21 November 2015.
AN INTERVIEW WITH A REGIONAL FIRM ASSOCIATE
Who are you and who do you work for?
— My name is Elizabeth and since the beginning of this year I have worked for a large regional law firm with offices across the UK including Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle, Southampton and London. Before that I worked at a magic circle firm in the City of London.
Where did you study and what did you study?
— I did my undergraduate degree in English Literature and French at Edinburgh University, then I did the GDL at the College of Law in York and then the LPC in London also at the College of Law.
What kind of solicitor are you / what department do you work in?
— I am a litigator and I work in the commercial litigation department but I also do some contentious probate work.
Can you tell us something interesting you have been involved in recently? What was your role?
— We recently just settled at mediation a dispute which involved two directors who were also shareholders of a property company (our client was a real character), it was a very complicated dispute because it involved certain underhand dealings that the pair of them had been involved overseas that obviously they did not want to come out in the mediation. That’s all I can say I’m afraid, but it was really interesting because it involved several different countries and essentially just two stories being told. It all turned on the facts, hinging on who was going to be believed in court as there wasn’t much evidence for much of what was said by either side. I came in halfway through the case and I did all sorts of things, drafting letters to the other side, arranged the mediation and I had to research the company’s financials to try to find out if there was anything that we could use in the mediation.
What do you know now about life as a lawyer that you would have loved to have known when you were applying?
— I would have liked to know that there are never clear-cut answers — the law is just varied shades of grey. I would also have liked to have had a clearer picture of the actual day-to-day tasks I would be doing as a trainee, many of which were incredibly mundane and boring. I would also liked to have known that partners are just people and for the most part they don’t like people tip-toeing around them — they would rather hear your real opinion!
You have had experience working in both a magic circle firm and a regional firm. What are the differences that you have found that are most important to you?
— So far since joining a regional firm I have found that you get a much wider spread of work and more responsibility. There is less chance of you getting stuck on one big case that takes up all your time and becomes very dull. It is also more interesting in terms of the types of clients that you get, it’s not just the big corporations but also individuals and learning about their backstory is much more engaging. I have also found that it is much more friendly and supportive and the hours are obviously much better.
What would you say to someone debating whether to apply to a regional firm as opposed to an international firm?
— They need to decide from the outset what is most important to them. If it is prestige then it is Magic Circle hands down, people respect you more and in terms of moving on it is easier to move if you have them on your C.V. But if you want to work in the sort of firm where you might stay for a long time and you are interested in people’s personal stories and running your own matters then I would advise people to go with regional. Obviously if money is your main motivation then it makes sense to go with either magic circle or an American firm. Regional firms don’t pay as well by comparison, although they are still good salaries.
What do you think separates a good lawyer from a great lawyer?
— I think a great lawyer is able to identify the issues very quickly, doesn’t waffle on about the law and only picks out what is important. A good lawyer can quickly form relationships with clients and then maintain them. I think that a great lawyer is able to explain solutions in a really clear and concise way, for example if a client calls up with a question, just telling him the answer rather than giving him the background and the different potential answers. Or even worse, just sitting on the fence and giving a weak opinion.
What are the soft skills most useful to a commercial lawyer that impress you?
— Being able to get on with everyone, changing your tone depending on who you are talking to. Not dumbing things down too much if you are dealing with a client who is very competent, but equally being able to explain things in a simple way if the client is not particularly used to dealing with the matter at hand. More of an issue at my current firm is how costs are dealt with and it is impressive when people are very upfront about this and not leaving it till the end to discuss because that can lead to problems.
What are your techniques for coping under pressure?
— My main mechanism is to get really organised. If I am feeling overwhelmed I sit down, turn everything off and write a list of everything that I need to do. Then I prioritise them and then just get down to doing them. If I am struggling with something, as a trainee I would just have struggled on and not asked any questions whereas now I would just go and ask the right people to get to the answer more quickly. Another key thing to take a lot of the pressure off is understanding from the outset what your instructions are.
How do you unwind?
— When I was in London I used to listen to music on my way home and that was really good at helping me unwind. Now that I travel a lot more I either read or download programs and watch those on the way home. I would like to say that I am always going to the gym, but I don’t go enough! Pilates is something else. Also setting time aside to be with friends/partner and going out is very important.
OK, now moving onto the application process — What part of the application process did you find the most challenging? Why? How did you deal with that?
— I think the most challenging thing was figuring out who I wanted to apply to and then why I was applying to them, because they are always going to ask you that.
How did you deal with that?
— I only applied to five and I researched them as much as I could and wherever possible went to either an open day or vacation schemes, just to find out as much as possible about them from the trainees who were already there.
What work experience did you have? How did you get it?
— The only legal work experience I had was a mini-pupillage at a chambers in Leeds which I got through my personal network. I shadowed a few barristers for a week and saw a range of personal injury and family law, not really commercial law. Then on the basis of that and my other qualities I got a couple of vacation schemes that was also experience of course.
Were you tempted to become a barrister?
— No, not really, mainly because I really wanted a secure route where I was certain to have a career progression and stable pay. The self employed aspect of becoming a barrister really put me off.
What do you think / were you told that made you stand out from the other applicants?
— It must have helped to have a wide range of work experience — I have had jobs since I was 13 across various industries. That shows firstly that you have a range of experience in a professional environment but also that you are willing to go out try different things, interact with a variety of different people, in short that you are proactive. So I think it is very important to have a range of work experience whether it is in the legal profession or not. Maybe also that I had worked and lived abroad might have been appealing to a magic circle firm, and that I had a language under my belt as well.
How important are foreign languages in the application process?
— For regional firms without an international presence it is not very important. Magic circle firms seem to be very keen though, I remember that lots of people at my old firm spoke more than one language.
What was the strangest interview question you got asked?
— I had a couple that were very unexpected so perhaps I did not answer them very well. One of them was, “if I wasn’t going to be a lawyer what would I be?” I thought that was very difficult because obviously you don’t want to say anything other than being a lawyer. In one interview I talked far too enthusiastically about how I wanted to be a writer and I think that may have led to my rejection for that job… The other one was about netball and a very specific question about the number of players and where they stood on the pitch. I think that was to check that I actually played! So don’t lie on your application form.
Okay, thanks very much for your time Elizabeth.
— No problem, happy to help!