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If I knew then

When I sat down to write this, I suddenly felt like a bit of a fraud. I have only been doing paid work in the law for seven years, starting as a paralegal. What could I possibly have learnt in that time that I wish my younger self had known, particularly as my younger self wasn’t exactly young? What to say to that callow, merely teetering on middle age me?

I suppose the first thing would be reassurance. Turning to the law was a late career change, a big leap into something entirely new. I had been a University lecturer in art history and critical theory. Feeling myself getting stale after 13 years, and looking forward at the next 30 or so, when the opportunity came up, I took it. Law had been lurking as an interest for years, I first thought of taking the CPE after my first degree. So I jumped.

At the time, my confidence in the likely success of this leap was not helped by traineeship applications that would only accept GCSE results, not my O Levels, and which demanded endless information about my school activities, which I had either forgotten or actively repressed. The fleeting look of bewilderment and pity on interviewers’ faces as I walked in hadn’t gone unnoticed either. Nor had the repeated questions about whether I would really be happy being told what to do by a 25 year old or doing the photocopying.

So, to my younger self, it will be OK, honest. There will be someone willing to take a chance, indeed repeated chances, on you. There are people who will take your experience as a plus, even if it may not look like it now. Mature applicants do have an uphill battle on training contracts, perhaps even more now, as those looking for people to mould in their firm’s likeness look doubtfully at applicants who have already had a career and authority. You will be lucky to find someone who looks past that, for luck it was. And you are going to enjoy yourself.

Now I have your attention, my ignorant but hopeful younger self, you should to get into housing law. No really, you’ll love it. Don’t wait to fall into it. It has litigation with complex law and clients for whom you can make a real, sometimes vital difference. Although don’t go expecting thanks. It isn’t the point and you won’t often get them. Oh and you know how you want to do legal aid work, even though you aren’t sure in what area? You will get to do legal aid work and love it. Just don’t expect it to stay as a functioning system or a sustainable practice. You’ll need to keep fighting for the bits of legal aid that remain too. You were lucky, again, to get in when you did. The prospects for practices working solely on legal aid housing cases now are not rosy and I doubt there will be many traineeships coming up in those area. You will get used to CFA and private work keeping your practice viable.

But I suppose I should tell you a few things about practice. Not about the knowing the law thing, though heaven knows that is going to be important, but about the bits that don’t occur to someone cutting their teeth on black letter textbooks. So…

Most cases settle. And this is a good thing. There is a reason why much case law is built on what look like bad cases on the facts. If it is a half decent case, it will probably settle, unless someone is mad. Don’t expect to be fighting every point in your cases to the bitter end as if justice itself depended on it, but work towards the best achievable outcome for the client. This may mean your cherished new argument doesn’t get a chance to be tested in court, and yes, that is annoying, but unless it is going to significantly improve the client’s position so as to be worth the risk, wave it goodbye as you sign the consent order. Sometimes you will need to fight, at length and in detail, but choose your battles where you can.

Being able to argue well is a good thing. Even better is to be able to see the weaknesses in your argument and the strengths in the opponents, and either countering them or taking into account that risk. Sometimes the cases are clear cut. Mostly they aren’t and you will have to understand and learn to work with the grey. You will find your previous studies in 20th century Hegelian Marxism strangely useful here, at least in being used to the grey, and holding both sides of an argument in your head at once. The historian’s eye for detail and interpretation will come in handy too.

Surrounded as you are on the CPE by ultra-ambitious, backstabbing, competitive sneaks, cads and posturers, it will surprise you when I tell you it will be important to behave decently. To colleagues, clients and, even when metaphorically standing on their necks and crowing triumphantly, to opponents. It doesn’t mean being a pushover, or letting things go by, but it does mean being reliable, returning favours, and not being unnecessarily hostile, abrasive or sarcastic. You may have to work on the last one. You are going to come up against the same opponents again and again. Most cases will need a bit of leeway and co-operation to run smoothly. Negotiations tend to work better without suggestions that the other side may be an idiot (There will be opponents for whom you will make an exception, usually on the basis that all they have is being awkward, in lieu of a case). The way ahead is not through the trampling of others, whatever the example set by those around you now. Take others with you and you will have their support when it is needed.

Above all, get used to uncertainty. I know things seem very uncertain to you now, but even when you have an office and practice, uncertainty will be your daily diet. Cases can turn in an instant, on a single document, the client’s instructions change or your advice is ignored, the Court of Appeal does something clever, or less than clever. Any and all of this is yours to deal with each day. Oh, and get your billing done. Particularly get your billing done. I would also tell you to keep your desk tidy, but I know that is a lost battle.