Introducing a New Breed of Lawyer
Monday 18 June 2012
For several months now it has been my absolute pleasure and privilege to write a weekly column for Law and More. For those who may have caught a glimpse of past articles you will have noticed that the subject matter has been wide ranging and every now and then there’s been the odd dash of humour – all designed to put a burst of colour into what can at times seem to be a tedious professional calling otherwise known as work. No one was to know (and I haven’t told how) the whole weekly article writing came to pass in the first place. Two words answer that one – Laura McKoy. Some of you may have encountered Laura professionally but for those who haven’t, let me give you a short introduction of her.
Until fairly recently, Laura was a residential tutor in law at one of the colleges of the University of Melbourne. On chatting one night at a college function I found out that she has already amassed a seriously impressive collection of achievements, despite her remarkably youthful appearance. Check out these credentials - a Cambridge degree, an Australian Endeavour Scholar, intern for the Texas Defender’s Service, researcher at the National Association for Gifted Children and human rights presenter at The Hague, to name but a few. Having relocated to London, she’s finally managed to watch The Boat Race and has recently found the unfindable – a house in London! I spoke to her a week ago about life in the law from the perspective of a young high achiever who wants to be part of the legal profession but sees some wrinkles in it. This is what she said.
Josh – Welcome! What a delight to chat and bounce around a few of your thoughts.
Laura – It’s nice to be able to talk with you and hear the Australian accent that I have been missing! How are you are enjoying your time as an international correspondent with Law and More?
Josh – Loving it, thanks. So, let’s get down to business. You’ve certainly done a lot in a fairly short time. Is your path to your present role fairly typical?
Laura – My path was definitely off the beaten track. From the time I was a little girl I wanted to study law, but most people expect lawyers to go through an independent education system or have lawyers for parents – I didn’t have any of that. Studying at Cambridge was a dream that required good A-Levels and I had to do my best in an application process that is often misconstrued causing undue trepidation in hopefuls. In reality, I later spent some really happy years at Pembroke College.
Given the amazing opportunity I’d had to study at Cambridge, I felt it was important to put my vacations to good use. I worked as an intern, first with the Texas Defender’s Service and then in prison and with children who have high learning potential. Those were great experiences where I could work at grass roots level with people most in need of help. The stint in Texas was a real eye opener - they still have capital punishment in that state so the lawyers are run off their feet dealing with a whole manner of miscarriages of justice; most of which are destined for a catastrophic ending which may have been prevented.
I recently spent a year in Melbourne doing an LL.M focusing on the legal implications of war; another area where the subjects involved are some of the most in need of assistance in the world. I was able to teach undergraduates at the University while I was out there too; a great chance to share my experiences in the hope that they would consider how to best make use of their skills and opportunities.
Josh – Some people, especially those from outside Europe, have a perception that only privileged children from extremely wealthy or well-connected backgrounds can study law in the UK. Is there any truth to that?
Laura – While it is true that a good portion of law students at the Russell Group universities come from secondary schools at the top of the league tables this should not deter any applicant. Universities are quite transparent about their admissions, providing accessible statistics on their websites or from admissions offices. I remember at Pembroke there were plenty of students from all over the world as well as those based in the UK – the diversity of backgrounds always led to great chats over dinner or in the bar!
Josh – Numbers and genders of law students in your day. What was the mix?
Laura – Many people expect there to be more men in the lecture theatres, but if anything there were more women than men studying law. By the time we graduated the numbers were perhaps 6o% women and 40 % men. I found that my cohort was made up of some stunningly bright female law students many of whom went on after their undergraduate degree to do one and sometimes two post-graduate degrees. It is always entertaining now having to address some of my good friends as Doctor!
Josh – Jobs? What about the availability of jobs in the law? We’re always hearing how the positions available for junior lawyers are few and far between and that competition for only a few jobs is fierce, meaning that only the best and the brightest get jobs. Is there any truth in any of that?
Laura – Partly yes partly no, sorry, to say. Certainly, competition is fierce but it always has been as far as I can tell. Those with first class degrees often head to a magic circle firm or find their way to the Bar looking to do heavy equity cases or similar. But it’s not very different now than it was even 20 years ago. The significant issue now is ensuring proper social and racial representation of the top graduates and their destination within the law. The modern day United Kingdom is a melting pot of people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Many of them are extremely bright and hence both desire and deserve places in top firms and chambers. Slowly we are seeing greater diversity in those going further and further in their legal careers in law, broadening the often perceived white-male image of the profession. It seems to me that if we want to make the most of upcoming legal talent (and make our legal system the best it can be) we must be ready to encourage all potential.
Josh – Don’t take this the wrong way but is your profession here sexist and discriminatory?
Laura – Well, I’d best be careful with the answer to that one, since it is a contentious issue! It is true that the profession is very male dominated and often females can still be seen as not-quite-good-enough, but this is changing with many of the best lawyers in the country being female. The scary part is that entrenched perceptions are easily passed onto new generations of professionals - people who I studied with still tell me that women aren’t capable of fulfilling the roles that males do, such as working on the hardest cases and longest hours on deals. A few weeks ago a very famous white-haired TV presenter, who spent a little time in the law, told me that the ‘problem’ with women is that they are not biologically programmed to put themselves forward in the same way as males when it comes to job hunting or when competing for work! I think this attitude would shock many people.
Josh – What’s your attitude to the role of legal executives? Should they be better utilised?
Laura - If you are clever and hardworking I can’t see why you shouldn’t be able to assume a more senior role in the profession. Firms are outsourcing legal work to India at a time when we have very able and clever people here, but ideally everyone with the qualifications should get a chance to prove their worth before the work is outsourced. Plus, Chartered Legal Executives have already demonstrated their value doing the more grass roots high volume work such as conveyancing, litigation and wills. Now they are finally progressing as partners in law firms of all sizes, advocates and judges, so it is the time for us all to realise that they now comprise one third of the legal profession ranking along barristers and solicitors. This is why the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives recently received their Royal Charter.
Josh – Do you have a view on the prevalence of and promotion of solicitor advocates?
Laura – If I didn’t know you better, I might confuse you with those hopelessly thinking that barristers have some kind of monopoly on court work! There is no problem with increasing numbers of solicitor-advocates, competition is good and it allows greater mobility throughout the profession. High priced QCs dominate the courts, yet solicitors receive the client first, take the instructions first and often know the case in greater detail than the barrister. Clients often ask why they must pay two lawyers to advance their cause, but I’ve never been able to give a seemingly satisfactory answer. The American situation is different with trial attorneys and, in the main, the same lawyer advances the client’s case out of court as well as in court. It’s cheaper, more focused, it avoids duplication and double handling and it stockpiles knowledge in the one person. It makes sense to me.
Josh – Do you think there’s room for the altruistic lawyer in the current market who wants to do pro bono work or who wants to get involved in a cause that’s a little off centre?
Laura – Most people think that pro bono work is about doing something good for the soul, with most being put off by the lack of payment. That really does not scratch the surface. It means that you can use all of your own skills and opportunities to help those who most need it; in a time of growing national austerity and international conflicts the pool of people in need of assistance is exploding.
Yet, it is not just about what others gain, it is about your own personal development, an opportunity to meet brilliant people, gain confidence in your work, keep up-to-date on the most pressing issues and learn new approaches, which is why it always looks superb on a CV.
Josh – What about things which are not law-related, is it possible to have a life amid hectic work demands?
Laura – During university I read a book called the Yes Man. It written by Danny Wallace, who agreed to try anything he was offered by establishing a positive mental attitude, opening his mind to opportunities and saying yes to any choice that he had to make. I took this on (within reason!) as a good approach to making the most of life and if you are dedicated to having a life outside of work it is completely achievable. My ‘yes complex’ has seen me do some brilliant things; apparently I was not cool enough to pull of hip-hop dancing, but I did find some new passions, such as rock-climbing and volunteering with St John Ambulance!
Josh – Where to from here for you. Where does life in the law take you after Law and More?
Laura – I have an offer for a Training Contract, so although my responsibilities as a sensible adult will increase, my experiences thus far will continually remind me that a healthy work-life balance requires you to make other priorities – such as my pro bono work and trying new things. My parents always told my siblings and me that the first thing to do in life is secure a trade – so they were getting a little concerned about all of my globetrotting up until now! With a lot of hard work and a little good fortune, eventually I would love to reach the bench and beyond, perhaps even with a return to academia. People are always moving around in the world, so it is difficult to plan too far ahead!
Josh – Let’s hope it all works out for you. Time doesn’t permit us much more so let’s close off now.
Laura – Thanks very much, Josh. Please keep going with the articles. Some of them are actually reasonably good (!) and keep everyone in our Heron Tower office smiling.
Dr Wilson’s regular weekly insights into the legal profession are influenced by his decades of experience in court and teaching across the world. Dr Wilson SC has been practising as a barrister in Australia for over 25 years, having already served in the Melbourne Magic Circle and as an associate to a Supreme Court judge. His expertise derives from worldwide advocacy experiences and he is usually found in the Supreme Courts and Federal Court of Australia dealing with commercial and equity cases. Married to a judge and father of three, Josh (and his kung fu black belt) is an advocate of all things law and more. A legal genius (Josh took Silk in 2008 and holds a PhD in extradition law!) and with a large topping of good humour, Law and More proudly welcomes Dr Joshua Wilson SC as a columnist.
Next week Josh takes asks Law and More readers why we can't leave the racial stuff behind and just play football...
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