How to give legal advice

I regularly listen to barrister Daniel Barnett on LBC on Wednesday evenings at 9pm taking quick fire legal questions from callers – Daniel is unprepared for each call and it’s live.

It’s a brilliant example to students and practitioners of how a lawyer can rapidly (i) narrow down the conversation, (ii) identify the issue and (iii) advise.  And here’s how I think he does it in 4 steps:

1. Daniel starts with ONE open question (it doesn’t really matter what it is: “Why have you called?”  or “What’s your issue?)  and then allows some limited time for the caller to tell their story in their own words.  While the caller is speaking, Daniel is listening hard and forensically sifting the relevant information from the non-relevant.
2. Then (sometimes by interrupting) he asks a series of closed questions, often ending them with “Yes or No”.  It’s like going through a mental flow-chart that he is making up in real time, applying his legal knowledge to the situation.
[A lot has been written about the advantages of asking open questions, but for this purpose, a series of good closed questions is the best way to get to the issue.]
3. Finally, before advising, Daniel asks what the caller (or client) actually wants, or says “What’s your question?”.  The answer is often “compensation”, but there can be a bit more to it – e.g. from whom does the caller want the money?  Do they actually also want an apology?  Do they just want to hear from an expert that they have no claim?
4. Then the advice – straight to the point – nearly always with a view about whether the caller has a claim, and for those that do, a suggestion about how to bring it.  So by the end of what is often only a 1 or 2 minute interaction, Daniel has understood the story, gleaned enough information to have a firm legal opinion, put himself into the shoes of the client and delivered the legal advice.
I know that disclaimers apply, but it does show how effective and helpful good legal advice can be and it doesn’t have to take long.

2 tips for during a training contract

The posts on this site are generally addressed to students thinking about applying for a career as a solicitor, but this one is a bit different – it shares 2 seemingly contradictory thoughts about what to do during a training contract.

  1. Make sure that you do work for lots of people in the department. Not only will this give you a nice range of different experience, it also allows you to receive different types of feed-back – which is offered as a gift by the way, so it should always be accepted with thanks.  In addition to this, it might help you learn about yourself – e.g. the type of work that you like doing and the type of people that you like working with.  But at the same time…
  2. Do make sure that you have a senior sponsor in the department in which you want to qualify. Picture the 6-monthly partners’ department meeting at which they review which trainees should be offered NQ roles.  They will go through the various names in the frame and the number of NQs that they want – the former normally a larger number than the latter, especially in popular departments.  Each candidate might be discussed for a few minutes, with reference to their performance reviews.  This could well be the most important meeting of your career and you are not even in the room.  At that precise moment, you need a senior voice to be an advocate for you being one of the names put on the “offer” list.  And if you have achieved number 1 above, then others in the room will agree.

Maybe it’s hard to combine these 2 conflicting pieces of advice, but I don’t think so – even your sponsor will have quiet times when you are not needed and, if they are sensible, then they will understand that it’s best for your career to become known for good work across the group.

Positions of responsibility at University

With a few weeks to go before the big end July deadline for many firms’ TC applications, I have been thinking about how to present positions of responsibility on those application forms. I’m talking about positions such as the President, Treasurer or Social Secretary of a Society at University.

I don’t think that it’s enough to just list them – much better to tell some very short stories about what you achieved.

In fact I think that it is worse to just list those positions than to leave them off. Why? Because it is usually an elected position, meaning that someone else could have done the job and the winner of the contest has a responsibility to use the position to do something. And if you don’t list some achievements then the person reading your application form might conclude that you didn’t make the most of it – no law firm would want to hire someone who doesn’t make the most of an opportunity.

So have a think about what aims / targets you had at the beginning of the academic year, and assess how you met those: for example tell short stories about (i) an event that you organised that achieved a record attendance or (ii) a target of having 4 external lawyer speakers during the year being beaten with 2 extra and all seats were taken, or (iii) an initiative that encouraged involvement from non-law students raising numbers by 20%. By the way, you don’t actually have to occupy the specific position to play your part in any of these.

Presenting legal work experience on a cv

In November, I took a day off to give a talk and review cvs at the University of Sussex in Brighton; and then did the same thing after work in February at Brunel. The cv reviews were tightly organised involving up to 18 people in a row (each for a frustratingly short ten minute slot, but that was the only way). So after the first 2 minutes with each student (in which we explored the standard interview questions, such as “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” and “What sort of role / firm?”), it only left 8 minutes to go through the cv – a good discipline for me to cut to the parts that I thought needed the most attention.

And it was mainly the way that Vac Schemes and other legal work experience were presented.

Of course the main objective of any work experience is to help students decide whether a particular career is the right one, and to do that it is really important to talk to lots of people and learn about the work. But I’d like to see something on the cv / application form about output.

Any reader of a cv knows that during a 2 week vac scheme at a law firm, it is unrealistic to expect a student to be running files and advising clients, but it’s good to see the impact of students’ contribution. For example, to do some legal research is not of any use for its own sake – better that a supervisor read it and gave some comments; even better that the lawyer used it to prepare an advice memo; better still if that memo was sent to a client; and the best would be for the client to have read and used that advice.

Another example is the first draft of a contract or some meeting notes – again it serves no purpose on its own; it is of some use if it is reviewed by a lawyer; but the ideal is that it was used as a basis for a document that is sent to a client and used.

So I think that it is important to show that a student’s contribution, however small and indirect, made the life of a lawyer a little easier and even helped a client of the firm.

One more paralegal role will do it

This is about the possible value of consecutive paralegal roles with respect to landing a training contract.

I received a speculative application for a job recently with a cv + cover letter, with a follow-up phone call. It was from a candidate who had had a succession of eight paralegal roles at both (i) large brand law firms (including 3 top 10 firms) and (ii) large corporates (including the legal departments of FTSE-100 companies) and was looking for another similar role.

This candidate thought that the more big brand legal employers’ names on his cv, the better the chances of winning a training contract (at a firm of any size). So the focus of his efforts was at the expense of applying for training contracts for the next year or so.

We discussed this for a bit and the fact that there are fewer training contracts around. We also discussed the diminishing value (even detriment) of more and more short term paralegal contracts on a TC cv. So I hope that he is now applying for some training contracts at smaller firms as well, even if in the short term they might be lower paid than the next large firm paralegal role.

TC applications – a project management approach

With Freshers’ Week over, students thinking of applying for vac schemes or training contracts with law firms should now consider that they have until the end of July next year to make those applications – (I’m referring to final year law or penultimate year non-law for TC applications).

This makes me think of a few conversations that I have had with some LPC students over the last year, who regret not applying for (enough) training contracts during their undergraduate studies. So as the new academic year starts, I wanted to share some thoughts on this.

One LPC student in particular recalled a feeling that there just wasn’t enough time at University to prioritise filling in those (admittedly daunting) application forms. He told me that he was sure that a career as a solicitor was the path that he wanted to follow, and he knew that the firms made offers 2 years ahead. So in the back of this undergrad’s mind was that by leaving applications to the final year, it would automatically mean that he would have to take at least one year off after the LPC.

We discussed this a bit, and to me it doesn’t make much sense, as I really don’t think that it is a full time job being a student. If you are sure that this is the right career, then you should start to make a plan near the beginning of the autumn term – i.e. now. And I think that it’s best to organise this as a project over the course of most of the academic year: identify the target firms, work out the deadlines (mainly end July) and schedule in the hours to complete the forms one at a time and well in advance. By the way, five applications is probably not enough no matter how good you are– I made about thirty.

I know that each application form takes a really long time, and you need to be very organised, but I don’t think that this type of project approach – i.e. working back from a deadline and planning – needs to be to the detriment of your academic work, outside interests and having a good time.

(In fact, it’s a good experience in itself – as a slight digression, the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has identified project management as one of the crucial skills that should be taught as part of lawyers’ professional education.)

Or is this message a bit harsh? Maybe it’s too early to be sure about a specific career path? And maybe a year off in the long term isn’t so bad, especially with a training contract offer in the bag. I’d still say that it’s better to have actively decided that a year off is what you want to do, rather than to take one because you didn’t get round to filling in those annoying forms.

Guest post: How to perform well at an interview for a training contract

This is a guest post from the recruitment partner at a top international law firm (who has chosen to remain anonymous due to the firm’s guidelines). I’m really grateful as I think that it contains some great advice, and some excellent example questions for students to think about:

We are often surprised at how many candidates, who are first class on paper, fall down at interview due to lack of thorough preparation. The candidates that stand out and perform particularly well don’t blind us with legal brilliance (which would be hard to do in a 45 minute interview) nor have they mastered some dark art of interview techniques. Rather, they have really thought about the firm they are applying to and what the interviewers are likely to ask them and want to hear. That is, they have worked out what the firm is aspiring to be and why and are able to talk about, amongst other things, the training contract, the types of work undertaken, the clients, the culture and what challenges the firm faces. They also convince us that they really want to be lawyers in a city law firm and are not just going through the motions.

Whilst no two interviews are going to be the same, even within the same law firm, candidates applying for city firms can expect to be asked similar questions. For those who have been through the summer scheme programmes and/or the trainee contract interview process many of the questions below will be familiar but for the uninitiated here are some of the likely questions for you to ponder. Often there are no right or wrong answers and I am not going to give them to you now; that would be no fun! Be prepared to explain yourself clearly and convincingly and be ready to defend your position when challenged.

So here is a sample “Top 10” set of questions you will need to be able to answer off the bat:

1. Why are you interested in pursuing a career in law rather than working in say an investment bank or large accountancy firm? What do you think the differences between the jobs would be?

2. What interests you in particular about this law firm and what other law firms have you applied to?

3. [For those who have done work experience] Explain one piece of work you did during your work experience and what the legal issues where (you will not be asked to disclose confidential information!)?

4. How does a law firm like this assist its key clients and discuss some of the jobs that you know the firm has been involved in?

5. Which teams from the firm would need to get involved in a global M&A transaction?

6. If you were a General Counsel at a client and a law firm was pitching to you, what would be the three most important things you would look for in your law firm?

7. What are your top 3 requirements from a training contract?

8. Discuss something you have seen in the news in the last 6 months which has an interesting legal slant to it?

9. What are the three biggest costs which a law firm faces?

10. What challenges and, potentially, opportunities do you think the economic downturn has created for city law firms?