach. I achieve much more for my clients by building a good relationship with the other side. Of course there are still some lawyers who think it is pre-1999 still and are confrontational.

My advice would be to try your best to build a relationship with the opponent, but sometimes you can’t as they are arses. If you can’t, revert to pre-Woolf rules: point scoring and showing you are better than them, but of course in a polite way. Never get drawn into a slanging match, tempting as it can be. Most importantly, only swear and curse after you have put the phone down.

Unfortunately confrontational litigation may return with the Mitchell ruling. The fact that parties cannot now agree a short extension between themselves that will not affect the trial timetable seems ludicrous. It will have the effect of making it impossible in some cases to build a good working relationship. I mentioned this to the Lord Chief Justice just the other week and hopefully some changes will be made to the rules.

Appearing in court is a part of many lawyers’ lives. Most lawyers I know still get some nerves even after many years of doing it. Personally I consider nerves to be a good thing as it gets the adrenaline flowing. I would say to my younger self to try and use that feeling to your advantage, which is how I deal with it now. So long as you know your file inside out then there is nothing to fear.

Preparation is the key, and that includes the papers that are in front of the judge. Over the years I have learnt to make things as easy as possible for the judge. Always try to have a tidy, paginated, divided bundle for all hearings, whether or not the court directions say so. It makes referring to the points and documents you need to so much easier. Having shadowed a number of judges, it is sometimes a very close decision and making it easy for the judge can only help.

Finally, I would encourage all prospective lawyers to consider the CILEx route — even if they have a law degree or an LPC. If you cannot find that needle in a haystack called a training contract there is still a way into the law.

Stephen Gowland is the president of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. He is one of seven contributors to the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series who’ll be answering law students’ questions at Inner Temple later this month.

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