This is a guest post by Michael Kusznir a Trainee Solicitor who first posted it on LinkedIn Pulse on 15 December 2015 under the headline ‘6 months as a Trainee: what I’ve learnt and come to understand’. It caught my eye and I asked Michael if I could post it on The Time Blawg. He obliged saying that “hopefully it can be of use for other Trainees”. I think there is a lot that many practising lawyers can take from this post as often they are lacking in some of the important points that Michael highlights.
It has been six months since I started as a Trainee Solicitor. For me these ten points (although many are rightly interconnected) are the most important considerations that I’ve begun to understand and appreciate. I hope they ring true for you too.
1. Communication and Coordination
It is not a requirement of success (financially/reputability) to be Scotland’s finest legal mind. Ability is ultimately assumed by clients – rightly or wrongly – up to a certain level and it is suggested that what is more likely to catch lawyers out and lead to complaints is a lack thereof of communication and coordination.
- A fulsome letter of engagement sets the standard;
- Minimise legalise when speaking to clients. For example, as heard in Glasgow Sheriff Court, sisting a case is “putting it to sleep”;
- If there are problems (such as delays in gaining a Grant of Confirmation) then chase it up, make a file note and ensure the client knows you are on top of this matter. Don’t let it be a phone call of complaint that spurs you to action;
- Respond at the earliest opportunity but without letting quality suffer. For example, the effort you put into an email should not differ from that of a letter; and
- Forward to the client, especially in civil litigation, letters that are going out following their instructions.
- Use a bring forward diary to ensure that you are following up on all letters and emails that you send;
- Use a to do list. I write down my to do list for the following working day, reviewing that day’s work, every evening;
- Review at the end of the day/week what you’ve done that day/week and whether you may have missed anything; and
- Consider what next steps you have to carry out. Does your client need to sign any (further) documents? Do they need to provide any further information?
2. Know the law
Maybe somewhat contradictory to the above, yet it really isn’t. If you do not know the law well enough to answer the majority of a client’s questions then you are not communicating effectively. Not to mention that it does not instil confidence if the legal advisor to whom you are paying a not inconsiderable hourly rate is uninformed.
NOTE: This isn’t the same as knowing everything. It is always preferable to say “Let me get back to you on that”/”Let me just double check that”/”I believe the position is but…” than allowing yourself the opportunity of providing misleading/incorrect advice. Best to avoid the potential for either annoying a client, making you look incompetent or at its worst a Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (hereafter “the SLCC”)/Law Society of Scotland (hereafter “the Society”) complaint which can easily go on for over a year
Having a continual involvement with Legal Defence Union work since starting as a Trainee (including sitting through a SSDT hearing which its Chairman hoped would help my “edification”) I do believe there is a need for effective worrying as malfeasance is rarely the main reason for facing a complaint.
The best advice I’ve received so far was that that there are three meanings to each letter you write:
- The meaning that you intend;
- The meaning that the client takes from it; and
- The meaning that the discipline tribunal takes from it when you are appearing before them.
Neurotic? Definitely. Nonetheless it sharpens your letter crafting. Is the call to action clear enough? Will the client understand my analysis of the law? Have I met my ethical obligations? (Legal Rights are an interesting topic, Law Society of Scotland v David Haddow Campbell details exactly what you should ask of an Executor/Executrix client where a child has been excluded and there is now Society guidance on this point.
4. Choose a specialism
Being a Trainee in a smaller high street firm I don’t have 6 months in Dispute Resolution, Private Client etc. It just doesn’t work that way. Rather each day I will be doing a mix of civil litigation, private client (executries, Wills, PoAs), property law and conveyancing.
This has allowed me to develop a broader knowledge, yet still focus on developing and improving my practical understanding of Private Client and professional discipline and negligence – the areas I see as potential long term specialisms.
5. Managing expectations
Most people who come into contact with the legal professional do so at a stressful time in their life: from buying a house, getting divorced, litigating or winding up a loved one’s Estate. Unlike with healthcare professionals the general public – unless they are a businessman or woman – do not generally have much contact with the legal profession and as such it is important to manage expectations.
“Managing expectations” is phrase a bit like the mystical concept of “commercial awareness”: crucial to being a lawyer and difficult to define yet employers don’t insist on asking you to “Name a time when you managed expectations”. The steps involved for effectively managing client expectations will be different for each client and each area of the law. The same principles generally apply. My 3 suggestions, concentrating on litigation, are:
- Do not be overly optimistic. Even the case which at first glance looks factually and legally strong could unravel due to witnesses, have weak points you are yet to examine etc;
- Emphasise that few legal matters can be dealt with quickly. As Lord Buckmaster said in Donoghue v Stevenson, admittedly with reference to the development of the law, “the mills of the law grind slowly”; and
- Emphasise the unpredictability of litigation matters. A case could be dismissed – previously considered with a possibility of success – after years of litigation. See Lord Carloway in Ruddy v Chief Constable of Strathclyde.
6. Clients are not your friends
Without retaining and gaining further clients law firms wouldn’t continue to operate and solicitors would be out of work. The very real corollary being that a single client can damage a firm’s reputation built up over many years or mean that a solicitor can face a lengthy complaint (even if they are absolved of any service or conduct issue). This is why I believe in effective worrying.
7. Understand people
Ian Morley QC in his book on advocacy says it best:
8. Bring forward diary
As above, diarise forward for responses to those initial letters and any further letters you may write.
9. Cardboard personalities don’t make money
Simply put clients wish to instruct someone who they are comfortable with, someone who is yes legally knowledgeable but certainly in private practice if you have poor interpersonal skills and or are banal you may be kept on for your legal skills but you will never make Partner.
10. Professional fees
The majority of the general public have limited experience of paying professional fees. After all you don’t pay for visiting your GP and dental costs draw huge subsidies etc. It is in this context that legal fees of £180.00/200.00 upwards per hour (although many matters are often done on a fixed fee basis) can be viewed as excessive. They aren’t. You are paying for a professional who will have spent, if someone had to have done the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice ( I studied at the University of Glasgow for their Diploma and it certainly has informed my day to day traineeship), between 3 – 5 years studying. You are paying for the knowledge that comes from that level of education and the many years of experience which many practitioners can bring to bear for their clients. So be robust in defending legal fees. Don’t be ashamed or nervous.
Michael Kusznir is a Trainee Solicitor with Claphams Solicitors, Clarkston.
His legal interests include but are not limited to private client (estate and tax planning) and professional discipline and negligence.
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View this post as it first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.